Avalon Sinclaire

Suspects 24-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

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Suspects 24-01

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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Sharkhunt 23-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday (along with a special announcement about commissions and monthly rewards). If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Yeah, okay, we really all should’ve seen that coming, to be honest. Avalon had no reason to hold back anymore. After all, this was the guy who had literally killed her mother and then tried to kill her. He was one of the people directly responsible for destroying her family. Honestly, the fact that she’d waited long enough for him to get all the way through his story and give us the cure for Tangle was more surprising than her eventual (inevitable) attack should have been.

Still, despite all that, somehow I still felt surprised in that moment. As the glowing energy blade sliced straight through the shark-man, literally cutting his top half from the bottom, he let out a bellow of rage that filled the room, echoing off the walls almost painfully loud. His lower half, standing there unsupported, collapsed to the floor with a gross, meaty sound.

Things seemed to happen incredibly quickly at that point. There were three sudden, thunderous roars, each so close together they might as well have been one, accompanied by a loud snap-hiss and a bright, focused light that I only caught the slightest glimpse of as something blew right past me. The sounds were followed by three quick, loud clangs, an explosion of shattering glass, a heavy thud, a low humming that was matched almost immediately by a high-pitched whine similar a squealing tire, and finally a sound like tearing, crumpling metal.

Only belatedly, seeing things after the fact and taking it in, did I realize what had happened in what seemed to be about a quarter of a second. First, the three loud roars had been three different shotguns that had snapped out in three of the room’s corners as soon as Avalon drove her blade into Fahsteth. They had all somehow automatically opened fire on her.  

Meanwhile, the snap-hiss sound was a fourth weapon that had come to life. That one was a turret of some kind that had dropped out of the ceiling to shoot an actual laser at Avalon as well. All four defensive measures had centered on the other girl as their target and started shooting.

The thing that had rushed past me was Gabriel. He had interceded. The three quick, successive clangs had been the shotgun rounds impacting and rebounding off the head of his shovel (which looked just fine), and the exploding glass was the rebounding shotgun rounds taking out a couple of the windows simultaneously. After that, the thud had been Avalon hitting the floor as Gabriel yanked her out of the way of the incoming laser (and probably away from any further counter-attacks too). The humming sound was the small portal he had opened up on the floor where the laser struck, a portal that opened up directly in front of the laser turret itself. That was where the squealing tire-like sound had come from, as the turret literally lasered itself in half.

Finally, the tearing metal sound had been the shotguns being ripped from their housing by an invisible force, which then crumpled them all into little balls as if they were made of paper.

Yeah. In an unbelievably short time span, Gabriel had deflected three different shotgun blasts from three different angles, tossed Avalon out of the way, created a portal that made the laser turret destroy itself, and telekinetically tore the shotgun turrets out of their housing to destroy them. And it was nothing to him. Nothing at all. He had probably expended about as much effort to do all that as I spent on a single swing of my staff. And even that much was debatable.

Oh, and then there was the fact that Fahsteth wasn’t dead. And not only was he not dead, he hadn’t even fallen down. His bottom half had fallen, of course. But his top half hadn’t dropped.  Instead, while Gabriel had been protecting Avalon, a metal tentacle-like coil had already shot from the shark-man’s  innards, catching itself against the ground to support the figure while a plate of some kind extended to cover the rest of his exposed wound so he wouldn’t bleed out.

“S’kelstva!” Fahsteth bellowed a word that was clearly a curse of some kind. Probably an insult. As he spoke, a second metal tentacle extended itself from the plate covering his exposed lower torso, hitting the floor to steady him. “Think I’m that easy to kill?! Wouldn’t’ve lasted this long if some little kiver could take me out like that.” Despite his words, he still looked angry. Even if Avalon’s attack hadn’t killed him, it had hurt the bastard. And it had forced him to reveal that he was a… what, a cyborg? I still didn’t know what the hell that was all about.

Avalon, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what the guy was. She just wanted him dead, regardless. And she was already back on her feet and moving that way, her expression hard.

Maybe she could have beaten him, considering the damage she’d already done. We’d never know, because the one figure everyone had stopped paying attention to during all that suddenly made himself known again. The purple-skinned, red-haired teleporter abruptly appeared directly behind Fahsteth. Grabbing onto the shark-man (or the top half of him anyway), he blurted something that sounded almost like an apology at us. Then he, and the shark-man, vanished from sight with an audible pop of energy that set my hair standing on end once more.

“No!” Avalon was there, right where Fahsteth had been. Her foot kicked the ground where his metal… tentacle… thing had been holding him up even as the blade of her gauntlet cut through the nearby wall. She didn’t say anything else, though I see the litany of curses behind her eyes as she whirled back, looking at us with an expression that showed her frustration. That in itself, the fact that her emotions were that plainly visible, gave me some idea of how upset she was.

Shoving my staff into its slot at my belt, I moved that way. I didn’t exactly run to her because… well, Avalon. But I did go right up to the girl, biting my lip. “Are… you okay, Valley?”

Her mouth opened, and it looked like she was about to reflexively snap something. But she stopped herself, hesitating slightly before taking a visible breath “I’m fine,” she stated flatly, repeating it. “I’m fine. But he–he should be–I had him right–he was–what the hell?”

It was Gabriel who spoke up. “Fahsteth is dangerous all on his own. But he’s much more dangerous because of the people he’s worked for. He doesn’t just take money for jobs, he takes enhancements, things that make him stronger or better. Unique weapons in some cases, or special magic, or, well… you saw the result of one of his jobs. Cybernetic enhancements that keep him alive long enough for his regeneration to kick in. I’m pretty sure he’s lost more body parts than the entire Star Wars saga put together by this point. Took a couple off him myself.”

Avalon’s voice was hard, her emotions clearly getting to her. “So he’s going to survive that.”

“Unfortunately,” Gabriel confirmed with a slight nod. “Which means you need to be careful. Because now he’ll know not to underestimate you. And you’ve hurt him, which he tends to take a bit personally.” Gaze softening, he added, “The point is, be careful out there. He’ll be back.”

“Next time I’ll finish the job,” the other girl promised, only belatedly blushing a little from getting the direct attention and focus of her childhood hero. She glanced away, looking back to the floor.

Biting my lip, I stepped over to examine the remains of one of the shotgun-turrets that had been ripped out of the wall and crushed. I didn’t know anything about what I was looking at, of course. But it gave me something to do other than grabbing onto Avalon, a display I knew she wouldn’t appreciate right then. Instead, I picked up the metal remains before looking back at Gabriel. “I guess he had these things set to interfere if he was attacked? But why didn’t they shoot at me?”

“You mean when you came in the room?” Gabriel shrugged. “My guess is that he had them set to react to direct aggression or an attack against him. Did you actually hit him directly?”

I thought about it before shaking my head. “I blasted that purple guy away from him… then Fahsteth came after me. I dove away from him… and held the purple guy hostage.”

“That could be it,” the man mused. “Or he might have disabled them from targeting you because of what he said about Fossor’s claim. It doesn’t sound like he was willing to risk annoying the man. Either way, they only popped on when Avalon became a direct threat.”

“I’ll show him a ‘direct threat’,” the other girl muttered darkly, arms folded over her stomach.

