Brom Bones

Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Learning Days Daze 2-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So that class was fun. For all of Sinbad’s (yes, that Sinbad) crazy played-up sense of drama, he was also a really good teacher. He explained things well, his style made everyone want to pay attention even if he was a bit cheesy at times (and I had absolutely no room to talk on that front), and he made everything exciting. Not that he needed that much help to make sailing a boat on a gigantic lake while talking about treasure hunting and sea monsters exciting, but still. It was interesting, even though all we did was basic introductions and a few back-and-forth questions. He promised that we would be learning basic water survival and training-type scenarios here on the station in a controlled environment where they knew exactly what and who were in the water, before going to various oceans to experience real-world adventures. That’s exactly what he called them, adventures. Like his own. 

Whatever else happened, I had a feeling that class was going to be one of my favorites.

After that one was History of Africa, with two teachers. One was a Natural Kongamato Heretic. The Kongamato, apparently, were basically pterosaurs with long beaks and a seven foot wingspan. In the case of Mr. Obi, he had those large wings growing out of his back. Apparently he could retract them, but rarely did because he didn’t feel like hiding who and what he was. 

His partner in teaching the class was an Alter known as a Rompo. And he was… well, definitely one of the odder looking Alters I’d encountered. Basically, he had the legs and rump of a large bear. The middle part of his body was literally an exposed skeleton with bones and everything (though no visible organs). His arms were like badger legs and paws (though with opposable thumbs), and he had a head like that of a rabbit. With human ears. Yup. The head of a rabbit but human ears, it was just… a complete mishmash of features including the skeleton thing. 

In any case, he called himself Boris, and he had made it incredibly clear (in a similar way to how Professor Carfried had repeatedly informed us that magic was not fast the year before) that if we saw anyone who looked like him, any of his people, we were to attack or run away. Preferably the latter. He said that while the school was right to teach that not all Alters were evil, he had never met another of his own kind who weren’t amoral monsters, and that he himself had been somehow magically altered to be the way he was now. Which was absolutely a story I wanted to hear more about at some point, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. 

We had that class, which again, mostly amounted to introductions. After that hour, it was time for lunch. I was walking along the station corridor with Tristan, Vanessa, and Avalon to meet up with the others. Tristan was regaling us with how amazing he thought Sinbad was. But while he was in mid-sentence, I was distracted by a shout from down the hall, followed by a loud snarl. 

We didn’t even look at each other, we just started running that way. Coming around the corner, the four of us found two figures apparently facing off, with several more around them. One of the figures was a guy from Crossroads, a dark-haired boy from a year ahead of us wearing a muscle shirt and ripped jeans. The other was… well, a cat-girl. Yeah, I’d referred to Triss as a cat-girl, but she was more of an anthropomorphic cat. This girl, on the other hand, looked human with pale white skin and short white-blonde hair that fell just below her second set of ears. 

Yeah, second set. Because she had two pairs, the regular human ones in the usual place which was what her hair fell just under, and a pair of white cat ears atop her head. She also had a matching white cat tail. Oh, and claws that came out of her human fingers. Those claws were out now, as she literally hissed at the boy in front of her. “Shove me again,” the girl snarled, “and we’ll see which of us has more lives to give up.” 

“Stop it!” The voice came from one of the onlookers, a human (or human-looking that didn’t set off my Heretic-sense at least) girl with long black hair that had a few blue highlights. She put herself between the two. “Yonic, knock it off! Felix, it’s okay. It’s over now. It’s over.” 

Avalon gave me a brief look before stepping that way. “What happened over here?” 

“What happened,” the boy muttered without taking his eyes off the cat-girl, “is I don’t like some half-breed chick hitting on my girlfriend. How does that sound for ‘what happened?’” 

In response, the cat-girl flashed a wide smile that showed off an impressive array of teeth. “Hey, if I’m competing across an entire gender and half a species and winning, maybe you’re the problem.” 

“Damn it, Felix,” the girl between them snapped at her, “you’re not helping.” To the boy, she added, “She’s just pushing your buttons because you’re being a jerk, Yonic. Go take a walk, then we can sit down and have lunch, okay? Walk it off, before something bad happens.” 

Seeming to only really understand then that there was an audience, Yonic paused before exhaling. “Fine, yeah. Sorry. I just… new school, new everything, it’s…” He made a vague hand waving gesture before turning to walk away. His movement took him past us, and I heard him mutter under his breath about needing to punch something that he wouldn’t get in trouble for.

Before the rest of us could say anything, Triss appeared. She came from the other side, stopping short before squinting at the… other… slightly less cat-like girl. “Felix, what happened?” 

“It’s okay,” the girl who had been between the two insisted. “There was just a little disagreement. Some tempers. It happens, especially here and now. No one got hurt, aside from ruffled feathers. Um, metaphorically speaking.” 

“Yeah,” Felix agreed, folding her arms with a shrug. “No one’s hurt, no one has to go see the nurse. Unless you’re into that.” The last was added with a tilted head, as her cat-ears perked up.

The girl she clearly had been flirting with flushed a bit, head shaking. “I uhh, I better go make sure Yonic’s okay.” She hesitated, looking to the other girl with what looked like tempted curiosity, before shaking her head as she hurried after her boyfriend. 

“One day, Felix,” Triss was muttering softly, head shaking. “Can we go through one day without you getting into a fight by stealing people’s significant others?” 

Giving a languid shrug, the other girl drawled, “Last time I checked, ‘stealing’ means taking by force or deceit. If I throw the bait out there and they jump on it, is it really stealing? They can make their own decisions.”

Tristan stepped over that way, followed closely by Vanessa as he spoke up. “So you’re Felix?” 

“Yeah, what–” the girl started dismissively before giving a brief double-take as she looked over the twins. “Yes, yes I am. And I am so into whatever this is.” Her hand gestured toward them. 

In a flat, dull voice, Vanessa spoke while walking away from her brother and around the group toward the cafeteria. “I’m going to go eat something, so I can throw it up.” 

Sighing, Triss looked to the rest of us, then gestured vaguely. “This is Felix, my little half-sister.” 

“Six months younger,” the other girl cut in, cat-ears twitching a bit at the reminder. “Not even a full year. Dad got pretty busy that year.” Belatedly, she added, “And yeah, the name is really Felix. What can I say? Mommy really expected a boy and when I popped out, she panicked. Felix the cat. She thought it was going to be funny. Personally, I think it would’ve been a worse name if I actually was a boy.” 

Snorting despite myself, I stepped over by Avalon. “Well hey, Felix, I’m Flick. This is Avalon. We’re sort of roommates with your sister. Or housemates, at least.” 

“And I’m Tristan, the cute neighbor,” the blond boy put in while extending a hand to her. “You saw my sister Vanessa run off a minute ago. You wanna go get lunch with us?” 

“And bug my big sister some more? I’m into it.” Felix all-but purred while her tail moved up around the other girl’s wrist affectionately, before Triss’s own tail pushed it aside. Their tails then intertwined a bit. It was pretty cute. 

So, we went off to have lunch with the others. Our classes, at least for those of us who were considered adults by the school, were over for the day. Next would come physical training. So having food first was probably a pretty good idea. 

Because I had a feeling that Avalon was really going to put me through my paces today.

