Avalon Sinclaire

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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Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Mini-Interlude 17 – Avalon and Gaia

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Avalon and Gaia after that certain kiss…

“Are you winning?”

The voice took the girl who called herself Avalon Sinclaire by surprise. She jolted upward, a sound that was equal parts curse, threat, and embarrassing yelp slipping from her mouth even as she spun around to face the unexpected intruder. And yet, no threat presented itself. None of her enemies had come to make another play for her life. Instead, the person who stood in the doorway of the training room was quite the opposite.

“Gaia,” Avalon spoke sharply, belatedly wiping an arm across her face to gain a second to collect herself. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was… working out.” The last bit came out softer than the rest as she glanced over her shoulder at the heavy punching bag that hung from the ceiling nearby. In mid-glance, however, a frown lightly touched upon her face and she turned back. “Wait, did you ask if I was winning?”

Stepping into the otherwise empty room, Gaia gave a slight nod of affirmation. “Yes, I was under the impression that you were engaged in a very intense psychic battle with a most dangerous foe.” Her voice turned suspiciously casual. “Of course, I wasn’t aware that you had actually gained any such powers, but it was the most immediate explanation for what appeared to be roughly ten minutes of standing completely still while alternately scowling and smiling at that bag there.”

Avalon felt her face heat up before she tried to shake it off. “Yeah, well, I was planning my… preparing…”

Before she could continue, Gaia held up a hand. Her expression had softened. “If you wish to talk, I will hear anything that you would like to say. But you need not invent an explanation. I am not here to embarrass you or demand answers. But I am here… for as long as you would like me to be.”

The words made Avalon turn away quickly. It was easier to look at the still bag than to see Gaia standing there, expecting, hoping… thinking… she didn’t even know. The woman mattered more to her than she could ever hope to tell her. She and… and…

“I kissed Felicity.”

Gaia’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper that Avalon nonetheless heard perfectly well from across the room. “Good.”

That response was enough to make the girl turn that way, eyebrow quirking up. “Good?” she echoed.

“Of course.” Gaia moved across the room, her smile turning up slightly. “Avalon, you have wanted to kiss that girl for quite some time now. The only thing stopping you was you.”

“But I kissed her,” Avalon snapped back, feeling her emotions tumbling within her. Good, bad, fright, delight, terror, overwhelming joy. It all fell together like a boulder in the pit of her stomach. “I kissed her,” she repeated dully. “That means… it means that… that…”

Gaia was in front of her. “What does it mean?”

“It means they’re going to take her away!” Avalon abruptly blurted, the words coming in a shout that was louder than she intended it to be. Then it all came out in a rush, an avalanche of words propelled by feelings that could not be contained. “She was my friend, and they already hurt her, they already tried to take her away. And now, now I kissed her. I kissed her and I can’t take it back. I can’t hide it, because she’ll know. She’ll come and she’ll talk and I want to push her away because it’s the only way she’ll be safe but I can’t do that because she’ll look at me and I can’t do that to her, I can’t make her look at me like that. Her mom is gone and people leave her and I can’t leave her. I can’t even pretend. I thought I could pretend it wasn’t anything important but I can’t because she’ll be hurt and I can’t hurt her. I can’t hurt her but I already hurt her because they’ll hurt her. They’ll hurt her to get at me so I should push her away but I can’t do that because she’s my—she’s my…

“She’s my Flick.” The last words came out very soft, as the girl slumped forward from the weight of it all.

A moment later, Gaia’s hand was on the back of her head, and Avalon felt herself pulled against the woman. Her face found her adoptive mother’s shoulder before Gaia spoke softly. “Do you know what happiness is?”

“What?” Avalon’s voice cracked a little bit, and she flinched at the sound of it. “What do you mean, do I know what happiness is?”

In response, Gaia slowly and gently ran her fingers down through her hair, then back again. The feeling was soothing, despite the turmoil in the girl’s stomach. “Happiness is a brick.”

Avalon’s mouth opened and shut. “A brick?” she echoed flatly.

The woman’s body shook just a little as she chuckled before explaining. “Each moment of happiness is a brick. We use those bricks to build a wall to protect us from the things in the world that would try to make us feel pain. With enough of them, we build more walls, and even add a roof. As we collect these moments of happiness, we protect ourselves from the storms which inevitably arrive.

“There are those who see happiness as a precious resource to be hoarded and viciously protected. But if I can teach you nothing else, then let me teach you this: happiness is not a treasure to be shielded from sadness. It is a wall to protect us from sadness.

“Those who hoard their happiness, always afraid of what they may lose end up standing in the torrential downpour of terrible things, shielding their pile of bricks while insisting to themselves that at least they are protecting their happiness. But those who use it, those who gather and seek it out, and build their house from the bricks of their happiness are shielded from the storm. And they may still get wet. A brick may be lost here and there. The storm can get very bad at times. But that house that they’ve built will not crumble.”

Leaning back, Gaia reached down and used a couple of fingers to tilt Avalon’s face up by the chin. “I will not tell you that you will never experience any loss or unhappiness with Felicity. I will not tell you that things will be perfect. There will always be a storm on the horizon, but the bricks are there.

“Building the house is up to you.”

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Mini-Interlude 15 – Flick and Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on interaction between Flick and Avalon. I hope you enjoy. 

“So I guess this is it,” I announced a bit later while watching Avalon. “Almost a full month you’re gonna have that room all to yourself.” Smiling a little, I asked innocently, “Are you gonna miss me?”

The girl gave me a look. “Stop changing the subject. We’re here to squeeze a little more training in before you run off and find a way to drag even more trouble down on yourself than you already have.”

“Yeah, but still.” My smile broadened as I showed her my teeth. “Really, are you gonna miss me?” I bobbed my head a little toward the spot nearby where a familiar rock with googly eyes and a sword was perched. “Herbie told me he’s gonna miss you.” Dropping my voice to a whisper, I added, “I think he just really needs to hear you say it. He’s sorta sensitive about that kind of thing.”