Belatedly, I remembered the much more important subject, suddenly spinning back that way as my eyes widened. “Oh my God! The cure, the one for Tangle! Do we–do you still have–”

“Right here.” Avalon’s hand came up with the vial of blue liquid. “Funny how he just happened to have it on him, ready to go.” Frowning, she squinted at it. “I’d say it was fake, but that stone…”

“He couldn’t have lied with the stone in his hand,” Gabriel confirmed. “Which means that really is a cure for what he did to your teacher.”

“Right, and for the record,” I informed the man, “that truth stone is probably my second favorite rock in the world right now.” Magic truth-revealing powers were great and useful, but they’d never beat Herbie.

Smiling faintly, Gabriel continued. “My guess is that he had it ready to go for a situation like the one he was just in, a bargaining chip to get himself out of trouble if need be. He’s a survivor.”

Avalon muttered something about not surviving the next time before looking back to me. “We’ve got more than the cure. We also know she’s innocent. And so was–” Stopping her face fell a bit.

“… Torv,” I finished for her, flinching. “Valley, I’m so sorry about your friend. I’m sorry you–”

“They’ll pay for it,” she interrupted, voice hard. “They’ll all pay for it. Every last one of them.”  

Straightening, I swallowed before murmuring, “At least we know a lot more than we did before all this.” Looking over to the other girl, I went on. “Not just that Torv and Tangle were innocent, but we also know why the Seosten want into that vault so bad. A spell to make every Heretic immune to them? That’d screw up their entire… everything. It’d completely fuck them over.”

“We also know the names of the other three Seosten besides Manakel,” she pointed out. “Charmeine, Paschar, and Lies. Charmeine must be the one that you saw at the beach.”

I nodded then. “Sounds right. Four of them. It could be worse. But then, I guess they can still do plenty of damage even with only a couple at each school, when we don’t know who they are.”

“And there are definitely more of them around,” Gabriel pointed out mildly. “These four will just be the ones involved in this particular mission. They’ll be the ones that are connected to each other, so if you attack one of them before you know where and who the other three are…”

“The others will know about it,” I finished, grimacing. “We either have to get all of them at once, or be prepared for some kind of retaliation if we can only get one of them. But if we can get that collar off of Pace, we’ll know–wait, wait a second.” I paused, frowning to myself thoughtfully.

Avalon looked at me then, squinting a little as I continued to remain silent. “What is it?”

Slowly, I looked up again. “The choker that Pace is using, we already know it can identify Seosten. What do you think the odds are of them allowing something like that to be used by someone that isn’t already under their control? Even if they were really allies. And as… uhh, let’s call it unstable as Pace has been, does she really seem like the kind of person the Seosten would leave with something that could identify them that easily? Hell, when they found out that we were trying to set up a meeting with one of their allies, they went straight to trying to kill him, a guy they’d been working with for like… at least twenty years, off and on. Knowing all that, do you really think they’d let Pace have that choker if she wasn’t already–”

“Already possessed,” Avalon finished for me, lifting her head with a thoughtful look. “I suppose that would make sense. But why does she act like–uh, why doesn’t she blend in more?”

“Has she always been erratic?” I asked then. “Or is this new behavior?”

The other girl shrugged helplessly. “She was older than me and not in my tribe, so I didn’t really know her until all this started happening. Torv mentioned her a couple times. I think he had a crush. That was before…” She hesitated, face falling a bit as her shoulders slumped. “Before.”

Flinching, I reached out to put a hand on her arm. “They’ll pay for what they did, what they’ve been doing.  I promise. They’re already panicking because of what we know. We’ll get there.”

Taking a breath and letting it out, I added, “The point is, Pace is probably one of the possessed people. It just makes too much sense for her not to be. That’s the only reason they’d let her keep something that could identify them. Plus, you know, they went to all the trouble of stealing it out of Litonya’s vault. The only reason I could see for doing that would be to let–hold on…”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow, looking at me curiously. “Something just occurred to you?”

I nodded. “If the Seosten went through all the trouble of stealing something like that out of the vault just to make sure the Committee didn’t have it, that would be one thing. But they stole it specifically for Pace to use. Why? I was thinking that they gave it to her so that she could keep being a host body for them after she was turned into a werewolf. But that only makes sense if-”

Avalon interrupted once more. “If the Seosten that’s possessing her can’t let her go, because she’s the one that’s crippled, Lies. The one that Fahsteth said couldn’t stop possessing someone until they died. But she’s also a werewolf, so they stole the choker because it was the easiest way to keep their host without killing her and let Lies continue to be in on things. Plus, having Pace right there with Trice and Doxer must’ve made it a lot  easier to manipulate them. Only… now we have Trice, and Doxer’s dead. So what good is the Pace body to them?”

My head shook. “I’m not sure. We’re probably missing something. Either way, I think all that fits. Pace must be possessed, and she’s probably possessed by the one that can’t let her go. But we still don’t know who any of the others are yet. And–” Abruptly, I coughed. “Wait, wait, wait. Shiori and Seth. We should really check on Shiori and Seth.”

“They’re fine,” Gabriel informed me. “Already finished dealing with the Alters that were brought over by the teleport-misfire and are waiting for us in the parking lot, if you’re ready to join them.”

I nodded, half-expecting the legendary Heretic to teleport us straight to the lot or something. Instead, he simply turned and walked to the circular hole that had been made in the metal wall. A flick of his hand literally erased enough of the metal to leave a doorway-shaped hole in it, which he moved through while continuing out to walk to the stairs. Which I really should’ve seen coming, considering everything I’d witnessed already.

Before following after the man, I reached out to catch Avalon’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to kill the bastard yet,” I murmured while watching her expression.

She bit her lip, hesitating a little before looking at me. “You’re not upset that I went after him even though we promised not to hurt him? It wasn’t  very… heroic. I just wanted him dead.”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Trust me, Valley, I get it. I do. If I had a chance to take a free swing at Fossor, I… I’d probably do the same thing. And it’s not like you could’ve warned us ahead of time. You took the shot you had right in front of you. Now he’s pissed off, but… but we’ll deal with that, okay? All of us. We still got a lot out of him. We’ve just gotta use it right.”

“Use it right…” Avalon echoed my words before giving a slight nod. “Yeah, we will.” Her gaze went back to me then. “Now let’s go check up on your other girlfriend.”

“Wha–that’s not–I didn’t–I mean she–that–” My face was pink, which only got worse as I saw the smirk on her face. “You did that on purpose.”

“What, made you blush just to make myself feel better because of how cute it makes you look?” Valley breezily replied before brushing it off with a calculated flick of her hair. “Nah.”

She started out then, forcing me to sputter a few more times before I hurried to catch up.

******

“Wait, so we can just wake up Tangle?” Shiori asked a few minutes later, once we had joined her and Seth. “You think she’ll know who the other Seosten is–oh. Right, even if she does remember, he’s probably switched bodies by now.”

“And that’s a big ‘if’,” I replied. “Considering their love of memory spells, I wouldn’t count on it. But still, she might remember something we can use. And we do know that whoever Manakel’s been possessing, it’s an adult at Crossroads. That’s something.”

