Avalon

Interlude 27A – Virginia Dare

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She should have seen it coming. She should’ve been ready for it. Ready for the monster that was puppeting Columbus Porter to make her move.

But she had gotten complacent. In the weeks since they had discovered the truth about the Seosten that was possessing the boy, Virginia Dare had been almost constantly on edge. The thought of letting that creature continue to control any one of her students, let alone one of…

It was almost impossible. She wanted pretty much nothing more than to imprison ‘Columbus’  and use that spell to force that thing out of him.

Over time, however, she had forced herself to settle down somewhat. The fact was, Charmeine had no reason to make any overt moves that would reveal herself. They needed to keep an eye out for other things, but the Seosten woman should have been relatively docile, particularly with Dare sitting practically right on top of her, and another Heretic directly in front of her. She had been very subtle so far, and since she didn’t know that her cover was blown, there should have been no reason for her to expose herself with an open attack.

Except they were wrong. Something had changed. Either the Seosten knew that she had been exposed, or she didn’t care. Either way, she wasn’t being subtle at all anymore. A fact that was driven home with the brutal, sudden murder of Josiah Carfried and ejection of Dare from the car.

Even though she had not been expecting any overt action like that, a direct attack still should have set off at least one of the danger sense powers that Dare had collected over the years.

Which was clearly why the Seosten hadn’t directly attacked her. She had simply turned the car insubstantial around her so that Dare fell out. And with her powers, that wouldn’t have been enough to really hurt her, even if she had been completely asleep.

That was sometimes the danger of mixing certain danger senses with other powers. They worked off of what would actually hurt the person. So if an action wouldn’t hurt them, it didn’t register to the danger sense.

It all happened too quickly, and took the woman too much by surprise for her to activate the power that allowed her to create the time-stop bubble before the cab had disappeared. Not simply ahead into traffic, but disappeared entirely.

“No!” the blonde woman gasped while staring at the spot where the cab had just been. It was only for a brief second before her mind started working again. But that brief second was enough time for her danger sense to actually go off.

She felt it then, the rush of air, the sudden presence of more mass than had been there before, the sound of a fast heartbeat, and more all exposed the presence and exact location of her attacker. She could also hear the whistle of his blade as it cut through the air, and sensed its metal content nearing her neck.

Spinning, Dare caught the hilt of her sword with one hand and gave it a quick toss straight up out of the sheath without holding onto it. At the same time she raised her other hand into position, so that when the enemy’s blade slammed into hers, as it floated in the air from the toss, her sword was knocked backwards into her waiting hand before stopping, her own strength halting the enemy’s sword.

And it was a massive sword indeed, the blade stretching over six feet in length, and as wide as Dare herself was. Her own slight blade and slender form stopping it in mid-swing appeared almost comical, a result only of her enhanced strength and the quality of her weapon.

The figure before her, holding the weapon, was a match for its size. He stood over nine feet tall, with a body that was covered in short, dark, coarse fur. Yet, beneath that fur, she knew that the skin was as hard as solid rock. His face was twisted and leathery, some mixture between a human and a gorilla.

“Kariwase,” Dare announced the figure’s name while their blades remained locked. Her voice was dark. “I don’t have time for you right now.”

Kariwase had been an Iroquois warrior centuries earlier, before his own arrogance had resulted in the death of his entire hunting party, including his young son.

Torn apart by grief, yet still unable to accept his own responsibility and grow from it, the man had sought the help of a witch in order to gain the power to not only kill the man behind the slaughter, but to entirely wipe out their whole tribe, his goal to make it as though they had never existed.

He’d gained the power he needed, becoming a creature known as a Genoskwa, often seen as the larger, much more aggressive cousin of the Sasquatch. And with that power, Kariwase had killed hundreds before a young Dare and her then-mentor, Tiras, had stopped his rampage long enough for a few of the tribe to escape, scattering to the wilds. And from that point on, he had seen the two as his mortal enemies, repeatedly appearing at the most inopportune times.

“Still no papa figure, huh?” he taunted while pulling his sword away from hers. “That’s too bad, I would’ve liked to make the old man swim in your blood and see if he could resist taking a little sip.”

“I dunno,” a new voice spoke as Dare felt, heard, and smelled another arrival. “ I don’t think she’s going to have much blood left when this is over.”

The newcomer stood only slightly taller than Dare herself, and looked fairly normal, all things considered. Except, of course, for his four arms, each of them holding a different weapon. Two held swords, one a hammer, and the fourth held a whip. From experience, Dare knew that the man was scarily proficient with each of them, particularly when using them all together.

“Roscoe,” she almost snarled the name. Another vicious man from her past, this one she had met after arriving in England and being taken by Gaia as an apprentice.

“You two don’t normally work together,” she announced while letting her eyes flickered back-and-forth between them, “which means this isn’t a coincidence.”

She didn’t have time for this. Felicity and Rudolph were in trouble. And Columbus too, if the Seosten was so willing to expose her infiltration of him. And yet, Dare could not simply ignore them. The two were deadly enough separately, let alone together, that the moment she let her guard down to summon a portal or make a call, they would have been all over her.

“Coincidence?” Roscoe echoed, showing her a thin smile beneath his mop of shaggy blonde hair. “No, see… when we heard that you were gonna be out here, all lonely and stuff… well, we had to come keep you company. Just the kind of nice gentleman we are. Ain’t that right, Chewie?”

“Not my name,” the fur covered rock man grunted in his gravelly voice.

Roscoe sighed. “I know it’s not your name. I was… you know, the big furry alien, plus you kind of eat people, so…” he sighed, shaking his head while gesturing toward Dare with one of his weapons. “Never mind, she gets it.”

Using her thumb to flick one of her spell cylinders into place with the switch on the hilt of her sword, Dare spoke flatly. “You need to leave. You have no idea how little time I have for this right now.”

Roscoe mocked her words. “Oh, you don’t have time? Well, I guess we’ll make this quick then, won’t we?”

He suited action to words by jerking his lower right hand up to make the whip lash out. Fortunately, his whip wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as Gaia’s, which Dare had seen extend to the length of a football stadium with a single snap. It was still dangerous, of course, but she had been ready for the move. As the whip lashed out toward her wrist, she triggered the spell that she had readied in her sword’s hilt. A nova cloud of frost expanded out from the sword, catching the incoming whip and freezing it in place.

Spinning simultaneously on one foot, she kicked out with the other, catching Kariwase’s wrist as the big man grabbed for her. She also used it as a boost to push herself into the air, twisting around so that her other foot could kick out and hit the furry rock man in the face. Strong as she was, it was still like kicking a brick wall would have been if she didn’t have any powers. The big guy barely noticed it. Yet it was still enough to knock him back a step and buy her a little space.

Still in the air, she glanced back and pointed one finger at the ground between herself and Roscoe even as he swung that big warhammer of his. A two-foot thick pillar of concrete six feet tall erupted from the ground directly in the weapon’s path.

The concrete itself was no match for the strike. The warhammer pulverized it in that single blow, crashing right through the raised concrete and sending dust and chunks of it flying in every direction.

Good. Dare let the dust and bits fly, as the four-armed man moved through it. Then she used another power to reassemble the pillar, repairing the damage that had been done. Only in doing so, she reassembled it directly around the man himself. Roscoe was effectively trapped in a pillar of concrete that had assembled itself around him.  Which had been the point. She couldn’t trap the man in the pillar like that just by pulling it out of the ground, but she could make him destroy it, and then reassemble it as he moved through the space it was in.

Finally landing on her feet, the blonde woman snapped her small sword up in three quick, successive moves, each catching a powerful swing from Kariwase’s massive blade.