*******

Hours later, after dinner, Sarah and I had gone to meet Brom Bones in one of the magical study rooms. The room was set up as a large oval, all the walls curved and covered it with various protection runes to stop stray magic from getting out. Both the walls and the floor were heavily reinforced metal, while the ceiling was made from some kind of red gem substance that was supposed to gradually absorb any leftover spell work that wasn’t fully cleaned up properly. 

At the moment, the two of us were facing our necromancy instructor. Or,  more to the point, we were facing his head, which was sitting on his metal stand while his body did some work on the floor behind us. Brom was talking. “So, you haven’t had any luck in pulling your little visitor in after that first time, huh? That’s not that surprising, given how far away her remains must be and how long ago she died. Honestly, the fact she was able to get to you at all it is really impressive. I wonder how long she was trying to reach you…” His eyes glanced off into the distance as he got lost in thought before shaking himself. That was, the head literally shook itself, which was still a really odd sight. He couldn’t exactly shrug, but I got that impression from just looking at him. Actually, for all I knew, his body was shrugging behind us. I was restraining the urge to turn and check when I saw Sarah glance that way out of the corner of my eye. Our gazes met, and she gave a subtle nod. 

With a small smile at that, I pointed out, “We don’t exactly have a lot of time left before…” I trailed off for a few seconds, then swallowed hard and pushed on. Not saying it out loud wouldn’t make it any less true. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time left before Fossor’s going to make his play. I’ve been practicing and training for months, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. I need some kind of help, some kind of advantage that he’s not expecting. His sister could be that advantage, but we have to get her back. Whatever it takes, I don’t have a choice. We have to.” 

Sarah put a hand on my arm, her voice quiet as she reminded me, “You won’t be alone.” 

With a little nod, I caught her hand and squeezed it gratefully. “I know that… I know all you guys are going to help as much as you can. I know. And I’m definitely not gonna do something stupid like try to face him alone. Trust me, I’m totally aware of how idiotic that would be. But… but I’m also not going to plan everything around assuming I’ll be in a nice safe bubble surrounded by friends the whole time. If there’s a way to separate me from all of you, Fossor will do it, and I’m going to plan on being able to handle it if that happens. I have to cover all the bases.

“Besides,” I added pointedly, “no matter how many people are with me, having Fossor’s sister around would be helpful if she really wants to take him down. No one’s managed to do it so far. All they’ve done is make him walk on the ashes of his own people while he’s here on Earth. Which, while a super-fitting aesthetic for a necromancer, doesn’t actually help all that much when he’s willing to kill millions just to have that ash to step on. We have to have something else, something better.” I exhaled then, squeezing my friend’s hand one more time before releasing it. “Rahanvael is our best, maybe only shot at something he won’t see coming.”

Brom’s body moved past me, picking up his head as the man spoke. “You’re right, she is probably the best chance at taking that necromantic piece of shit down. So yeah, I’ll help you figure out how to pull her in again. But I’ll need a little time to look into some rare boosting rituals that might work with your particular brand of necromancy, okay?” 

I knew what he was saying. My necromancy, inherited from Manakel, wasn’t exactly like his. It did a lot of the same stuff, just without most of the effort that others had to put into it. The way the headless–errr head-adjacent man had explained it, there were two general kinds of necromancers. First there were the ones who didn’t have an innate power for it, they just used magic to build up the power in themselves, essentially transforming their own magic temporarily into necromancy magic. Then there were the ones like Fossor or Manakel (and now me) who always had necromancy magic inside them and just had to learn to direct it properly. We just sort of skipped step one. For the bigger things, even we needed ingredients and spellwork and such, but even that would always be easier and quicker for us. Especially for someone like Fossor, who had been doing this stuff for millennia. 

“I’ve got some leads already,” Brom assured me, tucking his head up under his arm. “There are some pretty rare books out there that might have what you need. But if we do figure out where they are, it won’t be easy to get to them. Especially if you don’t want Fossor to have any idea what you’re doing.” 

Sarah spoke up then, pointing out, “He knows she got some necromancy power. Would he really be surprised that she was looking into more books to learn about it?” 

Blinking, I nodded. “She’s got a point. He knows I’ve got the power and that I want to fight him. Me looking for more necromancy secrets wouldn’t be that much of a surprise. And it’d be a pretty big leap to go from there to me having access to the sister he killed millennia ago.” 

“Right, fair,” Brom conceded with a wave of his free hand. “Okay, then I won’t worry too much about keeping it completely secret. Still, we should keep it as quiet as possible. And when we do find out where these books might be?” 

“Then we’ll go after them,” I confirmed, glancing to Sarah to see the other girl nodded firmly. “You find out where those special books are and we’ll go get them. But like I said, please try to make it as soon as possible. Because my birthday is coming up really fast. 

“And I might just be one of the only people in history not looking forward to turning eighteen.” 

******

“Then Mr. Toppers said we get to learn about the Belv period on Korgo,” Tabbris was excitedly telling me that night while we were in our room. We were both sitting up in our beds, and I was watching as my little sister regaled me with how her day at school had gone. “That’s the planet the Relukun come from. It’s like, all trees. Super big trees that are alive and the Relukun are like their seeds or saplings or something that gain sapience. Like, there’s two different kinds of saplings that come off the world trees on Korgo, the ones that grow into the big trees and the ones that get smart and become the Relukun. But the Relukun still procreate, sort of… they can take pieces of themselves off that can become new younger Relukun. And the Belv period is basically like their version of medieval Earth, where this guy called Pala like, took over three-quarters of their world and made everyone worship this god called Moz.” 

She went on like that for a bit, while I just smiled and watched. She loved her classes, and her classmates, and her teachers. There were a few that she didn’t get along with, of course. And I could tell there was stuff that she wasn’t telling me about how her day went. But overall, it seemed to have been pretty good. Which was great. I wanted my little sister, my partner, to have her own life. Even if I missed being able to talk to her in my head sometimes while I was in my own classes. This was for the best. It was the right thing. 

“Oh, um…” Pausing in mid-sentence, the other girl looked to me. “I know it’s been a couple days for all this stuff, but are you gonna see her again tonight?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll see her again.”

“Tell her I said hi.” With that, she launched right back into the same story she’d been talking about before. But eventually, even Tabbris wound down. She mumbled something about how it was okay if I left the light on, gradually passing out with her head under the blanket. Watching her for a few long seconds, I smiled to myself before exhaling. Then I shifted, lying down on my own bed as I stared up at the ceiling. 

Okay, I thought silently, I’m ready. 

My eyes closed for a moment, before opening once more. Only they didn’t really. I wasn’t opening my physical eyes. I was opening my eyes inside my own mind, in a mental construct of a pine forest. There were birds chirping in the distance, and the sound of a rushing stream somewhere nearby. 

It was all in my head, completely made up. It wasn’t real, even if it felt, tasted, sounded, and looked completely real. It was in my head. But I hadn’t made it. At least, not by myself. I had help. 

“You’re ready?” the source of that help spoke up from behind me, and I turned that way. 

“Yes,” I replied, “I know I took a couple days off to get settled into the new school, but I’m good now. Ready to go.” 

“Good,” the virtual replica of Chayyiel that the Seosten herself had left in my head back when she possessed me in the Crossroads prison announced.  

“Because I’ve got a lot more training to put you through.”

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Before The Vault 41-01

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When I had first come to Crossroads, I had thought that I had no actual connection to it. Hell, I thought that I had no real family aside from my father, and that my mother had abandoned us to gallivant off with some new boyfriend.