“What about that Grandfather guy?” Shiori asked. “The one that taught Bosch’s daughter how to make the immunity spell to begin with. Who is he? Where’d he come from? Where is he now? How does he know how to do all that? Is he a rogue Seosten like Vanessa and Tristan’s mom?”

Avalon shrugged. “We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. That’s all Fahsteth told us. She called him Grandfather and he was the one who helped her make her family immune to Seosten possession. That’s it, that’s all we know about him.”

“For now,” I added. “Maybe he’ll come up again. But the point is, we can wake up Tangle. We… should talk to Gaia about it, find out the best way to do it… you know, secretly. Because if the Seosten think that we can wake up Tangle and talk to her, they’ll kill her. We have to do it the right way.”

Seth cleared his throat. “Right, if Nancy, Bess, and George are all gonna keep kicking at the tires of this case, I’m gonna take off. Got my own stuff to do. Just got the entire series of both The Munsters and The Addams Family on DVD and I’m gonna alternate off every episode just to decide once and for all which one’s better. So, like I said, you got your stuff, I got mine.”

“I don’t have the rest of the money on me,” I informed him. “Gaia’ll have to get the forty grand to you.”

“I’m sure she’s good for it,” he replied lazily, spinning on a heel. “Catch you later, Zipper and friends.” The vampire strode off then, humming the theme song from The Addams Family without an apparent care in the world.

Shaking that off after a second, I coughed. “Okay, well… besides waking up Tangle, I think we know what we’re doing. First we get that choker, we use it to find out who they’re possessing and kick them out, then when we’re sure there’s no other problems, we’ll get into that vault.”

Shiori hesitantly spoke up then. “Do you think we should go for the vault straight off? I mean, if there’s really a way to stop the Seosten from possessing Heretics in there…”

Before I could respond, Avalon shook her head. “Not until we have a way to identify the ones that we’re already dealing with. We have to make sure everyone we take near the vault, everyone who has anything to do with opening it, are clear. And if we go there, the Committee’s gonna know about it. Which means we’ll only get one shot. If we open it up and the Seosten find out too soon… they’ll be there in force, probably Committee-level force.”

I nodded .”She’s right. We get the small-scale stuff, find the choker and use it and the anti-possession spell to get the spy out of our friends. Once it’s clear, then we’ll worry about the vault.”

“It sounds like you have a plan,” Gabriel put in then. I had a feeling that he’d been deliberately staying out of the conversation as much as possible to let us handle it. “I’ll keep teaching you the spell until it’s time to use it, but you should also practice on your own. Just make sure none of the others see you doing it. They’ll definitely recognize the spell for what it is.”

“We’ll be careful,” I promised, before my head fell back. “I guess that means we’re done here. Which means we’ve gotta get back before those Committee representatives tear the whole school apart looking for me.”

Yeah, I was going to have to talk to those guys and pretend to be surprised and terrified about my dad disappearing. I was going to have to sell it to them until they were satisfied. And after that, I had to talk to Dad himself and find out just what the hell had actually happened, how he had found out everything. I had… well, a lot of stuff to talk to him about.

Staying up all night, learning a spell from a literal living legend, fighting our way up to have a confrontation with an ancient mercenary shark-man, being interrogated by some investigators from the Committee, and then talking to my dad about all the secrets I’d been keeping all year? One thing was for sure…

If I hadn’t inherited the stamina boost from that Amarok, I would’ve died of exhaustion weeks ago.

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Sharkhunt 23-06

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I was under absolutely no delusions. As much as I had improved over the past few months, there were plenty of people who were completely out of my league when it came to a straight fight. And from everything I had ever heard, the shark-toothed man in front of me was solidly in that camp. If we were to fight seriously, he’d probably kill me inside of a few seconds flat.

No, fighting Fahsteth was a bad, bad idea. And from the look on the man’s face, he was just as aware of it as I was. His humorless, toothy smile had grown as he sized me up for a moment.

Holding the staff out in front of me, I breathed out. The power that allowed me to sense objects near me was able to reach as far as the wall that I had come through, and through it I could tell just how much of the metal had been turned to wood. The answer was… not nearly enough. It was going to take Avalon longer to convert enough of it to break through than it would take this guy to take me apart and use a piece of my one of my bones as a toothpick. I had to stall.

“Look,” I started, keeping my staff up between us just in case. “We’re not here to fight you. We want information, that’s all. Information you should be okay with giving us since the people we want you to tell us about are the reason you’re trying to get the hell off the planet right now.”

Annoyed as he obviously was, Fahsteth still gave a dark chuckle at that. “Ain’t here to fight, huh? Doubt your friend feels the same. Speaking of–” In mid-sentence, the man produced a knife from seemingly nowhere. I tensed, readying myself. But instead of attacking, he gave a casual swipe toward the wall where Avalon was working on coming through. I could see a line of wood starting to appear in the outline of a larger circle. Once it was done, she’d be able to just pop that bit of wood out and make the larger metal circle inside fall in to make a hole.

Or she would have. Except that with a wave of that knife, a brand new, slightly thicker metal wall appeared over top of the one that was already there. The knife was like Sands’s construction mace, summoning walls and other shapes out of nowhere. Now it was going to take Avalon even longer to get through. If he didn’t just keep summoning new walls every time she got close.

Yeah, having that used against us really sucked.

Fahsteth pointed that knife at me, smirking. “There we go. Now… you’re brave, kid. I’ll give you that much. But brave ain’t gonna stop me from making you wish you never stepped into this room. The big, bad necromancer might have staked his claim on you, but I ain’t gotta kill ya to teach you a lesson you ain’t never gonna forget. That healing you got–” He smiled once more, cracking his neck audibly. “That’ll get you up and moving again after a lot of damage.”  

Fossor? Fossor had staked a claim on me? I bristled reflexively. It wasn’t really surprising, but still. The thought that he had put out the word not to kill me because he wanted me was… ugh.

On the plus side, if we did get this guy to talk, maybe he could tell me something about Fossor himself. Since they were apparently at least close enough to have conversations about how Fahsteth wasn’t allowed to kill me, there might be something else there. Long shot, but still.

And speaking of long shots, I had one chance to get what we needed out of this guy without letting him tear me into as many pieces as he thought could survive the experience. But I needed him to make the first move. I had to make him come after me, and then pray a bit.

To that end, I lowered the staff just a little bit. It was fractional, and I tried to make it look like an accidental opening, as if I was just a little more amateurish than he already thought I was.

If Fahsteth had been in slightly less of a hurry, or had just a little more time to think about it, I doubt it would have worked. But as it was, he had the Seosten to worry about, along with not just Avalon on the other side of the wall, but Seth and Gabriel as well. So he took the bait.

Without the inherited werewolf reflexes, I wouldn’t have had time to blink, let alone actually react as the shark-man crossed the distance between us. He was so fast, so unbelievably quick despite his large form. It was like he had been fired straight out of a cannon, going from standing still to nearly on top of me in the blink of an eye. Both of his hands lashed out, one clearly intent on snatching my staff out of my grasp while the other grabbed for my arm.

Yeah, fighting this guy was out of the question. Completely out of the question. If I’d had any doubt about that before, seeing how fast he was right then knocked the last of it away. I had to be smart, not strong. To that end, I threw myself into a desperate roll to the side and down while simultaneously releasing what small amount of charge my staff had managed to build up. The blast wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me just enough of a boost that I barely avoided Fahsteth’s grasping hands. I could literally feel his fingers brushing over my clothes as I dove.