“Sure,” the other girl replied. “I’ll miss your little pet rock. It’s the only thing in the room with a harder head than you.”

Giving a fake gasp, I brought my hand to my chest as if I couldn’t believe she’d say such a thing. “I am insulted. How dare you claim that anything in this known universe has a harder head than me. I mean, I still haven’t given up on my vow to make you call me Flick, and there’s only like… twenty minutes left before the semester is totally and officially done.”

Snorting, Avalon responded by coming after me with her staff. I brought my own up to block quickly, and we exchanged a short flurry of blows. I was getting better about noticing where she was attacking. Part of that was the skeleblineist power, of course. But it was also my own reflexes and the training that they had been drilling into me over and over again.

“Faster, Chambers.” The other girl’s staff slammed into mine hard enough to almost knock it out of my hands. “Get your guard up faster, and retaliate harder. You’re stronger than me, and you can keep going longer. Use that. A lot of people that you fight are going to have to pace themselves a lot more than you. They can’t go full strength, full speed as long as you can. So use that against them. You can hit harder, faster, longer. So don’t hold back. If you see the opening, go for it. If you don’t see it, force one to happen. If nothing else, let them wear themselves out against you, then hit them three times as hard.”

Taking a quick step back to gain some room, I flipped my staff around thoughtfully while watching her. It was nothing she and Deveron hadn’t already said a few times. I had the feeling that Avalon was trying to drill as many of these instructions and tips into my head as she could before I left for the holidays. It was almost like she didn’t really trust me to have a completely normal and safe vacation or something.

Smiling, I took her advice by taking a quick step forward before bringing my staff up to her shoulder. It was a feint, however, and I quickly reversed it, pivoting to put more force behind my blow as I aimed for the other girl’s leg. A couple months ago, I would’ve been too worried about hurting her to put my strength behind it. Now, however, I had enough faith both in my roommate and in our healing abilities to go for it. Holding back wasn’t going to do either of us any favors when it came time to fight for real.

I didn’t have to worry anyway, since Avalon dropped her staff down to catch mine just before it would’ve struck her shin. That, however, meant that she was in the right position. With my staff aimed almost straight up and down, angled just a little bit toward her face, I hit the button to trigger the tiny portals at the end before pulling at the sand that I could feel through them. A cloud of it flew up into the other girl’s face as she reeled backward, and I quickly took advantage by dropping my staff down to bring it against her other leg. That time, I connected and Avalon stumbled backward. Her hand blindly grabbed onto my arm in the process however, and I was yanked over as well. We collided, crashing to the ground with a pair of yelps even as our weapons slid away to roll across the grass away from us.

When the dust (and sand) cleared, I was lying on top of Avalon, who was on her back. Blinking, I gave her a Cheshire smile once I realized what was going on and what kind of position we were in. “Oh, look. Here we are. Now seems like a really good time to talk about that whole ‘missing me’ thing.”

Yeah, the truth was, being in the position I was in was quite thoroughly distracting. I could feel all sorts of… well, to put it simply, pleasant sensations by lying on top of my roommate. But since she’d been my roommate all semester and we’d been training together so much, I could at least keep my head enough by that point to tease her a little bit. Even if my voice did sound slightly more high pitched than it normally did. The important thing to take away was that I wasn’t a completely tongue-tied dork.

“Chambers.” Avalon’s voice was a quiet murmur that sent a shiver through me and made me start immediately rethinking that whole ‘not as affected by her as I used to be’ thing. “You need to get off.”

The response that immediately came to my mind at her choice of words must have shown very clearly on my face, because the other girl rolled her eyes and gave me a shove. “Don’t even think about saying it. And stop thinking it.”

“Can’t control my thoughts!” I retorted in a sing-song voice while shifting my weight on her. My smile still hadn’t faded. It was… actually kind of nice being in this position, and I wasn’t only referring to our physical situation. It was also nice to sort of be the one who was teasing her for a change. It didn’t happen all that often, and I was relishing it just a little bit. “Trust me, these thoughts, can’t control them. They go off and do whatever they want to. Can’t do a thing about it.”

Avalon’s breath seemed to catch slightly as I shifted, and there was something in her voice. “Get up.”

Grinning still, I sat up, but I didn’t completely get off of her. Not yet, anyway. “That’s okay,” I informed my brunette bombshell of a roommate with a wink. “You’ve already answered the question pretty well.”

She frowned at that, clearly more off-balance than I’d thought before murmuring quietly. “I have?”

“Sure.” Leaning down a bit, I stage-whispered close to the other girl’s ear, “Because we both know that if you weren’t gonna miss me while I’m gone, you would’ve thrown me off of you a long time ago.”

With a laugh, I pushed myself up finally, rising to my feet before offering Avalon a hand to pull her up.

She took it, her blush actually visible (much to my delight) before she got it under control. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff, don’t you?”

“Well,” I replied, “I do have a few great teachers. And they have been working their asses off to make sure I’m not a complete damsel in distress.” Sobering a little then, I added, “Thanks, by the way. Really. Without you, I—well I’d be in a lot worse shape than I am now.”

It took her a moment to respond, and her blush still hadn’t entirely faded. “Just don’t get too cocky. That’s how people get hurt. Or worse.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, trust me. No cockiness here. I know just how screwed I am if things go wrong. I’m gonna keep my eyes open, and I’m not even gonna tempt fate by talking about how it’s gonna go. It’s a vacation, but I’m not about to be stupid about it. I promise, I’ll be careful.”

Stepping back to bring my staff back up again, I added, “Now, you wanna squeeze in one more little match?”

