Buddy System

Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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The Third Degree 21-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter Wonderland 18-06

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Please note that there was a brief mini-interlude focusing on Avalon and Gaia posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button. 

Twelve werewolves might not have seemed like a lot when compared to the fact that this place was filled with Alters of every shape and size. After all, Alters weren’t like humans. Most of them had some kind of enhanced ability or power that, ostensibly, allowed them to defend themselves from threats.

Unfortunately, most of the Alters in the mall were civilians. They weren’t trained or accustomed to fighting. They did have powers, but the majority had seldom if ever used them in an open battle. That’s why they were here, because they didn’t want to fight. They were supposed to be safe in this place. And they had been, until I came. Or rather, until Pace and her band of murder-wolves chased me in here.

The werewolves, by contrast, were a cohesive combat unit. They had clearly trained extensively and knew exactly what they were doing. Each moved with purpose, following what was obviously an actual plan. They were ready (and a little too willing) to kill anything that got in the way of their objective.

So basically, the wolves were an elite commando unit while most of the Alters in the mall barely counted as armed security guards with an afternoon of training and some kind of firearms certificate.

There were, however, legitimate threats to the werewolves even in this place. One of whom was currently smashing one of the invaders’ hairy faces repeatedly into the wall until it was little more than bloody mush while simultaneously holding another of the wolves pinned against the ground by impaling him through the back with the jagged end of the broken telephone pole that served as his club.

“Nyet!” Buddy lectured, giving the one in his hand another hard slam into the wall face-first (what was left of his face anyway) “No coming in srough dze roof! Alvays use dze provided entrances!”

Unfortunately, Buddy couldn’t be everywhere at once. There were still others that were good in a fight (such as Quing), but they were outnumbered, and the werewolves were rapidly spreading through the mall. People were screaming, and it looked like the invaders were trying to do as much damage as possible as quickly as they could. Which was obviously meant to spread that chaos even further.

Asenath was dealing with another of the werewolves. He was an enormous figure (as far as humanoids went), towering over the other girl by a good three feet in his half-wolf form. And despite his size, the damn thing was also wicked fast. Almost as fast as Asenath herself. The two of them crashed through one of the glass window displays of a nearby store, and all I could do was hope Senny would be okay.

Because Shiori and I had our own problems. Namely: Pace. The werewolf-heretic was stalking toward us almost leisurely considering what was going on in all around the mall. Her smirk hadn’t wavered. “Here girls,” she cooed while quirking a finger. “If you do what you’re told, I’ll give you a treat. And if you don’t… well, I’ll still give you a treat.” She leaned forward, stage-whispering, “The treat is both of you screaming in agony. It’s really a treat for me, but I thought you might both be generous people.”

My mouth opened to say something, but the next thing I knew, the girl was right in front of me. She moved so fast her motion was a blur, like Asenath. Her fist hit me in the chest hard enough to send me flying backwards. The air rushed out of me as I hit the ground and skidded before catching myself.

Not long ago, that would have left me on the floor for at least a few seconds as I recovered from the harsh punch. But now, I drew my legs back and did a quick kip up to get back to my feet, staff raised.

Shiori was in the midst of blocking two of Pace’s lightning-quick punches. Then an unexpected kick took her in the leg, and I saw the Asian girl stumble before turning it into a roll that carried her under Pace’s follow-up swing. The crazy bitch was already spinning to grab her, but Shiori planted a hand to stop her roll, using that to lift her body up and kick out so that one of her feet slammed into Pace’s face.

I wanted to run back that way instantly. But I knew even more bad things could happen to this place if I didn’t do something else first. If the security enchantments that Wyatt had provided went off, he could call a bunch of Heretics into this place without knowing what he was sending them into. I couldn’t let that happen, so my hand grabbed for the little button that he had provided before I left the school. Rubbing my thumb over the thing to activate it, I muttered, “In trouble, but do not send Heretics that don’t know about everything. Repeat, do not send anyone that doesn’t already know everything. Pace and some of the werewolves are here starting shit, but we have innocent Alters stuck in the crossfire.”

Hoping that message would be enough to convince Wyatt not to alert everyone and their dog to descend onto this place (which would obviously raise a hell of a lot of questions I couldn’t answer), I kicked myself into gear again and ran to where Pace and Shiori were still fighting. Pace obviously had the edge in several ways. For every hit that Shiori landed, the crazy werewolf-heretic landed two or three. But I had the feeling that Pace hadn’t expected the other girl to be able to keep up with her at all.

As I approached, she looked over her shoulder at me while simultaneously catching Shiori’s fist. “Oooh,” she purred. “Two for one.” Then she shoved the other girl away from her before spinning to face me. Her foot came up and around to kick my staff aside, and I saw the gleam of excitement in her eyes. “You wanna make me bleed? You wanna take my toy?” Her hand gestured to the choker around her neck. “Come take it then,” she snarled gleefully. “Come break my bones and rip my throat.”

My eyes flicked over her shoulder to check on Shiori. The other girl was standing there at the ready position, having taken the time to produce her disc weapons. She gave me a quick nod of assurance.

“Why’d you come here, Pace?” I demanded while giving my staff a slow spin as I charged it up. “What the hell do you want? These people didn’t do anything to you. Hell, you’re part Alter yourself, so you know they’re not all evil. But you bring a pack of werewolves in here for… for what? What’s the point?”

“The point?” Pace echoed, sounding amused by the question even as she lazily stretched. “Well, you did kill Valentine, naughty girl. I mean, I don’t really care. It’s a fake holiday made up by the greeting card companies anyway. Also, he was pretty rude. But you really ticked off the other big bad wolfies.”