Clang, clang, clang. The sound of the weapons clashing together filled the air, even as Bystander vehicles continue to pull around them. Dare had long since stopped thinking very much about what they might be seeing when things like this happened.

With his free hand, the Genoskwa threw an unbelievably fast punch for someone his size. Dare barely managed to twist her head aside far enough to let the punch sail past her. It struck a nearby parked car, and sent the thing flying sideways a good twenty feet to slam into a building.

Before the man could pull his arm back, she flicked the cylinder in her sword over to a new spell, and triggered it. As she did so, her blade turned red hot. She snapped it up, slicing clean through the rock man’s arm at the elbow.

Kariwase gave a loud, terrible bellow at that, reeling backward as the stump of his arm bled profusely.

Blinded by outrage, the big guy took a wild swing with his sword, cleaving through the air like a small airplane wing. but Dare was ready for that. Giving a little hop, she landed on the flat of the wildly swinging sword, and let the motion carry her up into the air, where she did a quick little flip over the man’s head, turning as she landed behind him to put her still heat-enchanted blade through his back. His terrible scream proved that she had hit something important.

But not quite important enough to put him down. The furry rock man spun around, his quick motion snapping the sword out of Dare’s hand, leaving it embedded in his back. In mid-spin, he lashed out with a backhand from his remaining arm that nearly took her in the face. It did, in fact, go right through her head. Fortunately, she had already used her power to turn her body into an insubstantial smoke-like form, making his massive fist pass right through her harmlessly. A single word activated one of the spells on her glove, summoning the sword from its place in the rock man’s back to her hand once more.

By that point, Roscoe had extricated himself from his concrete prison, and was coming up on her from behind as she reformed. As one of his swords drove for her back, Dare pivoted on one foot, parrying the blade aside with her own with a diagonal upward snap of her wrist. In the same motion, she continued her spin, adding a little hop to plant her foot against the man’s upper right arm as he swung at her with his other sword, knocking it out of the way. A slight lessening of gravity allowed her to stay up just long enough to invert herself, planting her other foot into the man’s face with enough force to break his nose, and send him stumbling backward.

Using the force from her kick to the man’s face, Dare pushed off to propel herself the other way, even as Kariwase came charging right in. He had already regenerated the arm that she had cut off, aptly demonstrating just why it was so hard to fully kill the monster.

Still, Dare didn’t mind giving it the old college try. Or she wouldn’t have, if she wasn’t in such a hurry.  As it was, she didn’t have time to waste. All she could do was make sure that the two were down long enough that they could not follow her easily.

To that end, she allowed her brief flight to take her within a hair’s breadth of the rock man’s furry fist. Catching his extended arm at the elbow before she would have passed by him, Dare used her momentum to flip herself up and around, wrapping one leg around the furry monster’s neck, and twisted to take him all the way to the ground. As he collided with the ground in a mighty, thunder-like crash, she caught the back of his furry head and slammed it even harder down into the concrete with enough force to break through, leaving a hole there.

Before the Genoskwa could recover, Dare inverted her grip on her sword, driving the blade straight down into the cement beside him. It would take far more than a single blade to the head to actually kill the monster, but she could make sure that he was too occupied to follow her.

A flick of her finger activated another one of the spell canisters in her sword. This one created a light blue, semi-translucent bubble around the area that the sword had struck. In this case, it enveloped the fallen man.  As Dare threw herself up and off of him, his head rose up, then slammed it down into the concrete once more, seemingly of its own devotion. This repeated again, and then again. Thanks to the bubble that she had trapped him in, his body would continue to repeat its last action until the spell wore off in about ten minutes, or until someone pushed him out of it.

With Kariwase out of the way, Dare could turn her full attention to Roscoe. The four-armed man was already coming at her, while starting to bring that mighty warhammer of his up for a swing. Even as he started to swing it up into position to however, Dare made a quick gesture toward it, lessening the gravity right where the man was swinging. The strength of Roscoe’s swing, once just enough to haul the heavy hammer up into position, was abruptly far too much. The weapon weighed barely a tenth what it once had, making his swing turn wild, as the weapon actually flew out of his hand and arced away.

The blonde woman took advantage of his brief disorientation, launching herself off the ground while snatching her sword up. Even as he snapped his gaze back to her, her foot collided with his stomach, doubling the man over. Pivoting and ducking under the wild, blind swing of his sword, Dare put herself behind him before spinning up into a roundhouse kick that took him in the center of his back. The blow knocked the man forward and down.

Before he could rise, Dare extended her free hand and made a pulling gesture. As she did so, a nearby parked car was yanked over, sliding into place directly over the man. Another quick, simple gesture collapsed the car against the ground with the screaming noise of protesting metal as it was bent and broken, pinning Roscoe there.

Before the man could push the hunk of collapsed metal off of himself, Dare was already there. She slapped her blade against both the concrete and the remains of the car while expending one more spell canister. As she did so, the modified repair spell fused the metal and the pavement together, trapping Roscoe between them for the time being.

Turning, Dare closed her eyes briefly to focus on her own telepathy. Gaia, she sent, Felicity and Rudolph are in trouble. The Seosten made their move. She paused briefly before adding in a slightly subdued tone, Josiah is dead.

I know, the tense reply came. I did not wish to distract you while you were occupied. But the Seosten have done a lot more than take Felicity and Rudolph.

Dare’s head snapped up at that. What? What happened? What’s going on?

It seems, Gaia answered, that a sizable force has descended upon the city. They’ve attacked half a dozen Minutemen outposts and have killed several Heretics already. She paused then before adding, Deveron and Marina were attacked as well. they are dealing with the situation, but it will take time.

Distraction, Dare knew. It’s all a distraction, they’re trying to keep us away from what’s really going on. What about Wyatt, his security measures?

The answer came shortly, and did not make her feel any better.  The spells that he has placed on Felicity have somehow been blocked. Wyatt believes that he can break through it, but it will take time.

We don’t have time, Dare retorted. What about Avalon’s? Are you with her now?

If possible, Gaia’s response was even more tense. No, I find myself also distracted. A spell has been triggered here at the school. If left unchecked, it will engulf the entire island within a soul blaze.

A soul blaze, Dare knew, was magical ghost-like fire that could not be put out by any conventional means. A single touch from one of the flames could incinerate even the strongest metal to ashes.

Distractions upon distractions. The Seosten were making absolutely certain that they had time to complete their objective.

Where is Avalon? She asked finally. I’ll get to her.

At the hotel, the tense answer came. Virginia, if they have poured this much effort into their attack this time, and are willing to go this far…

I’ll get to her, Dare promised before cutting off their connection.

She had just taken a step when an alert from her danger sense made the woman quickly dodge to the side, just as a bullet went whizzing past the space where her head had been. Snapping her head up, she saw what looked like a grown humanoid lizard in a old-fashioned cowboy outfit. He was holding a glowing revolver. Spedis, another old enemy. And he wasn’t alone, the road ahead of Dare was populated by another half dozen enemies. Enemies that she had made over the centuries, all of whom have been pulled together to stop her, or at least slow her down.

The words escaped Dare in a snarl, even as her form began to grow and shift. “I do not have time for this.”

She grew quickly. Whereas centuries before, the woman’s mastery of her original gift had only permitted her to become a regular sized wolf, things were different now. Within moments, the slender blond woman had been replaced by an enormous, bus-sized wolf, the full power of her Amarok blood.

As the group that had been assembled to stop her took a collective step back, Dare lunged.

*******

She arrived at the base of the hotel just in time to see two figures in the air above the street. Felicity and another. From the girl’s description, Dare knew that it had to be Charmeine.

And Felicity’s staff was currently embedded through the woman’s chest. As Dare watched, shifting back into her normal form, the blonde girl jerked the weapon up through the Seosten’s head.  And a second later, Roxanne appeared on her flying board, catching Felicity while she was caught up in the pleasure from the kill.