Checking the back of her left gauntlet where she apparently had a clock installed, Avalon waved a hand for me to stop. “Time’s up,” she announced, her voice quieter than normal. “ Dare’s probably about to come looking for you any minute to take you up to the Pathmaker. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”

“Yeah.” Smiling slightly, I shrugged at the other girl. “I doubt she’d take ‘let my roommate keep beating me up’ as an excuse.” I paused, frowning. “Then again, knowing this place… maybe she would.”

Reaching down to the water bottles at her feet, Avalon plucked them up and tossed one to me before taking a long, deep drink from her own. I tried not to get too distracted by the image, but from her smirk, she probably noticed.

Still, I gratefully gulped down some water (somehow I was pretty sure that I looked like a slobbering dog next to the effortless sexiness that came from everything Avalon did) before wiping my arm over my mouth. Which, if that failed to look dignified, my immediate burp afterward probably didn’t help.

Rolling her eyes, my roommate gave me a long look. “You are as charming and graceful as ever.”

“What can I say?” I asked with a small smile, spreading my arms apart questioningly. “I am who I am.”

For a few seconds, the two of us just stood there. It was obvious that neither of us knew what to say, but neither did we just want to walk away from each other. The silence was almost deafening.

“So this is it. Almost a full month.” I was repeating myself from only a few minutes earlier, I knew that. But I had to say something.

“Don’t get hurt, Chambers.” Avalon gave me an intense look. “I’d hate to have to figure out how to deal with a new roommate, since Gaia already made it very clear that I’m not allowed to have my own room.”

Coughing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe you could find a new roommate that doesn’t keep stealing half your death threats away from you, so you can have the attention to yourself.”

Her retort was sharp. “Don’t joke about that. Just–” Taking an obvious breath, she caught herself and finished with a simple, “Just be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. I… I don’t want another roommate.”

“What about that whole, having a room all to yourself thing?” I half-heartedly teased, watching her reaction. “Maybe I could pull some strings with Gaia, push for you to have the whole thing after all.”

Her shoulders (among other things) heaved up and then down as she sighed. “Don’t push it. Just go.”

I almost walked away. Almost let it go again. But in the end, I couldn’t just leave. “Avalon,” I spoke up, making her look at me again. “This—this vacation, I know I was kidding about it before, but really… it’s three weeks. Three weeks apart, and I just—I really need to tell you about how I feel about–”

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice had a warning tone to it. “Don’t. I know what you want to say. But you can’t. We can’t. You know it’s complicated, and we can’t just… we can’t just act like it’s not.”

Meeting her gaze, I almost nodded. My head started to move. But then I stopped myself, holding my head still for a moment before shaking it instead. Seeing that, Avalon started to speak, but I interrupted.

“I can’t just keep avoiding it. This isn’t some TV show where we have to pad out time. We’re not about to get canceled if we don’t do the Moonlighting ‘will they/won’t they’ forever. Avalon, this is dumb. Maybe I don’t understand all of my feelings, maybe I don’t know how things are going to end up in a year, a month, or even a week, but who does at this school? All I know is that I really, really like you.”

There was, somewhat surprisingly, no judgment or even annoyance in Avalon’s tone as she replied, “Chambers, I’m not the only one you’ve been looking at. My not being there isn’t the end of the world.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed with a nod. “You’re not the only one. I don’t know how I feel about everything. Suddenly I’m noticing you, I’m noticing other girls, and I’m still noticing boys. It’s… it’s confusing, Valley. It’s so… so god damn confusing. Sometimes it feels like I can’t decide what I want. I feel like a kid in an ice cream shop. And I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t. But I also don’t want you to feel like it’s impossible. If you don’t want… you know, you and me to go anywhere because you don’t want it, that’s fine. I can deal. But don’t just write it off because you’re trying to protect me.”

Avalon didn’t say anything at first. She just shook her head, looking away before turning back to me, emotion filling her eyes. “How am I supposed to let myself care about anyone like that? What am I supposed to do, Chambers? My father has been trying to kill me since I was taken in by the Garden. He’s not going to stop trying to take everything away from me. And now there’s this whole conspiracy, apparently because of who I’m supposed to be related to? If there was anyone that I cared about like that, why would I let them turn into more targets? What’s the point of letting someone you know you—you think about them that way if all it does is put them in danger? If I let them—if I let you in like that, you’d be another target, another thing for them to—to take away from me. I’d lose you.”

“How can you lose something if you don’t even–” I stopped, lowering my gaze briefly before looking back up to her as I amended myself. “–if you won’t even acknowledge that you want it?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Chambers,” the other girl insisted, arms folded across her stomach protectively. “I just—I don’t want you to be in any more danger than you already are. It’s not fair.”

I nodded once in spite of myself. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s not fair, because I’m already in danger. Avalon, I’ve got just about ten months before Fossor makes good on his promise to come after me.”

Fire flashed in her eyes then as she took a step to me, arms lowering to her sides as her hands closed into fists. “I won’t let him hurt you.” Her words were a snarled promise, with dark rage behind them.

In return, I took a step forward as well, closing the distance between us so that we were within arms reach of each other. Meeting her fiery gaze, I nodded. “And I won’t let anyone hurt you, Valley. But while each of us is so busy not letting anyone hurt the other person, do we have to hurt ourselves? Yeah, I’m in danger. You’re in danger. We’re all in danger. I’m pretty sure that’s never gonna change. But you know what else isn’t going to change? The fact that I think you’re—you’re just… really neat.”

Yeah, okay, the last bit of that came out far more lame than I meant it. I was flushing even as the stupid word ‘neat’ left my mouth, and I could see the smirk on Avalon’s face. Her own mouth opened, but I reached out to cover it with my own hand. While her eyes widened at the audacity, I pushed on.