Hitting the floor of the room, I rolled forward. Behind me, I could hear the shark-man recovering. He was twisting around, clearly about to be right on my heels (if he didn’t just go ahead and rip my heels right off), a grunt of annoyance filling the room. He was right there. I wouldn’t be able to dodge again. Going under his reach like that had been a one-time thing, almost a miracle.

Thankfully, once was all I needed. Because fighting him was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I continued my roll until I had my feet under me again. As soon as they were down, I shoved myself up and forward into a second dive. That one carried me to the far wall, where I came up onto one knee while spinning around. Fahsteth had already crossed half the distance between us once more, a snarl on his lips that showed even more of those impressive teeth of his.

An instant before the merciless mercenary would have been on me, with no chance of me managing to escape again, I brought my staff down while blurting loudly, “Stop!”

Yeah, in almost any other case, my telling a guy like Fahsteth to stop would’ve accomplished about as much as standing in front of an oncoming train. But in this particular case, the man skidded to a halt. Not because of what I’d said, but because of where my staff was: directly against the throat of the unconscious, purple-skinned figure that my earlier blast had knocked against the wall.The blade of the transformed staff was barely a centimeter from his throat.

“Yeah,” I managed while holding the blade right where it was. “You move, you lose your ride off-planet. And call me crazy, but I get the impression you don’t wanna wait to find another one.”

“Kid,” the shark-man snarled, “if you don’t step away from him right this second, I’m gonna forget about what Fossor said. And trust me, just cuz I kill ya doesn’t mean I can’t make it hurt.”

My mouth opened to say something then, but in the background, there was a clang of metal. I had successfully distracted Fahsteth enough that he hadn’t noticed how close Avalon was to breaking through. Now, she kicked in the circle of metal that she had cut out, and it crashed to the floor loudly even as Avalon herself dove into the room. She came up, arms raised defensively only to stop short at the sight. “Chambers,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “Okay?”

“Oh yeah,” I replied a bit tersely, not letting the blade move a millimeter from where it was. “We’re fine. Fahsteth and me were just having a nice, polite conversation here, aren’t we?”

Inclining his head a little, the shark-mercenary made a noise that sounded like a growl deep in his throat. “You kill my ride, little girl, and I’ll make sure both of you kids die screaming.”  

“Answer our questions and you can leave,” I retorted. “Just tell us what we wanna know and we’ll back out of here. You can take your lift off-world and everything’ll be hunky dory. I would suggest you hurry though, since your former employers seem pretty eager to shut you up.”

Keeping her guard up, Avalon glared at the shark-man. I could tell that she really wanted to go after him. Actually, I wondered briefly if the difference in how our Heretic senses worked would affect that. I’d heard from both her and Miranda that while the Crossroads sense was  a warning of danger, for Eden’s Garden-created Heretics, the feeling was closer to a thrill of the hunt.

“Chambers is right,” she said through gritted teeth. “Seems like they want you really dead.”

Inclining his head a little, Fahsteth gave the other girl a look. “Not as dead as they want you, Princess. Maybe if you end up face down in the gutter, they’ll just let bygones be bygones.”

“You could try,” I quickly put in. “But I don’t think you will. One, like you said, they want her dead and I doubt you really want to make them happy right when they’re trying to kill you. And second, you’re trying to disappear right now. You know as well as we do that if you kill Avalon, you’re gonna trigger the spell that’ll mark you. Kinda hard to disappear if you’ve got a big, bright beacon that Gaia can follow straight to you. Cuz believe me, you kill Avalon and Gaia will never let you go. You say you’ll make us scream? I’m pretty sure she can do a hell of a lot worse.”

He knew I was telling the truth. That was the whole reason they hadn’t been able to just kill Avalon and be done with it, after all. Anyone that directly killed her would set off Wyatt’s spell. According to the man himself, it would even mark a Seosten possessing someone to do it. So they couldn’t just jump into a random person, kill her, then jump out again. The tracking spell would follow them no matter where they went, and no matter who they jumped in and out of.

Still, the question was whether he was stubborn enough to ignore that fact. His eyes darted back to Avalon, then to me. He was obviously frustrated at the position that we had put him in, and I had no doubt that given any excuse, he really would have killed us both without blinking.

But in the end, the man just let out a soft, annoyed sigh. “Right, fine. I’ll answer a couple of your questions. That’s it. And when it’s done, you let me get the hell off this planet, you got it?”

“That sounds agreeable to me, yes.”

The voice came not from Avalon or me, but from the corner of the room where Gabriel was abruptly standing. The head of his shovel was stained with blood, as were the front of his clothes. Other than that, he gave pretty much no sign that he had been in any kind of fight.

“How did you–” I started before my head shook. “I thought this place was warded.”

“It is,” the man confirmed as he started across the room to me. To my amusement in spite of myself, Fahsteth took a step back as Gabriel simply walked past him. He reached out to me, fingers dipping deftly into my jacket pocket before he pulled out a small colored marble. “But you didn’t really think I’d send you in here without having a way to keep tabs on you, did you?”

Oh. Well, apparently he’d stuck something on me that let him keep track of what was going on around me despite the scrying wards and teleport straight to me. That seemed… well, useful. Still, I had to ask, “Are Seth and Shiori–”

“They’re all right,” the man confirmed. “Your little friend there,” he gestured to the unconscious teleporter at my feet, “was summoning an awful lot of power. When you knocked him out, it expended itself by summoning a few nasties out there. Nothing too terrible. They’re just wiping it up and then keeping an eye out for any more… interruptions.” He looked toward Fahsteth then. “Which will be coming, so we should finish up here. And it sounded to me like you were just agreeing to tell the girls what they want to know.”

“Yeah,” the shark-man grunted. “Long as they’re quick about it, and–” He paused, giving Gabriel a hard look. “If you think you can just kill me to take what I know, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Nodding affably, Gabriel replied, “Oh, I know. I already told the girls that the same thing you and, well, people like you use to block your thoughts from being read by someone with telepathic abilities also stops someone like me from absorbing your memories upon your death. Believe me, I appreciate the effort. The last thing I want are the thoughts and memories of someone like you swimming around in my head. Still,” he added, “we do need to be sure that you’re telling the truth. So…”  Gabriel dipped his other hand into his pocket and came out with a small red-hued stone before holding it out to the other man. “Why don’t you hold onto this while we’re all talking here.” Glancing over his shoulder at Avalon and me, he explained, “Truth-stone. As long as the person holding it is telling the truth, it stays cool. But if he lies, it burns and glows. Not a very fun experience.” To Fahsteth, he added, “Just to keep you honest.”

If possible, the mercenary looked even more annoyed. His hand snatched the stone and he held it up while squinting at us. “Ask your damn questions, and be quick about it or the deal’s off.”  

Before I could say anything, Avalon quickly put in, “My mother. Were you the one responsible for killing her?”

His smirk only grew. “Wasn’t my idea, but sure. I was the one that… let’s say I did the deed. Pretty nice work if I do say so myself. Always been good at poisoning people, but making it look like an accident in childbirth? That was something special.” He gave a lamenting sigh then. “Too bad you survived the experience, or it would’ve been the perfect job.”