Unfortunately, just as relief and joy flooded Dare at the death of the Seosten, a very different glow interrupted the one from Felicity’s aura.

A shout formed itself on the woman’s lips, whether it was a warning, a promise, or anything else, she didn’t know. But it didn’t matter, because before a sound could leave her lips, the light exploded outward, and the girls were gone.

A terrible, soul crushing scream filled the air. For a half second, Dare thought that it was her own. But as she raised her gaze, she saw Avalon standing in the remains of the window on the fourth floor.

Her scream continued.

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Shiori and Avalon telling Choo a story. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Wow, those little guys are warming up to you pretty fast, huh?”

It was late in the evening, the same day that I’d had the little… discussion with the twins earlier. Sean and I were in one of the magic-practice rooms with its sturdy walls and cement floor, ostensibly working on one of the spells that Professor Carfried had assigned for homework.

Turning my head, I looked at the object (or rather, objects) of Sean’s attention. Jaq and Gus, my two little mice cyberforms, were perched on my arm as it was stretched out to my side. The pair were eating a couple of metal bolts that I had painted yellow. Did their metal have to be painted to look like cheese? Of course not. Did I do it anyway just because I felt like it? Of course I did.  

“We’re getting there,” I replied easily, feeling a smile tug at my face as I watched the two of them happily munch at the metal. Apparently while they didn’t need as much of it as Vulcan did in order to make all those bullets he used, the mice did transform some of the metal they ate into various materials that were used to maintain their bodies. Especially since they were slightly larger when they transformed into weapons than they were in their regular forms, a fact that always confused me about where the extra mass was coming from. But then again, it’s not like ‘larger on the inside than the outside’ was exactly unusual when it came to Heretic creations.  

“I dunno how much of it is the whole ‘cyberform bonding with the owner’ thing and how much is my natural charm,” I teased with a roll of my eyes, “but they’ve sure been warming up to me.”

Winking, Sean chuckled. “With your charm, I’d say it’s at least half and half there, Flickster.”

Moving my other hand over to scratch under Jaq’s chin, I nodded to the corner of the room where Vulcan sat happily playing with a heavy metal ball in his teeth. “Then you must be pretty charming yourself, considering how well you and your partner there get along.”

“Actually,” the Hispanic boy replied with a straight face, “in that case, it’s mostly his charm.”

Despite myself and the actual seriousness of the situation, I snickered. Then I took a little breath before turning a bit to extend the arm with the mice on it toward him. “You wanna give the little guys a scratch? Actually, did you ever figure out why metal animals could possibly enjoy that?”

Sean shook his head while reaching out to scratch Gus on the back of the little guy’s head. “Nope,” he replied easily. “I’m guessing it’s programming or something. You know, to help bond them and make ‘em seem more real. You know, like how we’re more likely to take care of them and treat the little guys like real animals if they act like real animals instead of like machines.”

Nodding slowly, I bit my lip before straightening a little, forcing my voice to remain as casual as possible. “Hey, at least I finally got to join the ‘animal companion’ club, huh?” Raising my other hand, I gestured for him to high-five it. “Is there a secret handshake or a password or anything?”

Sean grinned, head shaking. “Nope, but there should be. We should get with Aylen and Tristan and see what we can do about that.” As he spoke, the boy slapped his hand against mine.

I waited for a moment, while Sean returned his attention to the mice. He said something else then, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear it. I was too busy focusing on whether I could see anyone possessing him after that contact. Nothing. It was just Sean. He was clear. With a long, exhaled breath, I interrupted his words to abruptly announce, “Jelly beans on toast.”

“Uh.” The boy blinked at me. “Flick, you’ve got really weird taste in snacks, if you think tha-”

That was as far as he got before Gus and Jaq jumped off my arm. As they landed on the floor, two figures literally popped out of the mice to appear standing beside me and in front of Sean.

It was Sands and Avalon. Both of them had gained the ability to possess small objects back when we fought the skeleblineists on the cruise ship. It was the same fight where I’d gained my item-sense power, which also happened to be a power that Sean had gotten. Yeah, he had the ability to sense items within a certain distance of himself. That had made it a little more difficult to plan out an ambush in case things had gone wrong when I checked him. But in the end, having Avalon and Sands use their own powers to simply possess Gus and Jaq had worked out.

Sean, for his part, yelped, stumbling back at their sudden appearance, his eyes widening before he managed to get himself under control. “What th–uh, okay, if you guys were trying to throw me a surprise birthday party, you’re off by about a month. Also, I don’t see a cake. Or presents.”

Vulcan gave a ruff of agreement with that, having popped up out of the corner to come sniffing Avalon and Sands curiously. He happily accepted a vigorous scratch under the chin as soon as he’d contented himself that their arrival didn’t herald any kind of immediate threat.

“It’s not a party,” I informed them before looking to the other two. “It’s clear. Scout on her way?”

Before they could answer, I felt the arrival of the girl in question on the other side of the door. She was still holding her gun in one hand. Even as my item-sense picked her up, I saw Sean turn that way. He’d sensed her too. Without another word, I stepped over and opened the door.

Scout stepped in, moving over to hug Sean quickly. She embraced him tightly, and he returned it despite having no idea what was going on. “Uhh,” the boy drawled, “anyone wanna clue me in?”

Raising my shoulder in a little shrug, I answered, “Well, Sands and Avalon were possessing my little friends here, and Scout was using the portal-scope on her gun to watch every move you made. No offense, it was just in case you were possessed and figured out that I was testing you to find out if you were. I mean, if you were possessed and didn’t figure out what I was doing, they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. It was just in case things went totally tits-up wrong.”

Sean’s eyes had widened with each word I spoke, his mouth working noticeably. “… In case I was possessed? Testing me? What–okay, why do I get the sudden feeling that this whole Seosten thing got some kind of violent kick into serious while I wasn’t paying attention?”  

Sands, standing on the other side of the room, folded her arms over her stomach while muttering, “Hopefully your dad is still a good guy by the time this whole thing is over.”

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I took a breath before looking back to Sean. “I’ll explain.

“But by the time I’m done, you’re probably gonna wish we’d brought some chairs in here so you could sit down.”

******

“I’m glad you’re taking your extra training seriously, Felicity,” Professor Dare announced later that evening after stepping into Gaia’s office with me. “But I hope you’re enjoying yourself too. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Sure,” I replied, “But my name isn’t Jack, so we’re cool.”

Gaia, who had been standing over by her assortment of windows that each showed a different view of various parts of the world, turned toward us with a slight smile. “I believe that Felicity sees some of the training that she does with Avalon as recreation.” Pausing then, she added with a raised eyebrow, “Or at least, flirting?”

My face burned a little as I shrugged and muttered something about having plenty of fun with everyone on my team. It didn’t make any sense, but hey, at least I was saying something.

Thankfully, Dare saved me after chuckling a little bit. “She tells me that you’d like a little extra assistance with her lessons tonight.”

“Yes.” Gaia nodded, stepping away from the windows to approach. “I was hoping that you would help me demonstrate the Fascination spell.”

“The Fascination spell?” Dare echoed before nodding. “Yes, I can see her finding that useful.” Seeing my blank look when she glanced to me, she explained, “When the Fascination spell is performed properly, anyone who sees the item enchanted with it will believe that they are seeing an object that they truly, desperately desire. They’ll become obsessed with getting it, foregoing any other action they may have been taking. Its effects only last a short time, particularly with the strong-willed. But even buying a few seconds can be extremely beneficial.”

Gaia nodded once, stopping by us. “Indeed. I believe it would be a useful tool for Felicity to possess. And the more tools she possesses…”

“The better off I am,” I finished.