“Yeah, I said neat. Because I ran out of adjectives in my head. You’re great, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you’re amazing, you’re strong, you’re fast, you’re so—you’re Avalon. You’re Avalon, and I don’t have the words to describe you. I wish I did, but I don’t. You’re just… neat. And I–”

My own words were cut off then, as Avalon raised her hand to press against my mouth. And then we stood there, facing one another with our arms outstretched, hands covering each other’s mouths. Several long, quiet seconds passed while the two of us stared at one another that way. Slowly, Avalon raised her free hand to touch mine as it pressed against her mouth. Our fingers brushed, and I felt a tingle run through me that had nothing to do with static electricity or anything like it. It was something more.

Swallowing, I followed the other girl’s maneuver. Lifting my own free hand, I let my fingers brush over hers that was covering my mouth. Then I slowly slipped my fingers under hers, taking hold of her hand while she did the same with my other hand. Together, we lowered each other’s hands away from our mouths before our fingers seemed to instinctively interlock, our hands clasping one another.

My heart was trying to slam its way out of my chest. I felt sweaty, thirsty, silly. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My voice seemed to pipe up in spite of myself, squeaking a little. “This probably looks pretty–”

“Flick,” Avalon interrupted. “Shut up.”

My eyes widened then, and I looked up. “You called me–”

I felt her hands leave mine, moving up to take my arms instead to yank me toward her.

I felt her hands cup both sides of my head, fingers sliding through my hair.

I felt her breath on my face.

I felt my knees buckle, before her strength held me up as it had so many times already that semester.

I felt her lips on mine.

I felt… magic.

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Winter Wonderland 18-01

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“And after a week in Rome, we’re gonna go up to Germany and see the old nuckelavee massacre memorials.”

Sands, who had been going on for awhile by that point about all the things that she and Scout were going to do with their father over the holiday break, blinked sidelong at me. “Uh, Flick? You okay?”

No. No, I wasn’t. There was so much I wanted to say to both of them about what I had found out. But I still wasn’t willing to put them through that right before they went on vacation. That wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I gave an awkward shrug and smiled apologetically at both Sands and Scout, who was standing nearby while giving me a curious look. “Sorry,” I murmured. “Just thinking about going home.”

It was the next day, Saturday morning. I’d spent most of the previous night walking around the school grounds with Wyatt, talking to him about… well, everything. And now, in a short while, I’d be heading home for the winter break. Which meant three whole weeks away from Crossroads. I honestly wasn’t sure how that was going to go. Part of me had been afraid that Ruthers and the rest of the Committee would swoop in at the last second to tell me that it was too dangerous for me to be away for that long, with the Fomorians out there. Supposedly Gaia and Dare had convinced them that the immediate threat had been dealt with since the Fomorian who had known about us was killed. But I didn’t exactly trust that to last forever. Every noise I heard, I thought it would be someone telling me to stay on the island.

“Oh…” Sands looked a little abashed. “Dude, I’m sorry. Going back and having Christmas with your dad while you know your mom is…” She winced, lowering her head briefly before putting her hand out on my arm. “It sucks. I know that’s a stupid, fucking inadequate way to put it, but it does. I—I’m sorry you can’t tell your dad the truth, Flick. I mean—I’m sorry he wouldn’t remember or believe you. It’s–” She stopped talking, looking ashamed for a moment that she couldn’t find the right words to say.

And that, of course, didn’t help my own feelings of shame for how I felt about her father. She was trying to help, and all I could do was think about how angry the thought of the man she loved most in the world made me. It felt like lying to her. Fuck, was there no way to get through this without hurting her? Either I didn’t tell her about it and hurt her by keeping it secret, or I hurt her relationship with her father by telling her what he had done. Which just felt… vindictive. Fuck, she was right. This sucked.

“Thanks,” I finally managed to get out while meeting her gaze. The next bit I could actually say with complete truthfulness. “I hope you guys have a really good trip. It sounds fun, going all over Europe.”

Sands brightened and started to explain more about all the stuff they were going to do, the moment of awkward seriousness fading. Scout, however, continued to watch me with a somber, yet curious expression that made me think that she knew there was still something I wasn’t telling them about.

Before I could find anything else to say, however, I felt someone approaching. Well, okay, the truth was that I could sense the clothes the person was wearing as it entered the range of the item-sensing power I’d inherited from fighting the skeletblineists. It was something that I’d noticed wasn’t always active. If I wasn’t thinking about it, I wouldn’t constantly know about absolutely everything that was in range. But when something or someone new that I wasn’t expecting entered my range, it tended to warn me. Which was convenient.

At least it seemed like that would make it hard to sneak up on me. Unless the person was completely naked at the time, in which case, ew. And clearly that would mean that I’d have whole new problems.

Turning slightly at the feel of the clothes and shoes approaching, I found myself looking up at the man who was responsible for my conversation with the twins being so awkward and confusing: their father.

Professor Mason stood there. As always, I thought he looked more like a football player than a teacher. He was tall (at least a couple inches past six feet), with a heavy, muscular build and dark blond (almost brown) hair that reached his shoulders. It was normally tied back into a ponytail, but at the moment it was worn loose. He actually looked a lot like Christian Kane if the actor had been a few inches taller.

“Hey, girls,” the man greeted his daughters with a smile before his attention turned to me. Something uncertain crossed his expression then before he nodded. “Morning, Flick. You ready for a vacation?”

Words sprang to mind and inched their way toward the tip of my tongue. None were all that smart or nice, and a few probably would have resulted in a lot more problems for all of us. So I clamped down on it and offered the man as much of a smile as I could. “Sure, though it kinda sounds like you guys are gonna be the ones that have all the fun. I mean, a European trip? I’ve always wanted to see Europe.”

The man gave a slight smile, hand gesturing acceptingly. “Believe me, you’ll get your chance. Hell, if nothing else, maybe you can come with the twins for a couple weeks over the summer if they wanna go back.”

Wait, was he offering to take me with his girls over summer vacation? I was confused. Wasn’t this the same guy who had been working to have Sands and Scout taken off my team and away from me because he was afraid that being around me was too dangerous? Was he just saying this as a completely empty gesture, or… I didn’t know what else. He seemed pretty sincere, but then, what else could it be?