Then again, I’d also thought that magic and monsters didn’t exist, and I’d been equally completely wrong on every account. I had so many connections to this world. My mother had been a student and then the leader of a rebellion against their genocidal ways. My older brother was a security guard at the school, while my niece was one of my classmates. My older sister had become one of the Heretics at Eden’s Garden. Not to mention my adopted little sister, who had been possessing me for years, and the family that she connected me too.

The point was, I had a hell of a connection to Crossroads and to the Heretic world at large. And now there was this. My grandmother, unbeknownst to almost anyone else in the world, was Virginia Dare. I was literally related to the first English colonist born on the American continent.

Yeah, it cleared a lot of things up. It helped explain how Mom was so important, for one thing. Look at her pedigree. She’d come from the descendent of one of King Arthur’s knights, and from Virginia Dare.

Over the year I’d heard that how effective Heretics were at gaining power, how much we gained from each kill and how useful it was, or even how easily we could become Heretics to begin with, was often affected by our bloodline. Having strong Heretics in your background often made for an easier transition and stronger powers. Not always, and there were exceptions, but it helped.

If that was the case, then no wonder Mom was so strong. She had an incredible family background.

“Eeeeaaarth to Flick. Come in, Flick.”

Startled by the words, I snapped out of my thoughts and focused on my current situation.

I was by the lake at the Atherby camp. Nearby was Brom Bones, the headless man working again to teach me to use my budding necromantic abilities.

It was Saturday, May 12th. A week had passed since that day, the day that should have been meant for family and in the end… Well, I guess it had been for family throughout. It was a Family Day no one would forget, that was for sure.

I still wasn’t being blamed for what had happened, and I couldn’t begin to say how grateful I was for that. And yet, that same gratefulness was tempered heavily by grief and regret. People had died. People died because Mom killed them, even if she had only done so at the orders of Fossor. She was magically bound to obey him, and she had only allowed that to happen because she was protecting me.

So yeah, while I wasn’t being blamed officially for what happened, I was doing an awful lot of blaming myself for at least part of it. But hey, at least Ruthers and his people weren’t using it as an excuse to expel me or anything. That would’ve been pretty hard to work through, considering their idea of expulsion was to wipe my memory and erase my powers.

Now I shook my head. “Sorry, Brom. I guess I’m a little distracted.”

The man’s head, sitting on that little stand of his, gave me a slight smile. “I bet you are. Kind of been through a lot, huh?”

He had no fucking idea. Managing a weak chuckle, I replied, “You could say that. And it doesn’t help that these necromancer powers were pretty useless when Fossor showed up.”

Brom nodded past me, where his body was. A second later, I felt his hand swat me upside the back of the head. “Don’t be an idiot,” the head firmly instructed. “He’s been working on his power for thousands of years. You’ve been a necromancer for about five minutes. Of course you’re not strong enough to do a damn thing to him. But you’ll get there. Maybe you’ll never be strong enough with it to take him in a one-on-one duel. But we’ll get you to the point where you can make some things happen. It’s another bullet in your gun. But you’ve got to practice with it. Not just complain because you’re not perfect right from the start.”

Flushing a little, I nodded while rubbing the back of my head. “Okay, okay, I deserved that. I get it. Practice makes perfect, or at least slightly less terrible. I’m working on it, I promise. Trust me, I want to get this right.”

With that in mind, we kept practicing for a while until our session was interrupted by Tabbris. The little blonde girl came jogging up along the side of the lake, skidding to a stop. Her eyes found mine. “Daddy wants to know if you’re going to stay for lunch.”

For a second, I just looked at the girl. She was doing better now, a week after the event. But on that day, once everything had come out (well, everything she could know), my little sister had felt paralyzed by guilt. The fact that she had been having fun with our father rather than being with me when I, not to mention the rest of her family, needed help, had tormented her. It’d taken me (and the others) a long time to talk her around. She wasn’t responsible for every little bad thing that happened, just because she wasn’t there at the time. It just… took a bit to convince her of that.

At least it was a learning experience. We wouldn’t be relying on just a phone for communication in that kind of emergency. Sariel was teaching us some spells that would help. Even that wasn’t foolproof, of course. But having back-up plans was clearly important. Even if it, again, would take awhile to learn.

“Sure,” I replied, “lunch sounds pretty good, if uhh…” I trailed off, glancing to the nearby head.

“Oh, go on.” Brom used his eyes to gesture, even as his body did the same with his actual hands. “We’ve done enough for now, and you need to refuel anyway.”

Thanking the man for the lesson, and promising to be back soon for another, I headed off with my little sister. As we walked together, I asked, “How’re the volunteers doing with their practice?”

She coughed a bit. “Better now than the first day. They’re learning how to share and… you know, work together.” Pausing, the girl murmured, “It’s pretty new for all of them.”

“Do you think they’ll be ready before the trip next week?” As I asked the question, I thought about what we were actually doing. The trip to Washington was when we would be going for the vault. Dries and the others would be back by then. They were supposed to be here today, actually. There had been some kind of delay with the transport that kept it down a bit longer. But they had worked it out. At least they’d been able to send messages so we weren’t totally lost about what was going on.

In any case, they would be back by the time the trip happened. So we would have help getting into that vault, and past any surprises the Seosten put in our way. And I had no doubt there would be plenty of those. They weren’t just going to give up and roll over because we had both Avalon and Tangle. They would put an army between us and that vault if they had to.

Which was why we would be going in with an army of our own. We weren’t leaving anything to chance. Not only would we have our team along with anyone else involved, like the Moons, Koren, Miranda, and so on, we were also preparing our volunteers. Those were Atherby camp people who agreed to have some of the freed Seosten possess them. The former prisoners were going to be hiding that way, not only providing tips and other information about fighting their own people when the time came, but also ambushing them using their own tactics. If the enemy thought they were facing ten opponents, it would actually be twenty.

But for that to work, we had to get the Atherby people and the Seosten on the same page. Thus this couple-week course in working together. Tabbris was helping her mother teach that, which I really thought was helping both of them bond and spent time with each other.

My question made the other girl hesitate a little before giving a slight nod. “I think so. I hope so. It’s a lot to get used to, but they’re trying.”

We reached Dad’s cabin then, and I nudged her. “I bet you’re teaching them a lot, Miss Expert.”

I was rewarded with a deep blush from the girl, who stammered “I’m just helping Mama.”

Grinning at that reaction, I teased, “Helping an awful lot from what I hear. Vanessa and Tristan said those guys would need a couple months to be ready if it wasn’t for you.”

The blushing, embarrassed girl was spared having to answer as the cabin door opened and Dad stepped out. “There’s my girls,” he announced before stepping down to embrace me.

Once that was done, he leaned back with a smile. “So, I was thinking we could go out for lunch. Get to some small town somewhere and find a little restaurant. Just the three of us, what do you think?”

My own smile matched his. “That sounds good, but how do we get there, exactly? Did you already bribe Berlin?”

Dad chuckled. “I guess you do know me too well. Yes, he’s waiting inside, if we want to go. He’ll give us an hour or so there and then pick us up.”

Glancing toward Tabbris until the girl gave a quick, eager nod, I then turned back to Dad. “Well, what are we waiting for?

“Let’s go eat, I’m starving.”

******

“You weren’t a teacher when Mom went here,” I announced later that day while Professor Dare, Koren, and I were sitting in her otherwise empty classroom. It was a private and quiet place to have a conversation. We had been having a lot of those over the past week, as Koren and I came to terms with the truth along with the fact that we had to keep it from everyone else, for the sake of the world.