“And you need me to help Felicity with the spell,” Dare murmured, “Because if the other person knows exactly when it’s coming, it doesn’t work very well.”

“Precisely,” Gaia agreed. “I’m sorry to bring you in simply to be a guinea pig, but–”

Dare interrupted. “It’s alright. Felicity needs all the help she can get.” She raised a hand before settling it on my arm. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”

Slowly, I looked over at her, praying silently. Please, please don’t be…

It wasn’t. Looking at Professor Dare, all I could see was Professor Dare. She wasn’t possessed. She wasn’t possessed.

“It’s okay,” I spoke aloud. No secret codes this time, not with Gaia right there. “She’s clear.”

“Clear?” Professor Dare raised an eyebrow, slowly lifting her hand. “Why do I think this is about more than a spell lesson?”

“You are correct,” Gaia confirmed. “It is about more than a lesson.

“Much more.”

 ******

The next morning, bright and early, I was down on the beach once more, trading blows back and forth with Deveron. I was using my staff while he used an extra one borrowed from one of the school weapons lockers. Back and forth we went, sparring in the early morning light as it came up over the ocean. I was sweating profusely from the effort, and my arms were sore from the repetitive impacts even with my enhanced strength. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting tired.

Deveron, who was obviously still taking it easy on me despite the effort I was putting into it just to keep up with him in ‘easy mode’, casually flicked my staff out of the way before giving me a sharp poke in the shoulder that knocked me back a step. “You sure you’re focusing on this?” he asked while smoothly stepping back to easily avoid my counter-swing. “You seem distracted.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated. This part wasn’t hard to fake. The hesitation, emotion behind it, and all of that was real. “I…” Sighing, I shook my head and looked away. “I’m sorry. I just… my dad, I don’t know what–” Swallowing hard, I lowered the staff. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

For a moment, Deveron stood there. Then he lowered his own staff and stepped that way. “Hey, he’ll be okay. Trust me, Heretic or not, Jos picked tough guys. Your dad’s gonna be just fine, alright?” As he spoke, Deveron reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

I turned my head at that, looking straight at him for a moment as he stood there with his hand on my shoulder. For a couple seconds, I looked at him like that, taking in the sight until I was sure.

“Chocolate corn on the cob,” I abruptly announced, giving him a smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

He blinked at that. “A passcode? But what were yo–” In mid-sentence, Deveron spun, pivoting on one heel to face the figure that had just appeared out of thin air directly behind him.

“Yes,” Professor Dare agreed, sheathing her sword. “I am glad that it wasn’t you as well, Mr. Adams.”

Of course I’d needed slightly stronger back-up while checking Deveron for possession. The rest of my team was great and all, but he was still technically a grown Heretic, with all that training and power. Hence Professor Dare’s presence. We figured that she could counter anything Deveron could do, at least long enough for Gaia to involve herself in the situation.  

To his credit, Deveron looked at Dare, then back to me. He took about two seconds to think about it before his eyebrow raised. “How’d you find a way to test for Seosten possession? Even Prosser can’t do that without drawing that rune thing first. And you didn’t draw anything on me.”

Chuckling despite myself, I admitted, “It’s a long story. I’ve kind of been leaving out some stuff that’s been going on for… awhile. But I can tell you about it now that we um, now that we know.”

“Now that you know I’m not possessed?” Deveron glanced back to Dare briefly before nodding. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I really want to hear this story now. But is it safe to talk right here?”

“It’s safe,” Dare confirmed. “Trust me, we weren’t going to let anyone see what happened here if you’d been possessed and noticed what Felicity was doing. No one’s going to overhear.”

I still wasn’t sure what the woman had actually done to assure that, considering we were standing out on the open beach. But I was willing to take her word for it. So, with a sigh, I plopped myself down and looked out at the ocean before starting to tell the story once again.

I really was glad that Deveron wasn’t possessed, even if at the beginning of the year, I would’ve prayed that it was him. But on the other hand, that cleared Sands, Scout, Sean, and Deveron.

We were quickly running out of possibilities for the Seosten to be possessing…

******

“I should be the one to do this,” Shiori announced later that afternoon. “I should check him.”

Wincing a little, I looked over at the other girl as the two of us sat in the rec room near one of the televisions. Deveron and Avalon were waiting by the door, speaking quietly while some other students played at the pool table on the other side of the room, and a couple more remained intent on their chess match in the corner. There was a low buzz of conversation, most of which coming from the group playing or watching pool. But still, we were using the privacy coins.

Even then, I kept my voice down, murmuring, “Sorry, Shy. You know why you can’t be the one.”

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl while her head gave a short nod. “I know, I know. I’ll react to it too much, you have the face-shifting power, so on and so on. But he’s my brother, Flick.”

“He is,” I agreed, putting a hand on her arm. “That’s why you can’t be the one to check him.” We were running out of options for who Charmeine might be possessing, which meant that Shiori was getting nervous about Columbus. Hopefully, this would clear him so she could calm down.

We really needed to identify the Seosten as soon as possible. Every time we tested someone and they came up clean, it was both a relief and even more stress. Because while it meant that the person we’d tested wasn’t possessed, it also narrowed the possibilities, which somehow made things even worse.

Not to mention the fact that I still had no idea why I was immune to being possessed. All I knew for sure was that I was immune. Enguerrand had confirmed that much. He couldn’t tell me why I was immune, however, just that I was. He’d tried to possess me and couldn’t do it.

“Porter.” That was Avalon, she had moved over behind the couch, her voice low. “He’s on his way. We need to go. It can’t look like any kind of set-up.” As she spoke, the other girl nodded over her shoulder toward the door where Deveron was already watching the corridor.

Sighing once more, Shiori straightened up while looking at me. “You’ve still got the pin, right?”

I nodded, patting my uniform jacket where one of the communication pins was hidden. “Yup. As soon as you hear me say ‘Caramel Camelot’, that means it’s all good. But you’ve gotta go now.”

“We’ll be right up on the roof,” Avalon assured me. “If anything goes wrong… we’ll come in.”

She and Shiori joined Deveron to head up that way, where Sean, Sands, and Scout were already waiting. Which left me sitting in front of the television when Columbus made his way in.

“There you are,” I announced, squinting pointedly at the boy as I stood and turned to face him. “I was starting to think I was gonna have to try to figure this whole thing out without any help.”

In my ear, (which, thanks to the communication pin would be completely silent for Columbus), I heard Avalon’s voice. “We have eyes on you through Scout’s scope-portal, Chambers.”

“Sorry,” Columbus himself was saying. “Had some stuff to finish up. But seriously, you really think a list of what Shiori likes is gonna help you when Valentine’s Day comes around? You already know what she likes. Hell, one of the things she likes is you. You could just put a big bow on your head and–” He stopped, coughing. “Never mind. Just–never mind. I was trying to go somewhere cute with that and it took a weird turn into some… yeah, let’s move on, huh?”

“Yes, please.” I gave a quick, vigorous nod. “We’re moving on. And you’ve been her brother for years. So you know her even better than I do. I just figured if you made up a list of everything Shiori likes that you could possibly think of, I might see something that’d give me a good idea.”

Raising an eyebrow, Columbus shrugged. “Right, well, I dunno how much good it’ll do, but I got the list.” He reached into his pocket then, digging it out. “Put down everything I could think of.”

He extended his hand with the list. Which meant it was time. Turning slightly to glance at the pool table while reaching out as though to grab the list, I started, “You know, at some point we’re gonna have to get some practice in over there. Cyclops is supposed to be really good at pool.”

Using that bit of looking the other way as an excuse, I made sure my hand overshot the offered scrap of paper by just a little bit. Just enough that my fingers brushed the boy’s wrist as I turned back to finish taking it from him.