Luckily, Sands interrupted before I had to find a response. “Well, duh! Of course we’ll wanna go back, old man.” Giving her dad a punch in the arm, she grinned at me. “See? Told you Dad was the best.”

Swallowing slightly, I managed something approaching a smile, weak as it was. “You’re pretty lucky.”

For a moment, Professor Mason simply rubbed both his daughters’ heads, smiling faintly down at them. Then he glanced to me before giving the girls a little push. “Listen, could you two give Flick and me a few minutes alone here?” He shrugged easily and stage-whispered, “Just private teacher-type stuff.”

The twins both blinked at each other for a brief moment before looking toward me. “You good, Flick?” Sands asked, sounding somehow strangely uncertain about the idea of leaving me with her father.

In spite of myself and my hesitation (and deep, troubling thoughts about the man), I nodded. “Sure, I’ll try to catch up with you one more time before we all take off, but in case I don’t, have a great trip.”

Both of them moved over to give me a quick hug, Scout holding on longer while leaning up to whisper in my ear very quietly. “It’s okay.” Then she patted my arm before moving away with her sister.

That left me standing in front of Professor Mason. For a few seconds, the man just stood there looking at me, like he was waiting to see if I said anything first. When I just remained silent, he let out a long, low breath. “Flick,” he started slowly as though testing out the words. “I think I owe you an apology.”

Well, that made me blink in confusion. Of all the things I’d expected to hear… “Err, an apology, sir?”

He nodded, his eyes still not leaving mine. “Yeah. I don’t know if you umm… I don’t know what you’ve heard. But I um–” The man paused, looking distinctly uncomfortable for a few seconds before managing to push on, stating as flatly as possible, “I’ve been worried about my daughters being on the same team as you, Flick. Well, the same team as you and Avalon. You two… this whole year you’ve been attracting a lot of trouble, a lot of really dangerous attention. And I know, that’s not exactly rare around here. Believe me, there’s plenty of students besides you guys that have their own problems.”

Before I could say anything in response to that, the man pushed on. “But, somehow, the stuff that’s coming after you two, it just seems…” He breathed in and then let it out again. “It seems more real, more dangerous. And I just—I’ve been trying to get my girls away from that next semester. Not because I don’t care if you’re hurt, or if anyone that replaced them would be hurt, but because… they’re my daughters. I didn’t really focus on anything else. All I could think about was protecting my kids.”

Folding his arms across his chest, the man looked away for a moment while clearly gathering himself. His voice was soft and thoughtful. “I haven’t always made the best decisions, even when I thought it was the right thing to do. Sometimes when you care so much about protecting the people you care about, it–” He stopped talking then, grimacing for a moment before looking straight at me. “The point is, taking Sands and Scout away from your team would be wrong. They’re your friends, and… and I’m not going to ruin that for my own peace of mind. I’m not going to throw someone else into danger just to make myself feel better. You—they’re your team. Just–” Taking in a breath before letting it out, the man looked briefly emotional before managing to control it. “Just be careful, and keep each other safe.”

It took me a second, but I eventually managed to make myself nod. “Yes, sir. Of course I’ll help keep Sands and Scout safe, just like they help keep me safe. They’re my friends. We protect each other.”

Before the man could say anything else in response to that (and before I could manage to work my way through my complete confusion and uncertainty about what was going on), my eyes caught sight of Professor Dare making her way toward us. Her eyes watched me briefly as if checking to make sure I was okay with the conversation before she spoke up. “Liam, Miss Chambers, is everything all right?”

Professor Mason glanced to me before giving me a slight nod. “Yeah,” He murmured. “Everything’s fine.” His hand found my shoulder, squeezing slightly. “I meant what I said before, Miss Chambers. If you want, and if you get your dad’s permission, we’d love to have you come with us this summer.”

“Thank you, sir.” I met his gaze, steadily refusing that quiet voice in the back of my mind that still wanted to see the look on his face if I flat out asked if he thought tattling about my mother’s friendship with Alters was a good idea after all the problems it had caused. “I hope you guys have a great trip.”

Then the man was leaving, jogging to catch up with his daughters. As he left, Professor Dare moved closer to me. Her hand found my arm while she looked after Professor Mason, and she touched something in her pocket (my skeleblineist power told me it was a round, mostly smooth stone) before asking in a low, confidential tone, “Are you really okay, Flick? Did he say anything— do anything-”

“It’s okay,” I assured her, even though I was still mostly confused as to what had prompted all of that. “He just wanted to come tell me that he wasn’t going to take Sands and Scout off my team after all.”

Professor Dare raised an eyebrow at that, her eyes curious as she looked that way briefly. “He’s not?”

“Apparently.” I shrugged helplessly before looking over at the woman. “I mean—um, sorry, Professor, did you need something?” Realizing belatedly, I started a bit. “Oh! I called my dad last night and asked him about having a teacher visit. He-uh-he didn’t actually find it that weird. Which I think says more about me than it does about him or you. But anyway, any time you wanna come over for dinner and meet Asenath, it should be okay. That is—you know, if you still wanted to do that. But if not, I’ll just-”

“Flick,” Professor Dare smiled. “Calm down. Breathe. Of course I’ll visit. I want to meet Tiras’s daughter. I have your phone number. I’ll call and set it up as soon as I see how things are going, okay?”

After I nodded, she went on. “I didn’t come to talk about that. There’s something I want to give you.”

“Give me?” I echoed, blinking at her. “You don’t have to give me a present or anything, Professor.”

Chuckling at that, Dare shook her head. “It’s not exactly a present, Flick. Think of it as… a bit of extra protection. Just in case you need it.” She nodded toward me. “May I see your staff for a moment?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Reaching into my little container, I pulled the staff out and offered it to the woman.