Dare shook her head. “No, I… I didn’t trust myself to be around my daughter like that. Her finding out about me and retaining that information… it would have destroyed the spell.”

Koren spoke up. “But we found out, and we remember. I mean, the spell was hurt, sure. But it didn’t break.“

“It was still a risk,” the woman reminded us, “and the spell was more unstable back then. It hadn’t had time to settle in properly. Disturbing it with something as large as my daughter finding out about me? That would have broken it. I couldn’t let that happen, not after Joshua…” Her voice cracked a little bit and she looked away briefly. “No matter how much I wanted to be with our daughter, I couldn’t let Joshua’s sacrifice be for nothing. I couldn’t risk that.“

“That must’ve been really hard,” I murmured. “All of it must’ve been really hard, actually. You didn’t go to her when she started this whole rebellion thing either. You had to sit there and watch her fight. You had to sit there and watch everything they did.”

Dare’s eyes closed. “That’s why I had to be there for you. Even if you didn’t know who I was, I had to be the one to bring you into this world. I had to be the one to start teaching you about it. I just… I just wanted to be involved. It was a risk, and I knew that. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But I couldn’t let bad things happen to you too. I knew they would happen. But I had to try to help.”

She looked to Koren then. “I am so sorry about what happened to your father. I would have done anything to change it. I had no idea there was a Fomorian that close to you.”

Koren, for her part, swallowed hard. Her eyes were damp as she blinked a few times to clear them. “It’s… it’s not like you haven’t lost people too. The Fomorians just fucking suck.”

“That is a succinct way of putting it,” Dare confirmed.

“Lots of people suck,” Koren added. “Especially Fossor.”

There was a brief moment of silence, as the three of us looked at one another. We were obviously all thinking about the same thing. Or the same person, rather. I was the first to find my voice. “We’re sorry. Sorry we couldn’t stop Ammon before… before you had to…”

“Don’t.” Dare held up a hand. “Don’t say that. Don’t think it. I was in a rush to get to you. I knew you were in danger, but not exactly what the danger was. I let myself end up there… and then I had to deal with the situation. If there had been another way, if I could have stopped him and still saved him…”

“Fossor broke him,” I insisted. “He broke and killed the boy that Ammon was a long time before we ever knew about him.”

“Yes,” Dare replied, “that’s something you need to remember as well, Felicity. The Ammon you knew was a monster who deserved and needed to be put down. Regardless of how he got to that point. Remember what Avalon told you. Don’t let that guilt you feel about not ‘fixing’ him blind you to the fact that his death is a good thing. He…” She trailed off them, shaking her head firmly. “I’m sorry, you don’t need to hear that. It’s done with. It’s just… been quite awhile since I had anyone other than Gaia who knew the whole truth.”

“Is that the real reason why you’re hesitant about this thing with Hisao?” I asked. “Because he can’t know the full truth about you?” I knew that had to be hard. Keeping a big part of herself like that secret from a man that she clearly cared that much about was probably pretty awful. I felt bad enough about lying to Avalon and Shiori about the whole Jophiel situation.

“Yes,” she confirmed softly, with a sigh. “I can’t risk that, not even with him. You saw what happened. Everyone saw what happened.”

It was true. The colors in the sky, the weird organ cloud things, the shaking, it had been all over the place. Everyone had felt and seen it, though humans only remembered it as a series of earthquakes all over the world.

It was a big enough deal that Crossroads had decided that it had something to do with the rope being stolen. They thought whoever had taken it was using it for some kind of ritual, which had started with… all that.

I almost wanted to tell them that those two things were only tangentially related, but oh well. Either way, it had them up in a tizzy. There were Heretic teams scouring the Earth for that rope, along with any sign of whoever had taken it. I really didn’t want to be anyone who happened to get in their way, given the enormous freak out they were having about it.

I also still really hoped that the rumors about Eden’s Garden having something to do with it didn’t gain any more traction. Because again, that kind of conflict was something none of us needed to deal with. And I had to wonder how much of that might have been stoked by Seosten spies, who probably wouldn’t mind having an excuse for powerful Heretics from both places to go missing.

Koren spoke up. “Keeping this secret from Mom, that’s hard enough. I mean, I know why we have to, and I will. But still, I can’t imagine keeping a secret for that long. Staying away from your own daughter, leaving all your friends and other people you care about? That must’ve been awful.”

“It does explain one thing though,” I realized. “You were the one who had Lyell Atherby’s journal, weren’t you? You put it in the library where we would find it. You wanted us to learn about him, wanted to… start us on that.”

Dare bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment. “I did want to give you a little bit of a boost, yes. And I also wanted to give you girls a chance to look into it together. I didn’t know if it would be enough, but I thought a slight nudge might help.”

Well, that was one mystery of the year solved. No wonder we had just happened to pick up a book with all that stuff about Lyell in it. Hell, she was the one who had assigned us the project that led to that to begin with. Now that I thought about it that way, it was pretty obvious.

“You’ve been helping as much as you could all year,” I murmured aloud. “You’ve been doing everything you could without risking the spell. Hell, even Wyatt being here…”

“I asked Gaia to bring him in,” Dare confirmed. “With you and Koren both here… I thought it was time. Even if I couldn’t be there for you the way that I wanted to, I wanted you all to be able to be there for each other. She agreed.”

Koren raised a hand. “I have a question. How did Deveron get assigned it to be their team mentor? I mean you and Gaia didn’t know who he was at that point, right?”

Dare chuckled softly. “That was actually Percival. He asked Gaia to assign the boy to that team. We thought Deveron was playing spy for him, but it was better than someone who might have been spying for Ruthers.”

The woman glanced to the phone on her desk then before clearing her throat. “Are you girls ready to meet the others? It’s time.”

Right. Time for Athena, Apollo, and the rest to show up. Which meant it was time for Avalon to meet Dries. And that would be… interesting.

Koren and I stood together. “Sure,” I replied.

“It’s been a few days since the last reunion, I guess we’re overdue for another one.”

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Day After Day 39-04

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“So you were a normal human and that… witch, or whatever she was, turned you into… uhh, this?” I asked a minute later (after I’d given the head back) as my new necromancy teacher led me to a secluded part of the woods adjacent to the lake, opposite the camp itself. There was a narrow little trail that wound its way in about fifty yards or so deep, and we moved along that together. I was holding Herbie up in one hand, having enchanted him to give off light (clearly turning his inner heroic glow into something literal) so that we could both see properly as we moved away from the camp lights.

The Headless–err, Abraha–wait, he said he preferred Brom. Brom Bones held his head up with both hands, tilting it up and down a few times. Belatedly, I realized that was his version of a nod. “Ayup,” he confirmed, tucking his head under one arm while using the other to point at me. “So do me a favor, you ever find a witch calling herself Katrina, run the other way. She’s scary as hell, and I don’t want you to have to deal with her. Those blood rituals of hers…” He shuddered and grimaced, which was an odd thing to see given how far his face was from his shoulders.

“Sure,” I easily replied, “I don’t really see the need to run out and find another enemy. I’ve got plenty as it is. But um, didn’t you say that Katrina wasn’t her real name? So… unless she’s using the same pseudonym again…” Giving a helpless shrug, I added, “Any description?”