Avalon started to take a step at him then, muscles tensed until I quickly put a hand out to catch her arm. The other hand I used to keep the blade close to the unconscious teleporter’s neck, just in case. “Fine,” I put in. “Let’s go with the big one then. Who killed Zedekiah Pericles?”

Fahsteth chuckled at the question. “Can tell you who was responsible for it, not who did it.” Before I could question that, he continued. “The one responsible for it was a Seosten called Manakel. But you know, all that possession shit, I dunno who he’s riding around in over there.”

Fuck. He couldn’t tell us who the Seosten was possessing. And we already knew the name Manakel from before. “There’s more than one Seosten behind this. How many are there and what are their names?”

The mercenary shook his head, eyes rolling. “Best I can tell you is that I know of four. Two of ‘em at your little school, two of ‘em at the other place. Names, already told you Manakel. The other one at your place is called Charmeine. Then there’s Paschar at Eden’s Garden, and Lies.”

“Lies?” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Wait, the Seosten are named Manakel, Charmeine, Paschar, and… Lies? That doesn’t really fit the theme.”

“Cuz it ain’t her name,” he retorted. “Just the closest thing to a name she’s got. She’s a crippled Seosten. Means once she possesses someone, she can’t get the fuck out of ‘em unless they die. Plus she gets a little too close, if you know what I mean. Most Seosten, they can shut out anything their host feels. Like playing one of those video games you kids like so much. You don’t actually feel what the guy you’re playing as does. But Lies, she does. She feels it. She’s locked in there.” Shrugging, he added, “Or so I hear. Never actually spoke to her myself.”

Four Seosten. Three normal ones, and one that couldn’t leave whoever her host was unless the host died. Thinking about that for a moment, I frowned before asking, “What does all this have to do with Professor Tangle and her mystery lover at Eden’s Garden?”

Fahsteth openly laughed at that for a moment, his shoulders shaking. “Oh, right,” he muttered with amusement, “that.” Still smirking, he continued. “That was what you call a love potion. See, before Manakel and Charmeine showed up, Paschar was the one that was supposed to get into that blood vault.” He started to smile. “Yeah, there’s a blood vault, you know, one that can only be opened by the descendant of–”

“Hieronymus Bosch, we know.” Avalon cut in, frowning at the man. “What do you mean, love potion?”

He explained. “Fine. See, a little under twenty years ago, Paschar found two living relatives, blood connections to Bosch. One of ‘em was your mother.” He nodded toward Avalon. “That was the direct connection, the strong one. The other one was a lot weaker, more distant, but still. It was–”

“Tangle,” I put in quickly. “Tangle’s the one with the weaker relation, the other connection to Bosch.”

“Ding, ding.” The shark-man pointed at me, his humorless smile wide to show all those teeth. “Yeah, Tangle was the other one. So that’s two ways to get into the vault. But see, Tangle didn’t actually know about her connection to Bosch, or any of that.” He nodded to Avalon again. “Her Mommy did. She knew a lot of it. Stories passed down from her mother, you see. So she knew how to protect herself from anything the Seosten might try to get control of her. They already couldn’t possess the bitch–”

“Why?” Avalon cut in. “Why couldn’t they possess her?”

“Same reason they can’t possess you,” he retorted. “Bosch’s daughter, Liesje Aken, figured out her dear old Daddy was being manipulated to start all this shit, so she took precautions. By the time Hieronymus died, she found a way to make herself and anyone in her family, anyone with her blood, immune to Seosten possession.”

“How’d she do that?” I asked slowly. “I mean, I doubt there’s a book out there about how to make your entire bloodline immune to fake angel-possession.”

“No fucking clue,” the shark-man snapped. “If I knew, trust me, I’d never need to work again a job again. I’d just make a billion lifetimes worth of fortunes by selling that shit. All I know is that she had some help from someone she called Grandfather.”

“Grandfather?” I blinked. “I take it that doesn’t mean her actual grandfather.”

“Genius detective, you are.” He smirked at me before waving the hand with the stone in it. “Point is, if you quit fucking interrupting, she made her bloodline immune to possession. So if Paschar wanted to use either of her descendants to get into that vault, he had to use other means. Tangle was easier, cuz like I said, she didn’t know anything about her connection to Bosch. So she wasn’t watching for the… you know, harp-players.”

“So he wanted to use Tangle, but he couldn’t,” I put in. “Because the vault would only take the closest blood relative. Which, at that point, was Avalon’s mother.”

He nodded. “Right. That’s when I got brought in. Kill the mother and her spawn while she’s pregnant. But make it look like she dies in childbirth. The last thing angel-fuck wanted was some Heretic to hear about the bitch being murdered by something suspicious. So I made it look like a childbirth thing. Unfortunately, her little brat survived.”

Avalon’s voice was hard then. “And you didn’t finish the job because…”

Fahsteth shrugged. “Couldn’t get close to you again. Somehow the Heretics found out you had potential to be one of their students, so they were watching you. Paschar didn’t want to run the risk of them finding out what was really going on. So he went for something more subtle, manipulating ol’ Reggie into hating his kid so much that he’d kill her. Domestic abuse and all that. But you know, turns out that took too long. That headmistress of yours found out enough to come find the brat. Paschar couldn’t let that happen, so he sent me in to make sure little Hannah died. Did my best to make it look like I just stumbled across her, victim of circumstance and all that. But you’re just too fucking stubborn to die like you’re supposed to.”

“And she went to Eden’s Garden,” I realized. “So it was even harder to get to her without making everyone realize what was going on. So they used Reggie instead.”

“Had an… ally of theirs turn him into a vampire and sent him after her,” the shark-man confirmed. “Seemed less likely to be suspicious, since he already hated her. But the son of a bitch kept failing. Then it was too late. They were about to start teaching the kid magic.”

“Which would’ve revealed her connection to Bosch,” I murmured. “Right, so… wait, what about Tangle?”

Smirking, Fahsteth explained. “Two birds with one stone. Paschar was already manipulating Tangle from his place at Eden’s Garden where he was keeping an eye on the situation. Like I said, love potion. Whoever he was possessing, he used what you’d call a love potion to make Tangle be obsessed with him. Had her wrapped around his little finger. She was right on board with killing not-so-little Hannah so she and her snuggle muffin could get into that vault. Still, he didn’t want to be… what you call obvious about it. So…”

“They made sure I was kicked out,” Avalon stated flatly. “You–” Her eyes widened then. “Love potion… wait, obsession. Obsession. They used–”

“Oh and we have a winner,” the man grinned darkly, his amusement obvious. “Yeah, they used the same kind of obsession magic they used on Tangle on that kid. Torv? Yeah, they had him drugged up for weeks. Just got him all sorts of obsessed with you until… well, you know what happened.”

“But now Tangle’s in the hospital with–” I paused, frowning. “Probably your poison in her. So what the hell?”

The shark-man coughed, raising his shoulders in a shrug. “What happened? Well, turns out ol’ Tangle’s got a soft spot for students. Finding out that Torv kid died, it uhh, started taking its toll. Took awhile, but she started snapping out of the love spell. Not a lot at first, but… enough to cause problems. She was starting to figure out something was wrong with her. So she was about to go to that damn headmistress.”