Accepting the weapon with a nod of gratitude, Professor Dare turned it over in her hands. Her expression was curious as she examined the thing. “Nevada upgraded this for you, didn’t she?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I quickly nodded. “She connected it to my sand container. And made it turn into a bow.”

Glancing up to me, Dare paused. Her eyes seemed to search mine for a moment before she smiled faintly. “Good. Every little bit helps. And speaking of little bit.” Sliding the staff down to get at one end, the woman took a black marker from her pocket and showed it to me. “This isn’t a normal marker. It’s something Heretics call a ‘field-engraver.’ Basically, it’ll let you put spells that actually require a written component on your weapons or anything else that might be a bit hard to actually write on. Or when you don’t want the writing to be permanent. Since you probably don’t want a bunch of useless writing filling up your staff after the spell’s used up. Once you activate it, the writing will disappear.”

After explaining that much, she took a minute to carefully draw out an elaborate design toward one end of my staff, showing me as she went. It looked like a circle with a triangle around it, then three squiggly lines leading out from the middle of each side of the triangle. In the spaces between each of those squiggly lines, she drew an angled equals sign, all pointing in the same direction. At the point above and to the right of the whole thing (where the equals signs were all pointing), she drew something that looked like an upside down pitchfork with an infinity symbol drawn around the handle.

Once she had finished, Dare ran her thumb over it before looking at me, her expression somber. “If you touch this here, right on the infinity symbol, and invest enough power into it while saying the words that I’ll give you, your weapon will be able to harm incorporeal creatures for about fifteen minutes.”

I blinked once, then again while my eyes snapped from the spell to Dare. “You mean incorporeal, like-”

“Like ghosts,” she confirmed. “Listen, from what you said, I don’t think Fossor is going to do anything. I don’t think he’ll come after you. Not yet, anyway. But just in case… use it if you have to, all right? When you get back, we’ll make sure you learn how to do it yourself. It’s advanced magic, but you’re already starting to learn that from Gaia anyway. Again, only in an emergency, all right? If something happens and you can get away, don’t stand there and fight just because you have this. Use it to get away.”

Swallowing, I took the staff back as she held it out to me. “I—yes, Professor. I understand. Trust me, I don’t have any intention of being that stupid.”

Dare took a few more minutes to teach me the words to the spell. What she’d done was basically almost exactly what Gaia had done with the animal spell. She did most of it herself and just left the actual last second casting part to me, like preparing the gun in every way except pulling the trigger.

By the time she was satisfied that I had the words down pat, Avalon had joined us, standing off to the side while watching silently. Dare took a few more seconds to remind me that she’d call to see about dinner, then laid her hand on the top of my head. “Flick,” she said my name softly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else. But in the end, she just murmured, “Have a nice holiday. You deserve it.”

Then she left, and Avalon and I stood there for a few seconds in silence. My roommate just waited, arms folded while she stared at me expectantly.

“So,” I finally managed, “Three weeks apart, huh? I bet you’ll be glad to have the room to yourself. Think you’ll be able to resist selling off all my stuff or remodeling everything while I’m gone?”

For what had to be a solid thirty seconds, Avalon didn’t say anything. I trailed off from my awkward teasing, and she just continued to stare at me. Her mouth opened once before shutting, and it looked like she was struggling with something. Finally, however, she pointed to the staff in my hand. “Good, you’re ready.”

“Ready?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly.

“You didn’t think I was going to let you go without one more training session, did you?” The other girl gave me a hard look before pivoting on her heel to walk away. “We’ve still got an hour before you leave. Time to try to whip you into shape one more time.”

My mouth opened, but she interrupted without looking back. “Don’t say it, Chambers. Just follow me.”

Closing my mouth, I smiled just a little bit while I watched Avalon walk ahead of me. Then I followed.

Spending my last hour at Crossroads letting my roommate beat the crap out of me? Yeah, that sounded fun.

And the fact that I wasn’t being in any way sarcastic about that might’ve been one of the strangest parts of the entire semester.

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A Learning Experience 17-06

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“You guys do know that this isn’t really fair, right?” I half-joked while holding my staff in front of myself as I looked first to Avalon in front of me, then over my shoulder toward where Deveron had positioned himself. Both held wooden staffs and wore nearly identical smirks. “Both of you at once?”

It was Friday, the next morning. Or rather, a few hours later. I’d finished my training with Gaia and slept for an hour and a half (clearly showing how exhausted I’d been), waking in time for this training.

Deveron just shook his head when I looked at him. “You think the people you’ll be fighting care about fair, Flick?” Spinning the staff expertly in his hands, he added, “You’re lucky we’re all using the same weapon. Eventually, you’re gonna have to figure out how to fight both of us with different weapons and adjust your style. And once you get used to that, we’ll see about adding in more people. Like Shiori.”

“He’s right,” Avalon spoke up before I could respond, and I turned back that way to find her tossing her own staff from hand to hand. “You want to get better, you have to keep making your training harder.”

“In that case,” I replied, “how many people are you training against at this point to keep improving?”

Her response was an almost feral smile. “How many people are in our class?” Sobering then, she clarified, “I train with the older students whenever I have a chance. And,” her gaze flicked to Deveron. “Now that we have a mentor who isn’t a completely meaningless waste of space, he helps too.”

Deveron snorted at that, bowing his head in acceptance. “I deserve that. And probably even more. But I’d deserve a lot worse if I didn’t push your training, Flick. You need to get better, so let’s get to it.”

Holding up a hand, I quickly put in, “Wait, I wanted to ask. Have you guys ever used that, um, the animal projection thing?” It took a moment to remember what Gaia had called it. “The um, theriangelos spell?” I’d already told them about how it had gone, and how it had been all I could do to focus on seeing through my fox’s eyes without getting a headache. Gaia had said that it would take time and practice to do it properly, and that eventually I’d be able to easily switch my attention back and forth.