Brom’s head shook, and he sighed. “That’s the thing. It’s been a long time, but she did turn me into this, and that’s not really the kind of person you forget. But you know, for some reason every time I try to remember what she looked like or any kind of specifics, it’s just… blank. I think about her face and there’s nothing. I think about what color her hair was and nothing.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like some kind of powerful memory spell,” I mused thoughtfully. “Can’t Enguerrand help with that? Or, if he can’t, I bet Sariel could if you asked her to.”

A rueful smile crossed the man’s face then, illuminated by the glowing Herbie. “It’d be nice,  yeah. Unfortunately, whatever the witch did to turn me into this dashing figure that you see before you also made me immune to any kind of possession, including the Seosten variety.”

Okay, that made me do a double-take, openly staring at the man briefly as I came to a stop on that narrow trail. “Okay, so this witch did a ritual that made you, among other things, immune to Seosten possession? Even though you were just a normal human before? She just made you immune, just like that. What the hell kind of witch is this and why isn’t she on our side, exactly?”

“Pretty sure she’s only on her own side,” the headless (or head relocated) man replied simply. “If she’s even still alive. I’d bet on it, given what I saw, but… who knows.” He shrugged before letting out another sigh. “And before you ask, I don’t know what she did to me exactly or how it worked. All I know is it made me immune to a lot of things, including the Seosten possession.”

By that point, we had reached the end of the short trail. It had brought us to a small clearing, about fifteen feet or so across. There was a cement bird bath in the center of the clearing, and I could see a couple paper grocery bags sitting next to it, along with a couple bottles of water and a six pack of beer. A shovel had been left at the opposite end of the clearing from the entrance.

“So how did you go from magic-altered servant for a dark witch to teaching a high schooler how to use necromancy?” I asked, giving the clearing a curious once-over. “And that sounds a lot darker when I say it out loud. I mean, how’d you get free of her control? And learn the necromancy thing. Was that the kind of stuff she had you do for her or something?”

He gave a light chuckle at that. “Yeah, I uhh, the learning bit was accidental at first. My assigned duty, my… reason for existing was just to protect my mistress or do odd jobs here or there. Scare townspeople, pick up supplies, guard prisoners or test subjects, that kind of thing.” Turning his head toward me, he winked. “Of course, the picking up supplies bit was easier once Katrina made my first special suit that let me keep my head where it belongs. Like a leather turtleneck with this wood and metal contraption that held it in place. Uncomfortable, let me tell you. But a good bit less uncomfortable than being chased around by people with torches.”

“You mean the Bystander Effect didn’t make them immediately forget there was anything different about you?” I asked while walking over to look at the birdbath. It was empty, save for a fair bit of red stain all around the inside that I was pretty sure had to be the remnants of blood.  

He moved to stand next to the thing as well, bending to pull off one of the beers. “BS Effect used to be a lot weaker than it is now. Even just a couple hundred years ago. Sure, they’d forget what they saw was ‘real’ fairly soon, but right at the time, they could react pretty badly. Especially depending on the specific person. Plus, there were Heretics to worry about, both of the Natural and Bosch variety.” He popped the can open. “You might’ve noticed that I don’t set off your special sense. Mostly because I’m not actually an Alter, just a… uhh, altered human. Anyway, point is, I don’t set off the sense for Bosch Heretics, but it’s not hard to look at a man carrying around his head and think something’s a bit dodgy about the whole situation, you see?”

I started to say something else to that, but then the man held his head up with one hand while using the other to bring the can to his lips, and I was suddenly incredibly distracted. Staring as he took a big gulp from the beer, my eyes reflexively looked toward the opening at the bottom of his neck. I waited… and nothing came out. “Errr, how do you–wait, why doesn’t it–wait. Huh?”

Chuckling, Brom took another long gulp of his drink. Now it looked like he was showing off, teasing me when the liquid still didn’t appear. “You like that little magic trick? Yeah, my throat’s uhh, let’s just say it’s basically magically connected somehow. What I eat or drink ends up in my stomach regardless. It goes from here to here.” As he spoke, the man first lifted his head, then gestured to the rest of his body. “I’m not exactly sure on the particulars in between.”

“That’s, umm… wow.” Watching the man put the can to his lips to drink while literally holding his head in the other hand was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. I couldn’t look away. “Yeah, quite some magic trick. I guess it makes sense, your body needs fuel. Plus, if you’re talking, the air would have to… unless it’s just sort of…  I just wasn’t… yeah.” Shrugging helplessly, I forced myself to focus on something else. “You said learning necromancy for you started as an accident because you were just an errand boy and guard?”

Using one hand to move his head up and down in his approximation of a nod, Brom replied, “Yup. When I wasn’t given a task to do, I was just supposed to stand or sit in the corner and wait. I ended up watching a lot of the rituals she did around that time. I think she figured I was a lot dumber than I was. Not that I’m exactly a genius or anything, but you let me watch enough of your magic and I’ll pick some of it up. It was interesting, and… well, part of me wanted to understand what she did to me. So I paid attention. I stayed quiet and watched. And whenever she left me alone wherever we were at the time without specific instructions, I read. I’m not sure she knew that I could read. But I could, and I did. I picked up books from the shelf and read everything I could get my hands on. Turned out the necromancy stuff really appealed to me. And not just because it was evil or whatever. It was just… you know, fascinating. I uhh, I suppose part of it was that with everything she did to me, I’m basically immortal. Haven’t met anything yet that can put me down and make me stay down. Hell, my body parts were scattered across the country once. Took me forever to find them and pull myself together. But I managed it. Another time I was basically reduced to just one of my hands. Everything grew back. Even my head.”

“Holy shit,” I managed then, eyes wide as I stared at him. “I say again, what the hell kind of ritual did she do to turn you into this?”

“I know, right?” The man gestured vaguely. “So yeah, pretty much impossible for me to die. Which made me interested in death and the magic surrounding it. I read all the books I could, practiced the symbols they showed whenever she sent me on missions. I’d draw them in the dirt, or on my hand or wherever. Always rubbed them out, of course. Didn’t want her knowing how much I was picking up because I figured she’d put a real quick stop to it.”

As he spoke, Brom reached into that long coat with his free hand. It must have been magic, because he pulled out one of those black stand things that people put sheet music or books on, with the long pole attached to the flat surface with the lip. In this case, however, the lip part was larger, and curved. It was just the right size and shape for…

Yup. He put his head down on the stand, balancing it carefully before giving me a thumbs up. “Perfect. Anyway, she found out, of course. But she wasn’t angry about it. Actually, she was intrigued. Said she wanted to know if I could actually do it. So, she uhh, taught me some. Yeah, I was surprised too. She made me practice it, said she wanted me to be able to do more than run simple errands and that if I could pull off actual magic, she’d have better ways of using me.”

“Well, she’s practical, at least,” I muttered. “And she must’ve been a pretty good teacher, if you learned enough to impress Gabriel.”    

Pausing for a moment as though thinking back to those times, the man finally grimaced and replied, “Let’s just say she was effective if not exactly nice about it. Very tough to impress, but I did learn a lot. And necromancy-practice was better than squishing people’s heads until they popped, or whatever other ways she’d have me terrorize and destroy her enemies.”

