Avalon Sinclaire

Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” Someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone, “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us  would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked what you… inherited?”

The question made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”
“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doxer… was… dead.  

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The Third Degree 21-04

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

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

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

And she… was coming this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something you should probably know about…”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And  get passed all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”

******

“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to say something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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Mini-Interlude 23 – Shiori And Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude detailing the conversation between Shiori and Avalon just after Flick and Avalon kissed for the first time. It takes place shortly before Shiori and Columbus left for Christmas vacation.

“You like Chambers.”

Of all the possible things that Shiori had expected Avalon to say to her when the girl had tracked her down in the room that she shared with Rebecca, that definitely wasn’t one of them. Although maybe it should have been, considering how unsubtle she was pretty sure she’d ended up being.

Her mouth opened to voice… she wasn’t sure. Confusion, maybe. Or denial. But when her eyes found Avalon’s, she saw the serious expression there and the words died in her throat.

Instead, all she actually managed at first was a somewhat weak, “Um.”

Yeah, Shiori, the girl thought to herself, that’ll convince Commander Busty McNinja you don’t have the hots for her roommate. GG.

She wasn’t sure why she’d arbitrarily assigned Avalon a military rank in her own private, internal nickname for the girl. It just… fit.

For her part, the other girl waited few seconds before coughing. She actually looked… nervous? But why? What did she have to be nervous abo–

“I kissed her,” Avalon blurted then, interrupting Shiori’s thoughts. “I kissed Chambers.” For a moment after the words came out of her mouth, the girl looked surprised that she had actually said them. And that itself was kind of surprising, considering how little emotion she tended to show. Hell, even at that point she wasn’t exactly advertising how she felt. The girl was just… slightly more possible to read.

Shiori, on the other hand, was pretty sure that the emotions she felt were written plainly across her face. “I–oh. I mean, you um.”

Flick. The girl that Shiori… she… the girl that had helped her feel sane again for the first time since they arrived at this place. The girl who had convinced Shiori that she wasn’t a monster. The girl who had listened, who actually made her laugh in what had felt like forever. The girl who she… she had desperately wanted to explain her feelings for, but kept chickening out.

And now? Now it was too late.

Her mind immediately tried to flash to anger, but she forced that down. She didn’t own Flick. She hadn’t even really made it clear how she felt about the blonde girl. So all those immediate, reflexively nasty thoughts that popped into her head, well, those could just go away. Avalon didn’t do anything wrong. She didn’t.

No. No. Don’t, Shiori. Don’t do it. Don’t be upset. Don’t think it. Don’t be mad.

Her stomach hurt. Something in her chest felt twisted, and there seemed to be an ache in her lungs every time she took a breath.

Through the hard lump in her throat, Shiori slowly tried talking again. Her voice was too quiet at first, and then she overcompensated, her voice going briefly high-pitched and cracking a little bit. “I understand. I get it. Y-you don’t have to say anything. I’m not gonna–I’m not gonna ruin your… thing. I won’t–”

“Shut up for a second, Porter.” Avalon’s voice was flat. “I didn’t come to threaten you, or warn you away. And I didn’t come to brag either, if that’s what you were thinking.”

Actually, the thought that she had maybe been bragging had immediately leapt to Shiori’s mind. But it had also been tied up in the thought that the girl was trying to warn her away from Flick.

“Then–” She blinked in confusion and uncertainty. Her stomach still hurt, and it was hard to focus. “Why did you–I mean… what….”

Sighing audibly, Avalon folded her arms over her stomach and met Shiori’s gaze. “Like I said, you like Chambers. And I know how I’d feel if… if I found out that you two kissed before she knew how I… felt. If I found out from someone else, I mean.”

Huh. She wasn’t just nervous, Shiori slowly realized. There was that too, of course. But she was also… happy. It was hard to see, considering the way Avalon tended to keep her emotions buttoned up. But in this case, she was obviously a great big bundle of emotions that she was barely keeping a lid on through the thin veneer of her outward appearance.

“You came because you thought someone might have seen you guys kiss and you didn’t want me to hear… rumors about it?” she asked slowly, hugging her own stomach in a vain attempt to make it stop rolling.

“I knew how it would make me feel,” Avalon repeated quietly without looking away. “Because I felt it before.”

Before she could think better of it, Shiori blurted, “You did? Who did–”

“We’re not talking about that.” The other girl’s voice was firm as she interrupted. “We’re just–” She visibly took a breath to calm herself. “I just wanted you to hear it from me, since Chambers already left with Professor Kohaku. I…” She trailed off for a few seconds before pushing on. “Like I said, I didn’t bring it up to hurt you, Porter, or to brag. But I thought you should know.”