I had gained several incredibly useful powers over the past few months, most of which had saved my life in one way or another. But I was pretty sure that none of them had done as much to keep me alive as my face-shifting power did in that moment. I was already using it, just as I’d used it every other time we checked people for possession. Which meant that my face gave absolutely no reaction when I touched Columbus. There was no twitch, I didn’t suddenly turn pale, my eyes didn’t widen or betray any kind of fear or surprise. It stayed completely the same.

Which was good, because when I turned back to look at Columbus while taking the paper… I saw her. The dark-skinned woman with the pale hair. She was there, super-imposed over his body as my view flicked back and forth between them a few times.

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

The Seosten was possessing Columbus. It was him. It was her. It was her. Oh god. Oh god, no. No, why? Why did it have to–why did they–how long did–no, no, no…

“Chambers, you touched him,” Avalon’s voice came then. “Are we good?”

Columbus… Charmeine was gesturing with Columbus’s arm. “Yeah, we could get on that sometime. So, you need anything else?”

“Flick.” It was Shiori’s voice. Shiori… Shiori talking through the pin. “Flick, say it. Caramel Camelot. Say it, Flick. Say Caramel Camelot. Flick, say it. Please. Please, Flick. Please, say it. Flick, please. Please. Say Caramel Camelot….”

“Flick?” Columbus-Charmeine prompted. “I said, do you need anything else?”

“Say it, Flick, please,” Shiori’s voice prompted desperately, clearly barely hanging on to her last hope.

“…. No.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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Please note that there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday. If you missed it, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Those last words had barely left my mouth before I abruptly found myself standing in a different position without any warning whatsoever. I had been by the door with my hand on it. Now, I was suddenly standing next to Avalon with my hand on her back instead of the door. Professor Dare, meanwhile, was standing where I had just been, with the door open in her hand.  

An instant after that, and the small lobby area was suddenly filled with several more people. I saw a handful of adult Heretics, accompanied by that Spanish woman from the Committee, Elisabet. All of them had their weapons drawn. In the counselor’s case, she held a what looked like a combination of a pistol crossbow and a sawed-off shotgun, with the dual barrels for the gun mounted below the crossbow part. Neither she, nor the other Heretics with her, looked happy.  

“Your response time is admirable.” That was Gaia, her voice cool as she regarded them, not even so much as twitching at the Heretic’s abrupt arrival. “But your locking spells could use some work.”

Dare gave a single, faux-casual nod while drumming her fingers lightly along the door that she was holding. “It didn’t take much effort to break the door security. Barely even knew it was there.”

“You?” Elisabet’s eyebrow raised as she looked at Dare with an expression that I couldn’t read. “You broke the security seal instead of simply using the passcode? Why would you do that?”

My brain caught up with what was going on then. Professor Dare and Gaia were covering for me. If the Committee found out that I had this security-breaking power, they’d be even more suspicious than they already were. Hell, they’d probably haul me back in for a much more intense round of questions, Gaia or no Gaia. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen to ‘but I just got it and didn’t even know about it.’ So Dare had thought quickly enough to swap places with me. Or Gaia swapped us, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, they made sure she was the one at the door.

“Why?” Dare echoed, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “It was a teaching moment. We wanted the girls to see how fast your response time is. As the headmistress said, pretty good. But we were expecting it to be harder to break the seal. Whoever cast it might want to work on that a bit.”

From the look on Elisabet’s face, she wasn’t very happy about their security being questioned. Her voice was tight. “As you well-know, the locking magic used for those inside the building is relatively minor. It’s only meant to keep people from accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t be. And I wouldn’t call breaking a Committee-ordered security enchantment a ‘learning experience.’”

“I don’t know,” Dare replied easily before nodding toward Avalon and me. “Would you say you learned something here, girls?” When we both nodded, she smiled faintly. “There you go.”

Elisabet turned to say something quietly to the men who had teleported in with her. They gave us a searching look for a moment before turning to leave while holstering their weapons once more. Then the woman stepped over and said something to Gaia. I heard the word ‘false alarm’ before she gave the rest of us a look that promised a lot more problems if we set off another security alert before spinning on her heel. She took two steps before vanishing from sight in mid-motion.

I wanted to say something, but after seeing that I waited until we were all the way out of the building and a decent distance away from it (past the security line) before speaking up. “Is it safe?”

Rather than using a coin or even Dare’s music box, Gaia just made a simple hand gesture, and I felt a popping in my ears before she nodded. “We may speak freely now. No one will overhear.”

“I’m sorry,”  I started weakly. “I didn’t know that was gonna happen. If…” I paused, swallowing a bit, “If they figured out that I was the one who broke that seal, it wouldn’t be good, would it?”

It was Gaia who spoke. “No,” she answered calmly. “They would probably not react very well.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dare added while giving me a brief, reassuring look. “Sometimes it takes awhile for powers to show themselves. Especially if they’re not very obvious. And, of course, when you get several that…” she paused, grimacing before finishing with a soft, “… quickly.”  

Flinching despite myself, I nodded slowly before looking back at the bag that held Doxer’s mice. “And sometimes we inherit things other than powers,” I murmured under my breath. Hearing a slight squeak inside, I opened it up once more. The mice were still huddled there, practically clutching each other as they stared at me with what looked like genuine terror on their little faces.

Wincing at the sight, I glanced up. “Oh. Um… I think I need to spend a little time with these guys.”

“It might have to wait,” Avalon muttered. “We have company, and I don’t think they’ll leave again.”

Looking the way she was, I saw the rest of the team coming from across the field.. And from the look of things, I was pretty sure Avalon was right about them not waiting around anymore. They were going to want to talk about what happened, both during the hunt and with the Committee.

“Okay, guys,” I murmured, looking back down at the bag briefly. “We’re gonna go meet some friends, all right? I’ll introduce you to Vulcan, and you can all talk about how I’m not a monster.”

“Just spend time with them,” Gaia encouraged quietly. “It takes some time for cyberforms to bond to their Heretics. Particularly after the old bond is severed so abruptly. But it will happen.”   

By that point, the others had arrived. Sands moved right up to me, looked simultaneously abashed and nervous as she kicked the ground. “Hey, uh, Flick. About earlier, I didn’t–” She flinched noticeably. “I didn’t think about what happened, what you had to do. I was just–I guess I didn’t–”

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, giving the other girl a slight smile. “I get it. Trust me, I get it. You don’t have to apologize. You were just… excited.” My hand went up to grab hers, even as I told myself that I could be touching a Seosten-spy right then. “Besides, at least he won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her head bobbed up and down, sending her brown braid bouncing. “Yeah, sure. No more victims for that asshole.” Shrugging then, she added thoughtfully, “Too bad Trice got away. But hey, Garden can’t ignore what he did anymore, right? Maybe they’ll do something about it.”

It was a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the year who had insisted that Eden’s Garden were all psychopaths. At least she thought it was possible that they’d step in on the Trice issue.  

Gaia, however, shook her head. “Unfortunately, it seems that Trice has fled even his own people. Possibly to escape judgment or other fallout from the results of this attack. Or,” she added while sounding thoughtful, “perhaps he feared retaliation from his accomplices for the failure.”

I was pretty sure that she’d said it that way just to see if there was even the slightest reaction from Sands, Scout, Sean, Columbus, or even Professor Dare. But if there was, I didn’t see any. Which made sense. A probably-millennia-old Seosten infiltrator wasn’t going to be tripped up by showing any reaction to that. Or maybe they weren’t even here. Maybe they were in Deveron, or Koren, or… yeah, whatever happened, we had to get that choker from Pace. This paranoia thing sucked.

“Figures,” Sean muttered with obvious annoyance. “The hijueputa runs away like a coward.”