“Uhhh…” I coughed. “Yeah, I guess I can see why you’d like the learning part more. But um… what about how you escaped? I mean, you’re all intact and everything, so why aren’t you still working for her? You said you weren’t even sure if she’s still alive. What happened?” Yeah, he was supposed to be teaching me about this new power, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

Patting his own head, Brom replied, “It was actually that thing I mentioned before, the bit about being  almost completely disintegrated and coming back from just my hand? Yeah, let’s just say we had a confrontation with one of her mortal enemies and it didn’t go so well for me. But when I grew back, something was different. Before that, I could always feel where she was and when she wanted me, I’d be sort of… pulled to her, drawn that way. But once I regenerated from all that, I couldn’t feel her anymore. I kind of heard more about her later, so I know she survived at least past that, but other than that… it was like her pull over me was gone after my body rebuilt itself almost from scratch.”

“That must’ve been some enemy,” I observed, “if they were a threat to her and managed to do that to you.”

Brom coughed, his body extending hand out and down to cover his mouth. “Err, yeah. About that. Her enemy is kind of why she was good with me learning necromancy. And why Gabriel thought I’d be a good teacher for you.”

For just a second, I blinked at him. Then I got it. “What? Why wo–oh my God, it was Fossor. Katrina’s enemy that almost completely destroyed you, it was Fossor, wasn’t it?”

“That would be the one,” he confirmed. “So you see, I kind of have a little history with that piece of shit.” As his head spoke, Brom’s body moved over to pick up that shovel from the other side of the clearing. He came back, carefully starting to dig a hole.

Meanwhile, I was busy staring at his head (and trying not to be too distracted by the fact that his head and body were in two entirely separate locations). “If the witch who changed you hates Fossor so much, I kind of really want to meet her.”

“You really don’t,” Brom firmly corrected, his body pausing its digging to point at me. “Trust me. This is not a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ In this case, the enemy of your enemy is still a psycho hellbitch who will only ever work with you if it benefits her in some way.”

“Getting rid of Fossor seems like it would benefit her,” I pointed out mildly.

“And then you’d owe her something.” Brom gave me a hard look, all amusement vanishing from his eyes. “Trust me, Flick, you don’t want to owe her anything. Because she will collect. I’ve been the one who does the collecting for her, remember?”

“Fair enough,” I relented, shrugging. “But I’d still like to at least see some of her books, even if she wouldn’t be directly helpful. If she’s as powerful as you say, she probably knows a lot about Fossor, about everything he uses. Especially now. If, you know, she’s still alive.”

“I would imagine she is, and that she does have plenty of information,” Brom agreed. “An entire library full, most likely. Though where it is, or what the cost of seeing any of it would be… I couldn’t say the former, and my only guess as to the latter is ‘too much.’”

Remaining silent for a moment, I finally sighed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. And hey, it sounds like I got the better teacher out of the deal anyway.”

“You’re damn right you did,” the head-relocated man shot right back, his body pausing its digging once more to give me a thumbs up. “But that only matters if I actually teach you something before the sun goes cold. So let’s actually get started, huh?”

Nodding, I gestured, “What’re you digging?”

“The grave for the mouse after we finish with it,” came the response.

“Grave for what m–other of God!” I started while facing his head, turning in mid-sentence to find his body, sure enough, holding a dead mouse by the tail. Recoiling reflexively, I blurted, “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry.” I could tell he didn’t mean it. He was grinning too much. “Told you, I like pranks. And the classics are still great. Making girls squeal with mice.” Clearing his throat, the man’s body set the dead mouse in the middle of the bird bath. “We’re going to focus on just getting the mouse to get up and walk around a little bit, okay? Usually you have to do that with a bunch of rituals and blood sacrifice, but uhh, I’m told you can skip all that. Which sounds pretty damn useful, let me tell you.”

“I…” Swallowing, I stopped to look at the dead mouse. Part of me really wanted to just go back to talking about the witch Katrina, or even about Fossor. Or about anything else. This… scared me, and creeped me out.

But I needed to learn it. I needed to practice it. So I straightened up, giving a little nod.

“Okay, let’s see what I can do.”

*****

What I could do, as it turned out, was make the mouse get up and move… barely. It took almost an hour for me just to get that poor little dead guy to twitch enough that it definitely wasn’t the wind. After that, it was another half an hour before I got him to turn over and take a little walk around the empty bird bath. And I felt exhausted. Apparently doing this on purpose was a lot harder and more tiring than doing it by accident when I’d summoned Rudolph. Though the emotions and urgency involved there probably explained it. Or maybe I was just resisting the idea of this subconsciously. I wasn’t sure. But I managed to make the mouse walk in a circle a few times, and Brom said that was enough.

I was on my way back after helping him bury the little guy, and found my father waiting for me right by the lake as I approached the cabins.

“So how’s my little budding necromancer?” Dad asked with a raised eyebrow. “Did you make a skeleton army? Ooh, do you need a castle with a moat? Because I don’t think that’s in the budget. I can maybe swing an apartment with a really strongly worded no solicitors sign.”

Snickering despite myself, I stopped to stare at him for a moment. My mouth opened and shut, before I just walked up to wrap my arms tightly around my father. “I love you, Dad.”

I felt his brief surprise at that before the man returned my embrace. “I love you too, Flicker. But what’s this for? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Let’s have more of this.”

Obligingly, I hugged even tighter for a few seconds before leaning back to look up at him. “I’m just amazed at how well you’re rolling with… well, all of this. Every bit of it. You’re amazing.”

“Just remember that come Christmas time,” he teased me lightly, using one hand to stroke my hair back while smiling at me fondly. “And I’ve had some good people around here to help me sort stuff out. Honestly, I’m just glad I know what’s going on now.”

Feeling a slight pang at the fact that I couldn’t tell him everything that was going on, as far as Jophiel and Elisabet went, I swallowed before nodding. “Me too. Lying to you sucked.”

“Tell me about it,” the man muttered before nodding past me with a smile. “You should probably go see Avalon though. Pretty sure she’s been waiting for you all night. If you don’t go in there pretty soon, she might do something crazy like drag herself out here.”

Unable (and unwilling) to stop the immediate smile that came at the thought of seeing Avalon, I nodded, giving Dad one more brief hug before turning to start that way.

As I was heading off, he spoke up again. “I take it you like your necromancy teacher then?”

Pausing, I looked back while sagely replying, “Let’s just say he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

It took me a solid minute to stop snickering at that, while Dad continued to stare at me, utterly bewildered.  

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Day After Day 39-03

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“I mean seriously, dude, this thing was freaking huge! It was the Godzilla of Gajasimhas!”

The girl currently excitedly babbling on across from me as I sat at a table in the library back at Crossroads was Harper Hayes. It was April 30th, Monday. The weekend had passed since Rudolph’s funeral, and I was back at school once more. Harper and I had been assigned a project to work on together by Professor Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. We were supposed to pick one of the lost cities, places that had supposedly once been real and full of humans before they were overrun and destroyed by those evil Strangers. There were quite a lot of them, according to our books, places where thousands of humans were wiped out back when Heretics had been much fewer and further between, before they could be manufactured by Crossroads.

Somehow, I had stopped myself from asking how society had continued to exist and develop for thousands of years before Bosch had come along if their Heretics were so limited and every single non-human out there was a genocidal lunatic. But it was a close thing, and I deserved a medal for my restraint. I’d settled for a piece of pie.