Slowly sitting down on her bed beside the bag that she’d been packing, Shiori found herself murmuring, “I was gonna ask her out. I just kept… putting it off. I like her, and I was afraid that…”

“That you’d ruin it by bringing it out in the open.” Avalon grunted the words, pausing briefly before moving to sit on the edge of Rebecca’s desk chair. “I know. That’s why I put it off for so long. Well, part of the reason.”

Trying to force a smile that she didn’t feel, Shiori looked to the other girl. Her rival? That’s how it should’ve been, anyway. It’s how dozens if not hundreds of TV shows had conditioned her to think of Avalon as. And yet… really, all she could think was that as unhappy as she was, she also didn’t want Avalon to be unhappy either.

I want to be with Flick, but I don’t want to take Flick away from Avalon to do it.

The other girl was already talking again. “I like Chambers. I want her to be happy. And I don’t…” She sighed slowly. “I don’t relish the idea of making you unhappy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t… feel that way about–”

“Oh, me neither,” Shiori quickly interrupted with a slight blush while her head shook rapidly. “I mean, you’re–yeah.” Gesturing up and down at the girl’s unbelievably fine figure, she coughed before forcing herself to finish. “You’re great-looking. But you’re not my type.”

“Same to you.” Avalon’s voice was dry again. “But Chambers clearly likes you.”

Despite herself and the entire confusing situation, Shiori felt herself blush. “She–I mean, that doesn’t really matter, does it? I don’t want you to be unhappy either, Avalon. And you… you made a move first. I’m not gonna try to ruin that.”

For a few seconds, Avalon didn’t say anything. She just looked at Shiori and seemed to be debating something inwardly with herself. Finally, she shifted forward in the chair and spoke up. “It doesn’t… have to be a one-or-the-other thing.”

“What…” Shiori squinted, confused. “What does that mean?”

“Heretics aren’t like Bystanders,” the other girl replied. “For a lot of reasons, obviously. But also as far as relationships go. People can date more than one person, even be serious with them. Hell, a lot of them get married to more than one person. Dating multiple people separately when everyone involved knows what’s going on, it’s nothing new.”

Okay, if she’d been blushing before, now Shiori was bright red. “Wh-what?” she stammered while her eyes widened. “How does that work?”

Avalon shrugged. “Like I said, everyone involved understands what’s going on. You can spend time with one friend and then spend other time with a different friend, right? It’s the same thing.”

“It’s really not the same thing,” Shiori pointed out a little weakly. “I… sorry, I just–I don’t know what to say about it. I mean, with most people–I mean Bystanders, that’d be… it’d probably fall apart because someone would get jealous or–or something. Also, everyone would say it was really creepy.”

“Bystanders would say that most things Heretics do are creepy,” Avalon pointed out dryly, a fact that Shiori couldn’t really argue with. “But I didn’t ask their opinion. I’m just saying, it’s not seen as anything that weird here.”

For a few moments, Shiori didn’t say anything. She just sat there on her bed, looking at the floor as she thought that through. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” she finally ventured. “But I want Flick to be happy. And… I like her. You like her. She likes… you.”

“She likes you too,” the other girl insisted. “She likes both of us. That’s why she hasn’t brought it up, because she’s afraid of hurting one of us.”

Sighing, Shiori muttered, “Boy, do I know that feeling.”

Looking up then, she shrugged. “Maybe we should just wait and see how she feels about it?”

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “You really think she’ll talk about it?”

Shiori nodded quickly. “Flick doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Now that you kissed her–I mean–I–umm… “ She cleared her throat. “What I mean is, she’ll bring it up on her own. She’ll talk to us about it, I know she will.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to talk to her about it when you’re there at Christmas?” Avalon was clearly taking care to phrase her question diplomatically.

“No–I mean yes, that’s what it means,” Shiori quickly corrected herself. “I won’t bring it up. I won’t–I mean, I won’t use the whole… time at Christmas to steal her away or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I won’t poison the well, I promise. And when we get back…”

“We’ll all talk about it,” Avalon finished. “Whether she brings it up on her own or not.”

“But we give her the time to bring it up,” Shiori insisted.

They sat there for a few seconds in silence before she snuck a look at the other girl. “When you kissed her, was it–”

“We’re done here.” Avalon’s three words had barely hit the air before she was already at the door, pushing out to the hallway. Pausing there, she looked back a little stiffly. “Have a good vacation, Porter.”

“You–” The door closed, leaving Shiori alone. “–too?”

Falling back onto the bed, she stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, letting everything that had just happened wash over her. A dozen thoughts went through her mind over that time. Some were good, some were bad. But in the end, one thought suddenly took precedence over all of the others, one thought that made her sit up suddenly, eyes widening as the words blurted their way out of her mouth.

“Oh my god, we’re at a magical school and Flick just started a harem.

“This is a fucking anime.”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smiling to myself, I went.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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