Columbus shook his head. “He can’t hide forever. Someone’ll find him, right? I mean, even Eden’s Garden’s gotta want to talk to him about all this. And there’s gonna be Crossroads Heretics looking for him.” He glanced toward Gaia then. “Right? They can’t just let him walk away from it.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed simply. “He will be found. And when he is, I’m sure that there will be many questions he will be made to answer. But for now, I suggest you all try to get some rest.”

“Some rest?” Sands sounded absolutely incredulous at that. “Are you kidding me? We’ve still gotta hear about what happened. You guys need to tell us everything, everything.” Pausing then, she added with a gesture toward the bag in my hand. “Starting with, what’s in there?”

“In here?” I echoed, lifting the bag thoughtfully. “… I guess they’re a couple new friends.

“And I’m gonna have to talk to Nevada, because I’m pretty sure I know just what to do with them.”

******

“I hate this, Flick,” Shiori announced a few days later as the two of us walked along the beach on our way back from feeding Choo. He actually spent a decent amount of time in the container that the other girl had had made for him, but we still had to take him off the school grounds to be fed, since opening the container on the grounds would’ve meant setting off the security alerts. And call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to risk doing something like that again after that bit with Elisabet.

Besides, he still spent plenty of time out there in the special area we’d set aside for him. Shiori didn’t want the little guy to be trapped in what was essentially a cage constantly, even if it was a lot bigger on the inside than it should’ve been. Though from what I’d heard her talking with Avalon about, the two had a plan to make the whole thing better that would be interesting if it worked.

The other girl continued, head shaking. “I hate not talking to Columbus about all this stuff. He’s … he’s my brother. But I can’t even–I can’t trust him. What if he’s–” She stopped, making a face while putting an arm against her stomach. “What if he’s one of them? What if he’s possessed?” Even though we were both out on the beach and using a privacy coin (as was pretty much usual by that point), she still kept her voice quiet.

Wincing, I reached out to catch her hand, turning the girl around to face me. “Hey, I know. I know it sucks. Trust me, it…” Trailing off, I gave a soft sigh before interlacing our fingers. “It won’t be long, okay? We already heard from Roxa and the others. They’ve got an idea of where Pace’s pack is gonna be in about a month. Between them, Wonderland, and the rest of us, we’ve gotta be able to get that necklace away from her. After that, we just have to use it to find the Seosten.”

“A month.” Shiori’s voice was weak. “I…” She hesitated before straightening, giving me a nod that was a little more firm. “I know. I know. It’s the only way. I just… I just wish we didn’t have to wait that long. I wish there was some way to find out for sure right now, just to know. I hate looking at Columbus and not… and not knowing if it’s him looking back, Flick. I hate it so much.”   

God. Just standing there like that, I wanted to make it better. I wanted so badly to just wave a magic wand and solve the problem for her. I wanted to tell Shiori that she could trust her brother, that he really was her brother. I wanted to fix everything for her. And I never, ever wanted to see her look at me with that pleading, puppy-dog expression and not be able to do anything about it.

Instead, all I could do was embrace the girl. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I swear, we’ll fix it as soon as we can. We’ll find out who the spy is and get rid of them. Whether it’s Columbus or anyone else, we’ll get them back, okay?” I leaned back, staring at her. “I promise, we’ll find out the truth.”

Shiori watched me for a moment like that as we stood on the edge of the water, with the sun just starting to set across the horizon. The way the light made her face glow a little bit was mesmerizing, and I found myself lost in her gaze, unwilling and unable to break the comfortable silence. Because in that moment, we were communicating plenty without saying a single word.

Eventually, Shiori lifted her hand to gently touch my face. “Flick,” she whispered, her voice barely audible against the sound of the waves lapping against the sand. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times, as if she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the right words. In the end, she found another way of expressing what she felt. Leaning over, the other girl gently touched her lips to mine, giving me a soft, exquisite kiss. It felt different than kissing Avalon, yet somehow just as powerful. And just like those times, it took my breath away.

After what was entirely too brief of a time like that, the girl pulled back to blush, shifting on her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled adorably without looking at me. “I just–I really wanted to–It felt like-”

“Well see,” I interrupted before she could continue, “now I’m really in a predicament.”

Shiori blinked at me a couple times as she brought herself under control. “In a predicament?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, see… now I can’t figure out if I want to kiss you again, or just listen to you babble some more. Gotta tell ya, I’m leaning toward the babbling. It’s really sweet.”

She flushed even more at that, but before she could actually say anything, I leaned in to touch my lips to hers, giving a little smile at the sound of her gasp. “Then again, kissing’s really good too.”

A tiny whimper escaped the other girl before her arms snaked their way around me once more. I felt her nod almost imperceptibly, our lips still close to one another. “Uh huh,” she whispered. “Really good.”

We stayed like that for a minute, leaning against each other while collecting ourselves. It felt good, just standing there with Shiori. Eventually, however, she pulled back and cleared her throat.

“I guess we need that month anyway, since we still have to learn that spell from Prosser.”

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, yeah, he promised to set up some sessions for that. Knowing which of our friends is possessed isn’t helpful unless we know how to kick the bitch out of their body. We learn the anti-possession spell, then find out who she’s possessing, and kick her ass out of them.”

“And then kick her ass in general,” Shiori added firmly.

I nodded, smiling slightly. “And then kick her ass in general.”

Squeezing my hand, the other girl asked, “Um, what about Trice? Has he…”

My head shook. “He hasn’t said much of anything, really. Gaia says we just have to give him time to stew on everything. She keeps talking about having patience. Which I guess at this point means leaving him in the cell and not talking to him for a few days. She’s making sure he gets fed and whatever else, but other than that, he’s pretty much left on his own. Solitary confinement and all that.”

Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before asking, “And Fahsteth? What about that other meeting, the one that the Seosten heard about?”

“They’re rescheduling,” I answered with a grimace. “I’m not sure when, exactly. But sooner than before, hopefully. We’ve gotta get to him before the Seosten do. But when we do, we’ll keep quiet about it. Like the Trice thing. We’ll keep it quiet until the meeting was supposed to happen. Then see if any of our new friends show up. You know, counter-ambush style.”  

Shiori nodded, smiling at me in that familiar way. “I guess, if nothing else, the guy makes good shark-bait.”

Before I could respond to that with more than a snicker, the approach of someone else drew my attention. Seeing Nevada walking down the beach, I quickly disabled the coin and cleared my throat. “Oh, hey, Nevada.” Jeez, it still felt weird to call someone who was supposed to be our teacher by her first name. Then again, having a teacher who looked like a cheerleader was weird to begin with.

“Hey guys!” she chirped, giving us a dazzling smile. “Everything okay?”

I shrugged. “Neither of us have been attacked or teleported away to an alien planet today, so that’s a tick in the plus column.”

Laughing, the other woman reached behind her back to pull out a familiar object. “Well, here you go.” Flipping my staff around, she held it out toward me.

“You finished already?” I took the staff, looking it over. The only visible change was an additional half-hidden button as well as two white teardrop shaped marks about six inches from either end of the staff. “I know, I know, quick turnaround and all that. But I thought you’d need at least a little more time.”

She grinned at me. “It’s like I told you before, we figure out how to do these things quick. Gotta get the Heretics their weapons back. Besides,” she added with a wink, “The staff’s already got the portals at the ends for your sand. It wasn’t hard to add the new ones.”

Shiori blinked at that, squinting at the weapon in my hands. “New portals? For more sand?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Not for more sand. For something else. Are they…” I looked to Nevada.

She indicated the new button. “Give it a shot, they were making themselves at home last time I checked on them.”