Now the two of us were in the library after classes were over, and Harper was telling me all about the creature that she and her team had killed for their last hunt. Apparently a Gajasimhas was a huge monster, fifteen feet tall at the shoulders on average, with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, complete with tusks. It sounded pretty nasty, even before listening to Harper’s rendition of the story as she excitedly babbled on. She tended to repeat details, embellishing them further every time, and sometimes got so excited about what she was saying that she tripped over the words and got tongue-tied. It was kind of cute and endearing, almost making me want to protect the girl or something.

“You know, you’re really lucky,” Harper abruptly informed me. “I mean, in some ways. Not in every way, obviously. Lots of bad stuff happens around you, but still… lucky.”

“Lucky in that I’ve never fought a Gajasimhas?” I asked, confused by the shift in subject.

Her head shook quickly at that. “What? No, that’s totally unlucky. Those things are awesome. You’re lucky because you don’t just have a girlfriend, you have two. I mean, you’re dating super-hot warrior princess and super-cute Asian gamer babe. Seriously?” She held a hand up to me, gesturing to it. “Seriously, dude. Dude. Say what you want about all the trouble you get into, but as far as that goes, you pretty much hit triple sevens twice in a row.”

Well, when she put it like that, I couldn’t help but give the girl the high five she was looking for. But we also really needed to work. So right after that, I put a hand on one of the books we had found. “This one’s about places in Africa. You wanna look in that one and I’ll look at… what’s this one?” My other hand tilted up another book to read the spine. “Camelot: Facts In The Fiction?”

“Meh.” Harper shrugged at me. “The King Arthur stuff is a little overdone. Eiji says everyone wants to do a project on that. We should do something new. Besides,” she added sagely, leaning closer across the table, “I’m pretty sure most of these stuffy old professors wouldn’t know what Camelot was really like if it fell on top of them.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I teased, “Maybe they should consult you on the subject. Or me. I’m sure a couple of Bystander-kin know more about Camelot than people who might’ve been alive back then. Or at least had a father or grandfather who was. Actually…” Pausing, I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “That Percival guy on the Committee was part of the whole Camelot thing. I wonder if they consulted him for this book. It might be more accurate than you think.”

The other girl met my gaze for a moment before abruptly laughing. “Okay, maybe you have a point. I mean, if you want to do it on that…” Trailing off, she looked to me expectantly.

I thought about it for a few seconds then, letting my head tilt from one side to the other indecisively. “Hmmm…” In the end, however, I shook my head. “Nah, you’re right. Lots of people are gonna do Camelot. And they’ll definitely expect it from a couple Bystander-Kin. Probably lots of Camelot and Atlantis projects. Let’s look at one of the lesser used ones. Like in that Africa book.” I gestured to the one I had indicated earlier. “Gotta be something interesting there.”

She agreed, and we started poring through it together to find something we could both agree on. The hard part was actually settling on one. There was, utterly unsurprisingly, a lot of magical history in Africa. Lots of human settlements that, according to Crossroads history, had been wiped out in one way or another. A lot of that was probably pretty accurate as far as being attacked by evil Strangers went, though I had a few questions (that would probably go unanswered) about how much of the population in those ancient cities had been fully human.

Unfortunately, before we could finally pick one in particular and run with it, I felt someone approach our table from the back of the library even as a new (and unwelcome) voice spoke up.

“Careful Harper,” Zeke warned with a smirk that he had to have practiced in the mirror to look that annoying, “you don’t want to end up like other people that Chambers here works with. You know what happens to them.” As he spoke, the boy stopped to fold his arms loosely.

“No, Zeke.” The response didn’t come from Harper or myself. It came from the nearby bookshelf, where Doug was standing with his finger on one of the volumes there. His attention, however, was focused solely on the boy by our table, voice soft. “Why don’t you tell us what happens to people who work with Flick? I’m sure your perspective on it will be very illuminating.”

“Wh–” Zeke glanced that way, and for just a second I thought he would completely back off. He actually held a hand up in surrender, head shaking. “Look, I didn’t even–I shouldn’t have…” But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just completely let it go, no matter how much he obviously knew that he should have. “I just think it’s a little… you know, surprising that you’re okay with this.”

Slowly lowering his hand from the book, Doug turned to face him fully. His voice had gone even softer. “Surprising that I’m okay with what, Zeke?”

“This, her.” Zeke was gesturing to me, of course. “She brought Rudolph back and puppeted him through the halls of the hospital in front of everyone there, man! And you’re just completely cool with still being on a team with her? You don’t have a problem with that? Seriously?”

Right, the story of what had happened to reveal my newly inherited necromancer abilities had made the rounds well before Gaia or anyone else could do anything to stop it. Rudolph’s moving body had been seen by too many people, and the rumors had spread out quickly from there. So now the people around school had even more reasons to stare at me. Especially since the fact that Rudolph’s body had done the impossible thing of actually using his powers post-death.

For a moment after Zeke said those words, Doug was quiet. He just stood there, silently watching the other boy before looking to me with eyes that very briefly revealed just how lost the boy actually felt right then. Then he looked back to Zeke. “Yeah, I have a problem with it. I have a pretty god damn big problem with Flick bringing Rudolph’s dead body back and making it walk around. Specifically the part where my friend is dead. That’s the part I have issues with. Or did you just sort of skip past that in your rush to grab onto something else you could blame her for? Tell me something, Zeke, did you get necromancer powers too? Because I’m pretty sure you’re using Rudolph as even more of a prop than she did.”

Before Zeke could actually say anything to that, Harper was on her feet. “Okay!” she chirped, clearly uncomfortable with things getting serious at all. “I think that’s enough drama for one day. You wanna look through the book tonight and lemme know what you think we should focus on at breakfast?” she asked me then, smiling brightly. “I still think Amina of Zaria would be a great subject! But, you know, if you find a better one…”

“She sounds pretty cool,” I agreed. “And the ahhh… real story of Zaria could be a good project. Definitely lesser known than Camelot. But I’ll… uhh, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Even as I spoke, from the corner of my eye I could see Zeke. The boy clearly wasn’t accustomed to being ignored like this, particularly right after being put down the way Doug had. He looked like he kept wanting to either say something or walk away. But he couldn’t work out what to say, and walking away probably felt like he was retreating. So he stood there awkwardly.

Giving me a bright smile and nod that made her bright-pink pigtails bounce, Harper looked to Zeke. “C’mon! I made some raspberry chocolate chip cookies, you’ve gotta try one! Or two.”

With that, the girl basically dragged him away, while he made token noises of protest. Which… yeah, Harper clearly did all that specifically to avoid any more conflict, defusing the situation through offering baked goods. As far as that kind of thing went, it was nicely done. Except for the part where Zeke got cookies.

That left me standing there with Doug. Glancing to the boy, I hesitated. Boy, he looked different without his hat. Which he would hopefully be getting back soon, since his Grandpa Sulan had been working with Sariel, Theia, and the others at the Atherby camp for the past couple of days, ever since Larees had met with him at the funeral. Apparently not only had it not taken much to get him on-side, he actually was already pretty much read in on most things by Percival. Ever since he’d been banished from the old colony world, Sulan had been working as a sort of ‘fixer’ or assistant for Percival, doing things that the Committee member couldn’t focus on doing himself.

Which was all super useful for us, since it meant he was already onboard with what needed to happen. So he’d been at the camp teaching them how to use the anti-Whisper spell.

There had also apparently been a bit of a… conversation between Doug and Sulan over just how much Sulan had known about and not talked over with him. From what little I’d heard about it, Sulan had said that he wanted to wait until Doug was older instead of forcing him into making a choice while he was still a first-year student.