“So you poisoned her,” I realized. “But they didn’t want to kill her, because they still needed her to get in the vault. That’s why you just put her in a coma.”

“Pretty much,” he confirmed. “And sometime in there, those new Seosten showed up and started taking over. Apparently they didn’t like how long it was taking Paschar to get the job done. But like I said, no idea who any of them are possessing–wait, no. One idea. That Manakel guy, he’s possessing some adult out at that school. That’s all I know, an adult. So, we done here?”

My mouth opened, but then I paused, shaking my head. “What about Professor Katarin? Where is he, and why did he disappear? You guys had to have something to do with that.”

“Sure did,” he confirmed without any shame. “I mean, I didn’t. But they did. Apparently the big guy stumbled across Manakel’s host while he was out of it. The host was unconscious, one of those Seosten-enforced comas. Manakel got back, Katarin spotted him and figured out what was going on. So they had a little fight. Best Manakel could do was banish the guy with one of those–”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “The Seosten banishment orbs. They sent him into Seosten space?”

“Kept him away from Earth and out of their hair, that’s for sure.” Fahsteth chuckled once more. “So, that it? Cuz I really need to be going.”

“Not yet.” I shook my head while staring at him. “What the hell is in that vault that they want to get so badly?”

Fahsteth’s smirk grew. “Oh, that you don’t know? Heh, figures. Yeah, they were cagey about it, but I worked it out over the years. You know how Bosch’s daughter made her bloodline immune to possession? Turns out she was working on a way of spreading that immunity to every Heretic. Died before she could put it into play, but all her notes and everything about she did it is in that vault.”

“That’s why they want it so bad,” I murmured. “Because if someone else gets it and manages to make every Heretic immune to–oh. Oh. That really fucks them over.”

“Yup,” Fahsteth confirmed. “So I told you what I know. Now, your turn to repay the favor. Lemme get the hell off this planet.”

“Yeah, we will.” I nodded. “But first, tell us how to cure Tangle.”

“Cure? Right.” Giving me a look, he slowly reached into his jacket before coming out with a vial of blue liquid. “See this? You let me go, and it’s yours. It’ll cure Tangle, put her right as rain. But that’s it. You gotta swear to let me go after I give this to you. Got it?”

Biting my lip, I glanced to Gabriel before nodding. “I swear, I won’t do anything to stop you from leaving after you give us that cure.”

Beside me, Avalon nodded. “I won’t lay a hand on you.”

Gabriel nodded as well. “Neither will I. Just hand over the cure and you can leave.”  

The shark-man held it out, along with the stone while nodding toward my staff. “You mind?”

Slowly, I took the blade away from the teleporter’s throat. The man himself had woken up at some point, and was giving me a fearful look as he scrambled to his feet.

Avalon stepped around me then, palm up as she held it out for the cure. “You helped make my life miserable,” she informed him, her lips tight. “You killed my mother and helped turn my father against me. You were part of manipulating my friend into attacking me so that I had to kill him. You helped make sure his brother kept coming after me too.”

Fahsteth shrugged, dropping the cure and the truth stone in her hand. “Yeah, sorry, kid. No hard feelings though. It was just business, you understand? Besides, not like we can do anything about it right now. You all swore to let me leave. Remember? Can’t lay a hand on me.”

Avalon lifted her chin then, catching the items in her palm before closing her hand. “It’s funny,” she replied flatly… just as a glowing blue energy blade erupted from the gauntlet of her extended hand, cutting straight through the shark-man’s chest, neatly bisecting him even as his eyes went wide with shock.

“… how much you can do without laying a hand on someone.” 

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Sharkhunt 23-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln, Asenath, and Twister posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above. 

My dad knew the truth. My dad knew the truth. Somehow, he had broken the Bystander Effect. He remembered. He knew what Asenath was, what I had been dealing with through the  year. He knew about Mom. He knew all of it. Or enough of it at least. He… he knew. He actually  knew.

I still wasn’t exactly sure which was more shocking to me, that, or the fact that our home had been attacked by werewolves. Lemuel’s pack had actually been pissed enough about Doxer (more likely motivated by Pace) to go after my dad. It shouldn’t have surprised me, honestly. Yet somehow, it did. I’d expected Fossor or Ammon to try something at some point, but the wolves?

Apparently, I’d been zoning out for a few seconds while trying to cope with that particular surprise, because Shiori touched my shoulder as her voice prompted, “Flick? Are you okay?” The girl was standing beside me while Avalon was a bit behind her. Both of their expressions were worried.

Shaking off the feelings as much as I could, I nodded. “I’m fine. I mean, not really fine, but… good enough. I’ll be okay, I promise. It’s just… my dad. My dad knows. He’s still a normal human, but he knows anyway.  How many people have broken the Bystander Effect like that before?”

“A normal human without help?” Avalon shrugged, head shaking. “None, that I know of.”

Behind me, Gabriel cleared his throat a bit pointedly. When I looked that way, the man casually admitted, “Ah, well, your father may not have done it entirely without help.” Before I could do more than open my mouth as my eyes widened, he held up a hand. “It’s not my story to tell, or my secret to give away. What I can say is that someone important wanted your father to learn the truth, so they made it possible. They don’t mean him or you any harm. That much I can promise you. They aren’t a threat to you. They… owe your mother a debt. But, like I said, anything more than that is a secret that I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait until they’re ready to talk.”  

Owed my mother? Someone out there was powerful enough to make sure Dad actually broke the Bystander Effect and they owed my mother a favor? What–was it a Seosten? They’d created the Bystander Effect, so they should be able to remove it, right? There could be other good (or at least tolerable) Seosten out there like Tristan and Vanessa’s mother, couldn’t there?

I shook that off. Randomly speculating wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And I knew from looking at Gabriel that he wasn’t going to tell me anything else. He was absolutely serious about not spoiling other people’s secrets. Which, I supposed, should just make me feel better about all of my secrets that he was keeping. And he was clear about the fact that whoever was behind Dad finding out the truth wasn’t trying to hurt us. I believed that he would’ve told me otherwise.

Still, I was working my way up to argue with him anyway when Avalon simply said, “Fahsteth.”

Fuck. Right, we didn’t have time. Sighing, I looked at the man once more. “I still have questions.”

His head bowed in a slight nod. “And I’ll be glad to answer everything that I can. I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more right now. But I owed you at least that much.  Your father is safe with Asenath and Esevene for now, but I’ll send people to pick them up and get them here before you’re done.”

I started to nod at that, then blinked in confusion. “Esevene? Who’s Esevene?”  .

Gabriel tilted his head before giving a nod of realization. “Right, you only know her as Twister.”

Twister’s real name was Esevene. I didn’t see that coming. Esevene sounded like some kind of Tolkien elf or high-brow noble woman. The girl I knew… Twister fit much more than Esevene.

Again, that was something I had to shake off while looking to Avalon. “Did you get ahold of Gaia?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But she can’t help directly right now. The… a couple representatives of the Committee showed up. She couldn’t really talk, but I’m pretty sure they were there to ask about what happened at your father’s house. They wanted to find you,” she added, “but she’s stalling them.”