My thumb pressed it, and immediately two small portals were generated right where the teardrop marks were. They were just large enough for a pair of tiny mechanical mice to poke their heads out, sniffing curiously before emerging onto the staff. Despite the fact that I was holding it vertically, both seemed completely at home crawling along it.

“Hey guys,” I spoke up, drawing their attention. The two mice quickly scrambled to the middle of the staff to meet each other, staring at me. They weren’t quite as skittish as they had been, but it was obviously going to take awhile for us to get to the level of trust that we needed. I liked them a lot, actually. But I didn’t want to rush things. They were just starting to open up to me and stop looking at me like I was about to feed them into some kind of industrial grinder. Time, it would just take time.

Rotating the staff carefully to hold it horizontally, I reached into my pocket for a handful nuts. Metal nuts that was, as in the kind that went with bolts. Coming out with them, I held the handful of metal up to the little cyber-mice. They hesitated, but quickly took the offered treat.

“Did you ever find out what their names were?” Shiori asked, glancing to me.

My head shook. “No,” I replied. “I don’t know what their names were. I dunno if he even had names for them. But I do.” Lifting my hand slowly, I pointed to the slightly smaller one, then the other. “This is Jaq, and that’s Gus.”

Nevada and Shiori both grinned at that, the latter reaching out a finger to them. “Jaq and Gus. That’s great. Hiya, Jaq. Hey, Gus.” She held her finger there, letting the little guys sniff it for a moment.

“Give the staff a spin,” Nevada encouraged, nodding. “Trust me, they’re fine.”

I hesitated, but she seemed confident. So I stepped back for room and spun my weapon, slowly at first to watch the mice before slowly picking up speed. No matter how fast I spun it, however, they stayed attached to the thing. “How?”

“Trade secret,” she replied with a wink. “But basically magic magnets. They’ll stay attached as long as you want them to.”

As I stopped and let the mice go back to exploring the staff, Shiori asked, “So you had Nevada make… portals in your weapon to summon your mice? That’s kinda cool.”

“Oh, it’s very cool,” I replied. “First, they’ve got a little home in there. I mean, they can come out too. But they’ve got a whole little house in there. Technically the portals link to a box that’s in my room. That’s where they are when they’re in there. But they come out through there.”

Nodding, the other girl hesitated. “Okay, but… what do they do once they’re here? Like, explore and spy on people or whatever? They look like they’d be pretty good at that.”

“Sure, sure,” I confirmed slyly, giving Nevada a quick look. “But they do a lot more than that. Is it…?”

“Go for it,” she replied, looking just as eager as I was. “Just tell the little guys it’s time to fight.”

“Hey, Jaq, Gus,” I spoke quickly. The mice stopped what they were doing and turned their tiny heads to peek up at me. “It’s time to fight.”

Immediately, they both took off in opposite directions. As I held the staff up, the mice ran to either end, clinging onto it before abruptly changing shape. In the process, they seemed to physically bond themselves with the weapon itself, latching on in several spots so that it was impossible to tell that they weren’t part of the thing to begin with.

Barely a handful of seconds after I’d said the words, and the transformation was complete. At one end of the staff, Jaq had turned into a slightly smaller version of the short-sword that he had been under Doxer.  Only the blade though, without the hilt. Meanwhile, at the other end, Gus became a smaller version of the grapple-hook.

Carefully, I spun the staff once more, checking the weight. It would take a bit to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad. And this way, my weapon had a couple more tricks to it. The blade on one end that could cut things, and a grapple-hook with an attached energy line that would both be wickedly dangerous in combat once I learned how to use it properly. Plus, the grapple would drastically improve my maneuverability when used in conjunction with the staff’s kinetic boosts.

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, spinning the now-bladed staff around once more. “This I could get used to.

“I could really… really get used to it.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-06

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“When I got home with my dad, Ammon was gone,” I finished giving my story a couple hours later. “I checked the house he was staying in with Rose, but there was no sign of him or where he went.”

The room I was telling my story in was the same one that I had been interviewed by Runner Kine in after the peridle situation. Kine himself was even one of the people sitting across the wooden table from me listening intently to every word I said, though he wasn’t alone this time. Sitting on either side of the very tall, almost skeletal-thin man were Professor Dare and Professor Kohaku, the former of whom had seemed to be in a pretty good mood ever since I met up with her again after spending the hour with Miranda. I didn’t know what she and Hisao had talked about, but the blonde woman’s unconscious smile had only dimmed once I progressed enough in my explanation of what happened.

It wasn’t just me mechanically reciting the events, either. Each of the three adults had taken turns asking questions about not only the important parts of the story, but also seemingly inconsequential details like what color shirt Ammon had been wearing, or what kind of pizza we’d had.

The suspicious part of me figured they were trying to trip me up and see if I was leaving anything out, which I was, of course. The optimistic part (and the fact that I still had an optimistic part of myself after everything that had happened over the weekend was kind of a thrilling discovery, believe me) figured that it was meant to prompt more relevant and important details to come to mind as I focused.

Practical me figured it was a bit of both, and told the other two sides to be quiet.

“To reiterate and make certain we have this correct,” Tribald Kine spoke up after the three of them had exchanged glances. “You arrived home and interacted with a young boy named Ammon who had been living in the next door house for several weeks. Your Heretical Sense did not warn you that he wasn’t human, but you believe now that he attempted to use some sort of mind control ability on you, which failed. At some point, you left the house to visit with old friends and to walk around your hometown. When you returned, your father and the bystander woman this Ammon boy had been living with made an excuse to leave for the evening, citing medical issues with the woman’s father. They left you and Ammon in the house alone. At a certain point post-midnight, you entered the living room of the house and were attacked by mind-controlled bystanders who had been your coworkers at your previous job.”

The man fell silent then, looking up and waiting until I gave a quick nod. His eyes ran over me searchingly for another moment before he continued, his tone more thoughtful now. “During this time, the boy boasted to you that your father would shortly be murdering the bystander woman, going so far as to tell you the exact location in an attempt to torment you with the knowledge that you would not be able to stop what was going to happen. He then ordered the bystanders to hurt you. Fortunately, before they could fulfill this command, you managed to kick and squirm your way free and escape the house.”

Again, I nodded, and Runner Kine went on. “From there, you… borrowed the car of a friend and drove to the motel, arriving just in time to render your father unconscious before he could fulfill his orders. Ammon then used your phone, which you had lost in the process of all this, to call your father’s phone. He informed you that he would be ordering the local police force to murder innocent civilians as punishment for your escape and rescue of your father and the bystander woman. To prevent this, you drove to the police station and engaged with Ammon in an attempt to retrieve your phone in order to summon Heretic-assistance. In the process, however, your phone was destroyed and Ammon escaped.”

“Yes, sir,” I confirmed, glancing from the man to the other two to avoid making a suspicious amount of eye contact (which itself makes lying as obvious as avoiding all eye contract does) “That’s right.”

We went over more of it. I told them I didn’t know why Ammon’s power didn’t work on me, why he targeted me, or why he was immune to my Stranger sense. I asked about other Strangers being immune, thinking of Twister, and was told that it happened occasionally, for reasons that I’d learn in time.

When that was done, Professor Kohaku spoke up. “I do have one more question, Miss Chambers. While the deaths of the civilian bystanders are very tragic, the fact of the matter is that there were not nearly as many as there could have been. Looking at the number of people who were killed and comparing it to the number of deputies who simply woke up within their own vehicles with no memory of what had happened, the death toll should have been much higher than it was. Yet from your depiction of events, you had no contact with these deputies and did nothing to stop them. Which leads me to ask, who did?”