I obviously had questions about how much they knew about the Whisper spells if Percival had been so close to Sulan. But it was going to have to wait, since Sulan had been busy and Percival wasn’t exactly someone I had ready access to.

For the moment, however, Doug was still without his hat. Which looked weird, but I shook myself and focused. “Anyway, uh, I’m sorry he brought up–I mean…”

“It’s not your fault when someone else brings up painful subjects, Flick,” the boy tiredly reminded me. “And another thing.” Looking straight to me, he narrowed his eyes. “Weren’t you going to start learning about that necromancy thing from Gabriel Prosser’s friend?”

“Right, yeah…” Flushing a little guiltily, I nodded. “He said it’d take a bit to get his friend around, whoever they are. So I sort of told him to take his time. I’m not exactly in a rush to use it.”

Doug shook his head at that, sighing. “Look, don’t avoid using that new power of his just because it creeps you out, or because of what idiot jackasses like that think. It’s a useful power. If you handicap yourself by avoiding it, you’ll just be making things harder for everyone. Maybe it’s creepy and lots of bad guys use it. But so what? Bad guys use lots of things. It’s a tool. And you’re a tool if you don’t use everything you’ve got. You’re dealing with a fucking necromancer as like… an archenemy, Flick. Why would you avoid practicing with the same power he’s got? There is no scenario in which that’s not at least slightly useful.”

Once he finished, I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times before hesitantly nodding. “Yeah, I um… yeah, point. I’ll tell Gabriel I’m ready to practice with it, whenever his friend is available.

“I just hope practicing necromancy doesn’t require a wardrobe change, because I do not have enough black clothes and eyeliner.”

******

So, to that end (the learning necromancy part, not the needing more eyeliner part), I told Gabriel that night as I was visiting the camp to see Avalon, my father, and Tabbris that I was ready to meet the person he had in mind to teach me. He’d smiled faintly and said that they had just been waiting for me say the word because they didn’t want to rush me. My new teacher would be ready to meet me down by the lake after I took some time with the others.

So, I sat with Avalon for awhile (she was practically bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of bed), and had a snack with Tabbris and my dad. We also played a game of Clue at the table in Dad’s cabin. Tabs told me all about learning more of the anti-Whisper spell from ‘Mr. Sulan’ earlier. Apparently they were pretty sure they’d be able to cast the spell themselves within the next day or so. Which was fast for such powerful and unique magic, but then again, Seosten tended to have a leg-up on the whole magic thing with their perfect memories.

When I was done there, I gradually made my way through the camp, greeting people who greeted me in turn until I reached the edge of the lake and looked around. “Okay,” I murmured, “how am I supposed to know when my necromancy teacher is coming? And why do I feel like asking that out loud is the cue for them to be right behind me?” Turning with those words, I looked expectantly… only to find no one there. “Huh. Guess I was–”

“Wrong?” A voice spoke up from what had been in front of me a moment earlier before I turned. “Nope, I’m just one step ahead.”

Turning back, I found myself staring at a man in a dark blue coat that reached all the way to his ankles. It was open, revealing white pants, a thick brown belt with a golden buckle, button-up white shirt with frills, and a bolo tie. His body was big and burly, like one of those stereotypical rugby players or British football fans. I wasn’t exactly sure why that was the comparison that immediately leapt to mind, but it was.

Oh, and he didn’t have a head. Or rather, the head he had was held under one arm rather than being attached to his neck where it should have been.

“Get it?” the head asked with a wide grin. “One step ahead?”

Okay, even given everything I’d experienced that year, this one still threw me. I stumbled back with a surprised yelp, eyes widening. “Oh shi–” Catching myself at the last second, I stared wide-eyed. “You–what–what?”

Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t connected to his body, the head that I was staring at looked fairly normal. Actually, in some ways it reminded me of Ruthers. He had the same sort of bulldog appearance with the heavyset, stubborn face and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. He looked, as Ruthers did, like a heavyweight boxer or, as my first impression had said, like a rowdy soccer hooligan who got drunk in the pub a lot. His dark blond hair was a bit long, and fashioned into a ponytail that I immediately pictured as a handle.

“Sorry.” The head had the sense to look admonished. “That’s my fault. Part of the deal with ol’ Gabe. I made him promise to let me meet you on my terms. I like to see people’s reactions. Always did like pranks… often a little too much, some might say…” His voice trailed off then, eyes looking out toward some distant memory before he focused.

“Ahem, sorry about that. Err, pleasure to meet you, Miss Felicity Chamber–Flick, they said you like Flick. Flick Chambers, was it?” The hand that wasn’t busy holding onto his head extended toward me. “It’s alright,” he assured me, “it won’t bite. It’s this end you’ve gotta watch.” His other hand waved his head demonstrably.

Right. Yeah, I guess I’d seen weirder. This had surprised me, but… well, he seemed friendly enough. And Gabriel had vouched for him. So I shook his hand briefly, “Yup, I’m Flick. And you’re… you’re…” I hesitated before wincing. “Um. I’m trying not to stare, but you’re supposed to look at people’s eyes when you’re talking to them. So I’m not sure what the etiquette is.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. If I was self-conscious, I’d find a better way than lugging this thing around in a hand,” the man informed me. “I do, sometimes. Got myself suits that can hold my head right in place where it’s supposed to be. But I wanted to meet you as ahhh… naturally as possible, you might say.”

His shoulders rose in a shrug before he offered, “Anyway, name’s Abraham Van Brunt, but I’ve always been partial to Brom Bones. Though these days, most people just know me as–”

“The Headless Horseman?!” I blurted out loud, eyes widening even more than before. “Like, the whole Ichabod Crane Headless Horseman?”

“You know,” the man pointed out, “that was intentionally left vague in the story. Me being the Horseman, I mean.”

“But you are headless,” I reminded him, feeling a bit silly. “I mean, not headless because it’s right there. But…” Trailing off, I hesitated before raising a hand. “You know, I’m getting a little dizzy trying to talk to you when you’re… umm…”

“What? Oh.” The man, who had been juggling his head, tossing it back and forth and in circles between his hands, finally stopped. “Sorry, habit. You’re right though, I’m the Headless Horseman. One and the same. Only the story wasn’t quite accurate. Let’s see… the short version is that Katrina was a witch, and ol’ Ichabod was a Heretic there to find her. Err, not that he knew she was the one he was looking for, specifically. Katrina wasn’t even her real name, just some pseudonym she used.”

“And the whole Headless Horseman story?” I prompted, fascinated by this.

He winced. “Yeah, that was me. I made it up. I was an even bigger idiot back then, you see. I was smitten by Katrina, and when Ichabod started investigating her, I thought he was courting her. So I made up the story to chase him out of town.”

A brief look of shame crossed his eyes then as the man muttered, “Ended up playing right into Katrina’s hands. Distracted Ichabod at the worst time, and she… well… she took him. I saw it from my disguise and tried to get away, but she took me too. Said she liked my ideas, so she used an old dark ritual and… well, here I am.” He gestured to himself.

“Wait, wait, you were born human and changed into this by magic?” I blurted, staring at him. “That’s–I didn’t know that was… I mean…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed easily. “Trust me, kid, you’ve still got a lot left to learn. And speaking of which, we should get started on those lessons. It’s gonna be a long night. So uhh.” He then proceeded to literally toss his head to me.

“Let’s get a head start.”

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