“Wh–” My eyes widened. “The Committee is there looking for me?”

Avalon shook her head. “Breathe, Chambers. Not members of the Committee. Representatives from them. Their… assistants, basically. And Gaia’s taking care of it. She told them that you’re out on a training mission with Professor Dare, that since you’re up all night anyway, she wanted you kept busy. So they’re waiting until we get back. We just have to make it quick. Unfortunately, since the Committee’s personal representatives are there, they’re monitoring all transit on and off the island. Which means–”

Blowing out a long breath, I muttered, “Which means we can’t get any help from anyone else there. No calling for Wyatt or anything. And now we have to do all of it and get back before those guys get tired of waiting. Because what this whole thing really needed was more pressure.”

“We already had a time limit,” Avalon pointed out. “Fahsteth won’t be there for long. This doesn’t change anything. We get in, find out what we need, and then get back to the school. You just have to act surprised when they tell you about your dad.”

“Oh, trust me,” I assured her, “I’ve got plenty of surprise left in me. So let’s get this done. Gabriel?”

“Of course,” he replied. “If you’re all ready?” He waited until we nodded before raising his shovel. As he brought it down once more into the dirt, our surroundings abruptly changed. The transport was as sudden as it was completely unobtrusive. One second we were by the lake, and in the next, the scenery had changed. It was like blinking during a scene change on TV.

The place that Seth had told us Fahsteth was holed up in was a broken-down three-story motel on the edge of Seattle. Apparently, the place had been closed for renovations (and pest extermination) for several months, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near ready to open again for quite awhile. Which apparently had made it an ideal place for the shark-man to lay low, until now.

We appeared in a field behind the motel, far enough away to avoid prematurely setting off any surprises that Fahsteth had waiting. And somehow, through either coincidence or intent (considering the source, I was leaning heavily toward the latter), Gabriel had deposited us a few feet away from a figure that I recognized through the glow from the distant streetlights as Seth.

The vampire sensed us immediately, spinning around on one foot while his hand moved to the inside of his jacket. I caught a glimpse of some kind of knife before he stopped himself. “Ah, you,” he announced. “Give a guy a warning next time you decide to drop–” He stopped in mid-sentence as his gaze found Gabriel, and I actually saw him swallow just a bit. Cool and collected as he was, even Seth reacted noticeably to the sight of the former slave. “You brought some company.”

“Good to see you again, Seth.” Gabriel’s voice was casual, giving no indication that he had even noticed. “Hope you don’t mind, I didn’t want to send the girls off on their own. Not with Fahsteth.”

Any reaction that Seth had had to the man was fully suppressed by that point, and he shrugged. “Can’t blame you. He’s a nasty ratbag and those girls seem to like to get into trouble a lot.”

“More like we were born with one of those ‘take-a-number’ machines by our cribs for all the people that wanted to screw with us,” I muttered under my breath, then gestured. “He’s in there?”

“For now,” Seth replied, glancing to the motel in the distance. “He’s waiting for his ride off-world.”

“How’s he planning on getting off-world anyway?” I wondered. “Some kind of Alter or a spell?”

“Alter,” came the response. “He’s got a guy on the way that specializes in transporting people off this rock, and he’s really motivated to leave. So if you wanna talk to him, better make it fast.”

Beside me, Shiori piped up. “Do you know which room he’s in?”

“Oh, hey, sis.” Seth gave her an easy smile. One that, despite the misgivings that Asenath had about him, I thought was genuine. “Almost didn’t see you there. Not exactly. He’s up on the third floor there, but for the exact room… well, you’re gonna have to get up there yourselves.”

“He’s warded the place,” Gabriel announced after squinting at the building for a moment. “Probably to keep the Seosten from finding him. Either way, I can’t see through them.”

He started to say something else before stopping short. Turning, the man held a hand up. “Wait.” He frowned slightly before looking across the field, away from the road. “They’re here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, only to fall silent as it became apparent. Five, no, six massive figures were suddenly tearing across the field toward us. Amaroks. Six god damn Amaroks, each bigger than a city bus, were coming straight at us. Their paws tore up the ground as they charged.

“This,” I remarked, my throat dry, “is not the act of people who give a shit about subtlety anymore.”

Yeah, we should’ve known that whoever was behind this had access to those things. After all, they had managed to sic one of them on the team during our first hunt in an attempt to kill Avalon. But still, throwing an entire pack at Fahsteth? They wanted that guy dead with a capital d.

In the midst of me trying to think about how we were going to have to work together to deal with the damn things, however, Gabriel spoke a simple word. “Go.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Seth, take them inside. Get to Fahsteth and find out what he knows. I’ll deal with these guys.”

I started to ask if he was sure, but stopped myself as the man plucked up his shovel and walked calmly out to meet the incoming giant wolves. He moved not like a man who was about to be in a fight, but like someone who was walking through the store deciding what kind of milk to pick up.

Seth was already moving toward the motel. I started to follow along with Shiori, only to stop and glance back at Avalon, who hadn’t moved. “Valley,” I prompted. “We need to go, he’ll be fine.”

“I know he will,” the other girl replied, her voice almost plaintive. “But I really want to see this.”

Oh. Right, she wasn’t worried that Gabriel needed help. She wanted to watch him kill the Amaroks. That I could… yeah, I could totally understand it. But still, “It’s Fahsteth,” I prompted.

That was enough. As much as she (and I, really) wanted to see what the man did to those poor wolves, the chance to actually find out something about the people who had been trying to kill her (and had killed her mother) was even more important. She pivoted and gave me a slight nod before the two of us bolted toward the motel once more, hurrying to catch up with Shiori and Seth.

At the doorway into the building, the vampire held a hand up to stop us. “Fire-ward,” he explained while giving a nod toward the door. Looking that way, I could barely make out a rune carefully etched into the wood there. It seemed to glow slightly, as if it was reflecting firelight somehow.

“Step past it,” Seth remarked, as casually as ever, “and you’ll spontaneously combust. It’s like the protection line your nursemaids up at that school of yours have around their super-special building. Only instead of making you a bit sick, it turns you into a toasted marshmallow.”

“This guy really doesn’t want visitors, does he?” Shiori put in. “How do we get past it?”

“The twins taught me how to short-circuit stuff like that,” I started. “If we have some electri–”

Before I could finish the sentence, Seth reached back under his jacket, coming back out with the knife that I had caught a glimpse of earlier. Now I had a chance to get a better look at it. The handle appeared to be made out of bone of some kind. Meanwhile, rather than any kind of metal, the blade itself looked like it was dark blue glass. As the rest of us watched, the vampire casually drew the knife across the rune. As that azure blade touched the spell rune, I saw some kind of weird, ghost-like energy sucked up out of the wood before the rune itself turned dark and seemed to fade back into the wood until it was even less noticeable than it had already been.

“There,” Seth announced before reaching out to push the door open. He strode right through, glancing back after sniffing the air. “You coming or what?”

“What… what is–what did you…” I was staring at the strange knife in his hand.

His knowing smirk returned. “This? Just a little toy I picked up off a guy that… wasn’t gonna need it anymore.” From the way he said it, I had a feeling I knew why the guy didn’t need it. “Blade absorbs all the energy from any spell it touches, cuts them off completely. It’s got its uses.”