Looking that way, I forced myself to blink with as blank an expression as I could manage. “Well, I sort of thought it was you guys at first. Heretics who didn’t know who I was, or something. If it wasn’t you, maybe it was people from Eden’s Garden? I mean, we saw–”

In mid-sentence, I noticed two things. First and most obvious, the word ‘stop’ appeared in glowing, three foot tall letters in the middle of the table. The word pulsed once to grab my attention. Yet no one else reacted to it. Their eyes remained focused on me, as if the big glowing word wasn’t even there.

The second thing I noticed was Professor Dare. Her hands were clasped in front of her on her side of the table. Her left hand covered her right, blocking it from the view of the other two adults, but I could see her right index finger tracing along the wood as though she was writing something out.

“Miss Chambers? Are you all right?” Runner Kine asked gently. “What did you see, exactly?”

Professor Dare finished tracing with her finger, and the word ‘stop’ was replaced by ‘do not mention our meeting.’ She then met my gaze directly, her earlier smile gone as she simply nodded.

I took a second. When I’d met up with the professor again after leaving Miranda, we hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. A couple of other Runners were already there, waiting to investigate the situation, so we didn’t have any privacy. After we went through the portal to come back to school, Professor Kohaku had been waiting nearby to escort me up to this debriefing with Runner Kine. There hadn’t been an opportunity for Professor Dare to say anything private to me, like the fact that she didn’t want me to say anything about meeting up with a couple people from Eden’s Garden for some reason.

Right, some reason. Don’t be dumb, Flick. You know exactly why she didn’t want them to know. The rivalry between this place and Eden’s Garden was obviously so bad that finding out we’d had a pretty peaceful meeting with a couple of them would probably look pretty bad to certain people. Hell, for all I knew, it might even put Professor Dare’s job at risk. I didn’t know how seriously they took this stuff.

Besides, if it meant not having to argue with people about renewing my friendship with Miranda, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d been a little bit worried about just how that was going to go down.

In the end, I just shook my head. “Sorry, I was just gonna say that we saw how quickly you guys sent people in as soon as you found out what happened, and you were swamped all weekend with emergencies. Maybe Eden’s Garden was just quicker or—err, you know, they happened to send in a Heretic or two while it was happening.” It was a little bit of a lame correction, I had to admit, but hopefully it was good enough to pass. I was hoping that my awkward pause would be chalked up to being uncomfortable or worried about implying that Eden’s Garden was faster than Crossroads.

The three of them exchanged a short series of silent glances with one another before Runner Kine stood up a little abruptly, plucking his notebook up to put in his pocket. “I think that’s about it for now. I’ll go over what you’ve said and if I have any more questions, I know where to find you.”

Quickly, I raised my hand. “Actually, uh, Runner Kine? I had a couple things I wanted to ask you about. I mean, not related to this, but a private thing?” It was my chance to get more information out of the man, considering he’d been the one that directed me to that picture of my mother to begin with.

He paused, glancing at me before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to send me an e-mail with your questions. I’m sure you understand how busy we’ve been with everything. It’s lucky that I had time to stop by here at all. If it’s about anything that I can answer, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

He and Professor Kohaku were out the door a few seconds later, discussing something about revising the security and safety measures for any more students that left the school for any reason.

That left me with Professor Dare, who remained silent until the door had closed, then straightened up. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I would prefer that our interaction with Hisao and your friend remain off of the official record. While there is nothing outright forbidden about it, some would be concerned.”

I was pretty okay with that, considering how little I felt like being interrogated about my loyalties toward Miranda. “That’s okay,” I assured the woman. “But what did you and Hisao talk about?”

Professor Dare’s mouth opened, then shut. I saw the slightest hint of a blush touch her cheeks before she stood from the chair. “Nothing of particular relevance. He had no new information.”

Before I could ask anything else, she changed the subject. “On a serious note, Miss Chambers, you have been through a very traumatic experience. Even if your father does not remember what he almost did, you remember it all. So I want you to visit Klassin Roe for a few weeks. He’s our school therapist, who specializes in talking about this sort of thing with our students, bystander-kin in particular.”

“You’re sending me to a shrink?” I asked a bit blankly. “But you’re part of the great big secret magic school full of adventure and mystery. Are you even narratively allowed to know what therapy is?”

That earned me a smile as the woman shook her head. “I’ll set up your first appointment for Thursday evening, Miss Chambers. You and Mr. Roe can discuss the best time for further meetings there. For now, I suggest you meet up with the rest of your team and talk about what happened. I’m sure they’ll want to know.”

Nodding while straightening up, I asked, “So if you and Hisao didn’t really exchange much information, what did you guys do while you were waiting for Miranda and me to finish?”

Pivoting on her heel, Professor Dare strode to the nearby door. “As I said, nothing of importance. Now if you’ll excuse me, the headmistress will want to have a discussion about the situation.”

“But what did you guys–” I started, only to find myself speaking to a closed door.

“Boy,” I remarked to the suddenly empty room. “For people who wanted to ask me so many questions, they sure disappeared pretty damn fast as soon as I had a few of my own.”

*******

“Hey, there she is!” Sean waved easily at me from where he was lying on a towel on the beach a few minutes later. “How was your trip, Flick? Get any decent birthday presents?”

Sue me, I took a second to appreciate his toned form before answering. The guy was wearing little more than a pair of green swim trunks, and the way he was stretched out on the towel was… distracting.

Snapping myself out of it with a physical shake of my head, I managed, “Not exactly a real vacation.”

“What happened?” The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find a distraction on the other end of the spectrum. As good as Sean looked in his suit, Avalon in a bikini almost made me wonder if I had lesbian tendencies, because god damn. Between the two of them, they could probably effectively capture the attention of anyone, no matter where they were on the Kinsey scale.

Not that they were alone in that. Even then, I could see Sands and Columbus emerging from the water. Though neither completely filled out their respective suits quite as well as Avalon and Sean did (Sands would have had to pack in a couple extra cantaloupes in her case, considering her petite size extended there as well), they weren’t exactly slouches either.

It probably helped that, while none of the rest of the team had received quite as much of a stamina upgrade as I had for the death of the amarok, killing those chamrosh had given a bit of a boost. Enough that everyone had more energy during morning exercises, and were less wiped during breakfast.

“Flick!” Sands jumped over to embrace me. “You’re back! Did ya have fun? Get anything good?”

I returned the embrace briefly, knowing that what I had to ask her about might end up taking her out of the hugging mood considering the opinion she had expressed before about Eden’s Garden.

Then I laughed and pushed the girl away. “Ew! You just wanted to get my clothes all wet.” Raising a finger to point at Columbus, I warned, “You don’t even think about it. Sands already got me wet enoaaaaaahhh…. I’m not even gonna finish that statement because I just realized what I was saying.”

Both boys looked briefly disappointed while Avalon rolled her eyes. Columbus lamented, “I would’ve treasured that sentence for a long time.”

Sands, meanwhile, simply cackled with amusement before dropping onto the empty towel next to Sean. “Maybe you should just change and join us. The water’s great today and we’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Actually, I kind of need to talk about what happened while I was home,” I announced while trying not to fidget too much. “It’s important, but we should have everyone. Where’s Scout?”

“Library,” Sands replied. “I can shoot her a text if you want. But what’s wrong, are you okay?” she asked while already picking up her phone from the nearby pile of supplies, tapping at the buttons on it quickly.

I pushed back the doubt and insecurity I had. They were my team, my friends. It had been a long time since I really understood what that meant. But Miranda’s instant acceptance of my story and willingness to put herself into danger to find out anything she could, her desire to help me find my mother, had reminded me. If I wanted them to ever trust me, I needed to take the plunge and trust them first, even with something as important as this.

“Like I said,” I replied, “we should really talk about it with everyone here. But trust me, you guys need to hear this.”

“It’s about time I told you everything about what’s been going on this year.”

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