Avalon shook her head, spinning her staff behind her back and to the front again. “No,” she replied simply. “I haven’t done any extra magic. Eden’s Garden starts learning it this year, so I’m not ahead of you on that. Actually,” the girl added with a tiny smirk, “I guess that means you’re ahead of me.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “I’m sure Gaia’d teach you if you ask her.” At that point, I was positive that Gaia would do almost anything if Avalon asked her to. “She really cares about you a lot.”

I actually managed to catch sight of the other girl blushing slightly before she got it under control, clearing her throat as she focused past me toward Deveron. “What about you?” she asked, pointedly.

“Yeah, I’ve done it,” he replied. Eyeing the enchanted coin that was lying nearby to ensure our privacy, he added, “Jos thought it’d be a good way to communicate when we couldn’t be with each other.”

Intrigued by that, I asked, “So what was your animal thing? What is the ‘spirit animal’ of Deveron Adams?” Smiling a bit, I added, “And just to warn you, if you say ‘sloth’, I might just die laughing.”

Snorting clearly in spite of himself at that, Deveron shook his head. “No, it’s not a sloth. It’s–” He paused then, obviously bracing himself for something before actually answering. “It’s a weasel.”

I blinked once, then again. A gradual smile rose on my face as I fought to control the burst of laughter that tried to come out. It escaped in the form of a snicker. “Weasel. A weasel? That—you know, not that long ago, I would’ve said that a weasel was completely appropriate for you. Almost as much as a sloth.”

“Laugh it up,” he retorted, through his own self-depreciating smile. “Go on, get it out of your system.”

Behind me, Avalon started to hum softly. It was a familiar song, one that was right on the tip of my tongue for a second before my eyes widened. “Pop goes the weasel!” I blurted. Then I really started to laugh. “Oh my god. Oh god. Mom. Mom’s a monkey! Mom’s animal is a monkey!” Half-doubling over from my own snickering, I recited, “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel!”

Poor Deveron shook his head slowly, groaning as his hand waved. “Yeah, yeah, it’s hilarious. Trust me, your mom thought it was the best thing ever. It was–” He sobered a little, and I saw the emotion in his eyes as he straightened and swallowed. “It probably sounds stupid, but the song was… important to us.”

My own head shook at that, and I put a hand up to touch the man’s arm. “It doesn’t sound stupid,” I assured him, though my voice cracked just a little as I spoke. “I’ve got stuff with… with Mom, memories that other people would probably think were silly or dumb. But they’re not. They’re… her.”

For a moment, he met my gaze steadily and silently before nodding. “They’re her,” Deveron agreed quietly, yet firmly. “And those are the memories that we have to hold onto, until we get her back.”

I nodded at that without breaking his gaze, echoing his words just as firmly. “Until we get her back.”

Even as my own hand stayed on Deveron’s arm, I felt Avalon touch my shoulder. It was a light brushing of her fingers, but it felt like so much more just because she was the one reaching out. Her voice was soft. “If you want to save your mother when the time comes,” she reminded me, “we need to practice.”

Slowly, I lowered my hand away from Deveron and nodded. “Right, practice.” Stepping back, I flipped the staff around and looked first to my roommate, then to my sort-of stepfather. “Let’s do this then.”

******

“Well, I suppose since this is our very last class of the semester and you’ve already finished your tests, we should do something interesting with the time that we still have left, hmm?”

The man talking was Professor Stephen Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. He was the guy who taught us all about the lands, areas, and even entire planets that Bystanders either didn’t know about or had forgotten. He’d promised that we’d get to Atlantis next semester after people wouldn’t stop asking.

Professor Vandel was a short man, even shorter than me and almost as short as Sands and Scout. I would’ve been surprised if he topped out at much more than five foot two or so. He looked like he was in his mid-late thirties, with red hair that he wore in a ponytail and a neatly trimmed goatee. Every time I’d seen him this semester, the man was wearing a long-sleeved black and white checkered shirt with a bolo tie and crisp blue jeans that looked brand new. I wasn’t sure he even owned any different clothes. And most striking of all, he wore an actual monocle over his right eye. Yeah, an honest to God monocle.

“Yes,” he replied to himself while I and the rest of the class watched. “Something interesting indeed.” Straightening, he moved from the whiteboard where he’d been erasing some of the details about the test we’d just finished. “Most of you have asked, at one point or another, where we are.” Spreading his hands, he elaborated. “That is, where exactly this island is located. Would you like to talk about that?”

After a chorus of agreement and nods, Professor Vandel smiled before launching into his story. “Good. Well then, let’s start by talking about our founder, Hieronymus Bosch. He was, as you all know by now, not only a genius inventor and one of the most powerful and gifted magic-users in the history of our world, but also a painter. Of course, it’s that last skill that Bystanders know him for, but we shouldn’t forget it either. Because it’s his painting skill that brought to where we are today, to this very island.”

“Wait, what?” Malcolm spoke up from across the room, brow knit in confusion as he shook his head. “The hell does painting have to do with this island? What’d he do, sell a bunch of them to pay for it?”

Professor Vandel shook his head with a slight smile. “No, Malcolm, he didn’t sell paintings to pay for this place. This place, this island that we live and learn on? It is a painting, one of his very best works.”

That made everyone start talking, questions blurting out from every corner of the room while Vandel held his hand up and waited for people to quiet down. Once he could get a word in edgewise, the man continued. “Let’s just go with one question at a time. How about you first?” He nodded toward Koren.

She was staring at the man, eyes just as wide as I was sure mine were. “What the hell do you mean, ‘the island is a painting’? What does that even mean? We can’t be in a painting, it’s a painting. That’s just—just–” The other girl floundered a bit, hands waving dramatically before blurting, “Crazy. It’s crazy.”

Chuckling a little bit at that, Professor Vandel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I suppose it should sound unhinged. But then, most of what we talk about in every class of this school doesn’t seem exactly sane, does it?” He started to pace a bit then. “Let me explain. Maybe more details will help. The island wasn’t simply ‘created’ by a painting, no. That would be fairly ludicrous. As powerful as he was, Bosch was not a god. After all, there are living things here on this island, and in the surrounding water.