“That–that kind of thing isn’t common, is it?” I had to ask. The idea of there being a knife out there somewhere, or anything like that, that could just cut away the magic that was used to protect Avalon (or any of the other spells that we relied on) that easily was kind of terrifying.  

Winking, Seth shook his head. “Far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. Took a pretty big chunk out of me to get it too, and I mean that literally. Had to spend a month recovering. So don’t go blabbing about it to all your little schoolmates, got it?” Waggling the blade at me, he slipped it away back under his jacket before turning away. After giving a slight sniff, he started to walk.

Giving the other two a look, I tugged my staff out of its place at my hip and hit the button to charge it while starting to follow. We moved together through the fairly dark motel corridor, illuminated only by a few emergency lights that were positioned here and there. Enough to see if anything was there, but still leave the place eerily dark. Doors leading into various motel rooms lined both sides of the corridor, while I could see what looked like a front office at the far end. It wasn’t just dark, it was also silent. Well, except for the sound of wolves alternately howling and yipping outside.

For a moment, I wondered what the ordinary people out there were hearing when it came to the Amaroks. But before I could dwell too much on that, there was the sound of a loudspeaker crackling to life. A voice spoke up through it. “Now I don’t recall ordering any food for my trip, but if you wanna deliver yourself all gift-wrapped and shit, I ain’t gonna complain too much.”

Turning in a circle, I found the source of the voice in a speaker box that was up in the corner. There was a security camera next to it. My mouth opened to say something, but Avalon beat me to it.

“Fahsteth!” she called, staring up at the camera. “We need to talk to you.”

There was a chuckle in the shark-man’s voice as he replied, “That you, kid? You’ve grown up, huh? Lucky you, I ain’t interested in finishing the job anymore. So take a walk and count your blessings.”

It was my turn to talk then, as I put in, “We’re not leaving until we talk to you, Fahsteth. You don’t owe these people anything. They’re trying to kill you just to shut you up. So why not tell us what you know? What could it hurt at this point?”

“Maybe I just don’t like you very much,” came the retort. “But you know, if you won’t leave, you can play with some of my toothy little friends.”

“Sharks?” I asked, turning to look down the hall. “I don’t see any water. They might have trouble.”  

Another chuckle came then. “Sharks… yeah, me and your sharks have a bit of a connection. Heard you’ve got something of the same. But you’re a bit behind, Barbie. See, you’re limited to sharks. Weak power and all. But me? Well…” As he trailed off for a moment, I heard multiple growls coming from every direction. Up and down the hall, animals came into view through the dim light. Wolves (the normal size kind), a couple leopards, some snakes, spiders the size of small dogs, and more all crowded into both ends of the corridor.

“See,” Fahsteth explained over the PA. “I don’t control sharks, little girl. I control predators. Period. So uh, you all have fun with that. I’ll be–oh look, here comes my ride.”

The animals were coming, and the shark-man was about to leave. We didn’t have time for this, we didn’t have time to deal with them. He was going to be gone, and we’d never find him again. If we didn’t stop the son of a bitch now, we’d lose our chance to find out what he knew.

So fuck it. Holding the staff out, I hit the button to call Jaq and Gus out. “Guys,” I announced. “Time to fight.”

Even as the robot mice ran to either end of the staff to convert themselves into the blade and grapple, Seth was already meeting the leap of one of the wolves. He caught it by the throat, shoved the thing back against the wall before driving his blade into its chest, then sliced straight down to literally gut the thing before hurling it into the body of the next one to leap. “Go!” He ordered. “I got this. Just don’t fucking die before I catch up, understand?”  

Shiori, meanwhile, gave a beagle-sized arachnid a hard kick before throwing one of her electrified discs into the face of an approaching cat that was coming from the other side of the hall. “I’ll stay with Seth,” she said, giving me a quick look. “I’ll watch his back, you guys get to Fahsteth.”

“We can’t cut through,” Avalon muttered with obvious frustration, conjuring a couple blades from her gauntlets. “It’ll take too long.”

“Then we don’t go through them,” I replied simply. “We go over them.”

With that, I pointed my staff toward the ceiling and hit the button to trigger the charge that I had been building up in it ever since entering the motel. The kinetic energy erupted from the staff, blowing a hole not just through the ceiling, but through the ceiling above that one too, leaving a clear shot to the third floor.

As dust and debris fell, and Shiori and Seth fought with the animals that Fahsteth had summoned, I held a hand out to Avalon. “Come on!”

She dismissed her blades and stepped close. As the girl wrapped her arms around me tightly, I pointed the staff up once more. The grapple was sent flying upward through the holes before latching into the ceiling of the third floor. Then the two of us were yanked up along the energy-line, hauled away from the horde of animals below as we flew to reach the top floor in a couple seconds.

Dropping off the line and onto the floor, I retracted the grapple before releasing Avalon. My finger found the button to start charging the staff again, just in case. Below, I could hear the fight continue. Outside was much the same. Gabriel, Seth, and Shiori were all buying us time to get to Fahsteth and find out what he knew.

Without even glancing to one another, Avalon and I started to run. There wasn’t time to joke, there wasn’t time to say or do anything other than sprint. We had to stop Fahsteth from leaving. We had to get there in time.

The good news was, it wasn’t hard to figure out which room the shark-mercenary was in. The bad news was, it was a room that was completely covered by steel plates. Fahsteth had welded thick metal sheets over the whole place, clearly prepared for one last stand.

“Fuck, fuck!” I hit the metal, and it dented in a little bit. But not enough. I wouldn’t be able to get through it before it was too late. It would take minutes to break down. Minutes that we didn’t have.

Then I turned. “Wood! Valley, wood!”

She blinked once before thankfully realizing what I was babbling about. “No, no,” she blurted. “You can’t–”

“I’ve got this,” I promised her. “He’s gonna be gone, Valley. He’s gonna leave. We don’t have time! Do it. I’ll stall him until you get through. I’ll be okay. I’ve got this, Valley, I swear. Trust me.”

She still looked horrified by the suggestion, but after a brief second, her hand slapped against the metal, and Avalon used her own power to convert any object into wood. It worked slowly enough that it would take at least a minute to actually turn the entire wall. But within a few seconds, there was a small, palm-sized spot of wood right there in the middle of the hard steel.

It was enough. Reaching out, I put my hand against the wood and then threw myself through it and into the room on the other side.

Popping out, I was just in time to see Fahsteth. The shark-man was on the other side of the room, near the window that had been similarly covered with metal. In front of him, there was a much smaller figure, a man with dark-purple skin and bright red, wild hair. Somewhere in the back of my head, the Heretic-Sense was helpfully letting me know that these two were both Alters, which was clearly the most shocking news of the day. Their hands were touching, and there was a sort-of electric current in the air. Power. The man was summoning power to teleport.

“No!” I shouted, my staff whipping up. I released the power that I’d been charging it up with, and the kinetic blast slammed into the purple figure. He was torn away from Fahsteth at the last possible instant, hitting the far wall hard before collapsing into a heap.

“Like… Avalon said…” I started while the shark-man slowly turned to face me, murder in his eyes.

“We need to talk.”

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Sharkhunt 23-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table.” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “More of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

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Sharkhunt 23-02

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The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”

She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

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