“You see, this island already existed on Earth. It was in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and a bit southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That was the island where Bosch and those early first Crossroads Heretics chose to construct the Heretical Edge and the school that would train their students. In those days, being on an island in the middle of nowhere was safe enough. Ships could be drawn away from the island. There were enchantments that ensured Bystanders would leave us alone.”

Halting his pacing about halfway up the row of seats that I was in, Vandel turned slightly to look over the class before he continued. “But Bosch knew that Strangers would never stop trying to invade our sanctuary, and that eventually the amount of energy required to maintain our protection against their invasion would be too much. He knew that there had to be a solution that would ensure this school and the Heretical Edge itself would be kept safe. For months, he searched for the best way to do that, to protect his legacy. And in the end, he found it in one of his longest, greatest past-times: his painting.

“Through extensive magic and more power than I believe any of us has ever witnessed, our great founder painted this island, and enchanted it so that the island itself and its surroundings were taken into that painting. He created a pocket dimension, a separate yet connected world where the real island was drawn, leaving Earth entirely and yet remaining somewhat connected to it through the painting.”

“So wait a second.” Douglas Frey spoke up with a raised hand. “You’re saying that this place is some… pocket dimension that Bosch created, that exists in one of his paintings? What if something destroyed that painting? Would we all just…” Pausing, he drew his finger across his throat pointedly.

Professor Vandel shook his head, speaking up over the commotion that caused. “First of all, let me assure you that the painting is perfectly safe. It’s one of the most well-protected objects in the world. The Bystander President of the United States has less protection than that painting. Nothing is going to happen to it. And if anything did, we wouldn’t be killed. Believe me, Bosch would not have left such a clear and obvious vulnerability. The painting maintains the connection between this pocket dimension and Earth. At most, the island and all of us on it would simply be ejected back into the normal Pacific Ocean where it used to be and we would go from there. But that won’t happen, because, as I said, the painting is not in any danger.

“So, let’s talk a little bit about what exactly made Bosch choose this place to begin with.”

******

It was still about half an hour before I was supposed to meet with Klassin Roe for our next session. But I was heading in early, because I was hoping that we could get done soon enough for me to have time to make a trip out with my sharks before it was time to eat dinner and then go to our last track training of the semester. Among other things, I wanted to get Klassin’s advice for what I should do about Kohaku’s invitation to join the Security track.

As I approached the man’s office, however, the sound of voices revealed that he wasn’t alone. Stopping short outside of the door, I hesitated a moment before starting to turn away. If he wasn’t available, he wasn’t available. I’d come back when we were actually supposed to meet.

Then one of the voices spoke up loud enough for me to make out the full sentence. “It wasn’t my fault, it was Joselyn.”

That made me halt in mid-step. Turning back, my eyes widened. I knew the voice. It was Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father. Why was he talking about my mother?

After a moment of indecision, I took a breath and stepped closer to the door. Rather than just standing there, however, I put my hand against the wall and felt the wood there. Swallowing at the thought of being caught, I pushed myself into the wall, using the wood-walking power to merge with it. Then I continued to listen.

“It’s easy to blame other people for your mistakes,” Roe was saying. “But Joselyn didn’t make you do what you did, and she definitely didn’t force you to cover it all up afterward.”

“I did what I thought was right,” Professor Mason insisted through gritted teeth, his voice low and yet almost desperate in tone. “Joselyn was acting insane, and you know it. I had to protect the school.”

Klassin’s voice was just as quiet, but also harsh. “And how did that work out for everyone, Liam? Because as far as I can tell, all you did was make everything worse. Did you ever tell Larissa what you did?”

There was the sound of a shove before Professor Mason snapped, “Don’t talk about Larissa, Johnny.”

Johnny? I was confused. His name was Klassin Roe, so where was the name ‘Johnny’ coming from?

Roe spoke up after a moment of silence that I was sure both men spent glaring at each other. “Larissa isn’t here. But if she was, and if she knew what you did, she’d be disgusted by you. That is, unless you helped wipe her memory too. Isn’t that how you deal with your problems?”

That time, I heard what sounded like a table being kicked backwards and some rustling as the men clearly struggled with each other, followed by a hard thud that was clearly one of them hitting the wall. Roe continued, his voice harried and even more harsh. “It’s the truth, Liam, and you know it. You betrayed your friends, the people who trusted you.”

“I had to!” Mason spat back, his own voice broken by emotion. “Joselyn was—she was wrong. She was crazy. Making deals with Strangers? She was going to destroy everything, and get a lot of good people killed because she was naive. They all were!”

I heard the table squeak again as it was moved back before Roe’s voice all-but snarled, “It wouldn’t have been that way if it wasn’t for you to begin with, Liam. Joselyn trusted you, she tried to talk to you about the whole thing. They all trusted you. They thought you were on their side, and what did you do? What did you do? You ran to Ruthers. You blurted the whole thing to him.”

“Fuck you, Johnny,” Mason snapped. “I told you, I did what I had to do to protect everyone from Joselyn. They were going to get hurt, or worse, destroy the school.”

“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?” Roe retorted. “No. You snitched and suddenly the quiet little underground railroad to protect Alters turned into a full-fledged rebellion. You didn’t protect anyone, Liam. You turned the whole thing into an open war. And then you helped erase it from everyone’s memory. Including the woman that you later married. Did you ever happen to mention that to her, or was it too inconvenient?”

I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with something like a two-by-four. On the hike in the jungle, Deveron had said that the whole secret underground resistance had blown up into full-scale war because he and Joselyn had trusted the wrong person. Now I knew who it was.

Sands’ and Scout’s dad. He was the traitor. He was the one who made the whole war happen.

Mother… fucker.

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