I shook my head at that while trying to ignore the sound of fighting going on in the background. Forcing myself to focus, I retorted, “Bullshit. That may be why you could talk the pack into this, but it’s not why you’re here. You don’t care about the one I killed. Not to mention that if you don’t care, Doxer definitely doesn’t. Does he even know you’re a wolf? You’re here for something else, aren’t you?”

“Eh,” the psychopath gave a dismissive shrug. “Two birds, one stone. They get revenge for Easter—ahh–” She rolled her eyes. “Wrong holiday. They get revenge for Valentine, and me? I get to hurt you. Trice’ll like that.” Eyes narrowing pointedly, the girl added, “Especially right after your little moment.”

Little moment? I blinked once before my eyes widened. Wait, did she mean… was she talking about my… my kiss with Avalon? How could they know about that already? How could they know about it at all? Fuck, just how good was their spy? I thought no one saw that, and Avalon wasn’t the type to go blabbing about it. So how the hell did Pace (and presumably Trice and Doxer as well) know about it?

Shiori looked confused, her gaze blinking up at me with a slight frown of uncertainty. And that was the opening that Pace needed. In a motion so fast that I barely registered her movement, the girl spun to kick Shiori in the stomach. At the same time, she thrust her hand out toward me. I had a brief glimpse of the girl’s arm turning white and hard, as if a bony exoskeleton had covered it before a sudden pain abruptly flared up in my shoulder. An eight inch long shard of bone like a big dart was sticking out, while blood leaked from the wound. It hurt, but Pace’s mocking laughter was probably even worse.

It was laughter that was abruptly cut off as what looked like a bolt of lightning slammed into her. Pace’s giggles turned to a cry, and the crazy bitch was sent flying away from me, hitting the floor and rolling.

It was Shiori. The girl’s mouth was still open from the bolt of lightning breath that she had hurled at Pace, and she took two quick steps to me while panting a bit. “Can’t… do that… again for a few minutes,” she admitted quietly once her movement brought her to my side. “Have to recharge.”

Utter turmoil still filled the mall. Screams reached me now and then, even as I tried to tune them out for the time being. I had to focus. Had to deal with Pace, then the rest of the pack would probably take off. She was the one leading this particular raid, which meant we had to put her down before anything else.

Not to mention the fact that the crazy bitch still had the necklace that I had promised to find for Roxa.

Nodding to Shiori, I reached up to grab the bone dart, yanking it out of my shoulder before tossing the thing aside. Rolling my arm, I grimaced while trying to ignore the pain. The Peridle healing would take care of it. I muttered, “Sent Wyatt a message, told him not to bring the whole cavalry. Not here.”

Unfortunately, it also meant that he probably couldn’t easily just go gallivanting off to our rescue, since he wouldn’t be able to tell the Pathmaker people why he needed to go. Hopefully Gaia would be able to do something about that in a way that didn’t draw too much attention, but I knew that even she had to be careful. Especially with Ruthers keeping an eye on what was going on through his little minions.

All of which meant we were on our own for at least the next few minutes. We had to deal with Pace.

Meanwhile, the girl herself had gotten back to her feet. She was staring daggers at the two of us while cracking her knuckles. “Bad little presents,” she muttered with obvious annoyance. I could see scorch marks on her clothing from the lightning that Shiori had hit her with. “Mummy’s gonna spank you.”

“You okay?” Shiori asked quietly without taking her eyes off of Pace. Her discs spun in her hands.

Nodding, I rubbed my wounded shoulder with my free hand before focusing. “I’ll be fine. It’s not bad.”

“Good.” The dhampyr took a step toward our opponent. “Then let’s go get Roxa’s necklace for her.”

Obviously hearing that, Pace’s smirk grew. The Hispanic girl gave a sharp shake of her head, sending the long half of her obnoxiously green hair flying. “You want my toy for baby-wolf?” she all-but purred at us before reaching behind her back to tug out a pair of what looked like sickles with chains attached to the bottom of the handle. At the end of the chain there was a heavy iron ball.

Thanks to Katarin’s class, I knew what they were called. Kusarigama. They were a Japanese weapon. The general point was to wrap the chain with the weighted ball around an enemy and then use that to get close and hit with the kama, or sickle. One of the Heretic-born first year students that I hadn’t spent enough time around to know very well used one. But Pace was using two at the same time, and I had no idea what hers were capable of. Fuck, this must be what it felt like for Alters to fight Heretics, never knowing what kind of powers they were going to pull out or what their insane weapons could do.

Snapping the chains with the balls out testingly, Pace cracked her neck. “Then come take it, Presents.”

Pointing my staff at an angle behind me, I used part of the charge to blow myself forward, straight at the girl. Nearing her, I brought the staff up and around, slamming it into the floor. The enhanced strength meant I could stop myself like that without snapping my arms. As the end of the staff planted into the floor, one of Pace’s chains wrapped around it. But I used the momentum to swing my body up and around in a kick that slammed into her arm, knocking her off-balance so the chain released.

Still spinning from the full kick, I dropped down and swing the staff low at her legs with both hands. Pace, however, just flipped over it, landing beside me with a cackle of amusement. One of her kamas swung for my shoulder, only to be deflected as one of Shiori’s discs came flying in to ricochet off it. The impact knocked Pace’s arm back, but she used the motion to swing herself into a full butterfly kick high in the air, knocking the second disc out of the way even as one of her chains flew down at me.

Before the chain could hit me, I brought the staff up. As the chain wrapped around it, I suddenly felt my weapon grow incredibly cold almost immediately. A layer of ice had already formed around it by the time I quickly hit the button to send a kinetic blast out. The blast shattered the ice, and I was able to yank the weapon back. But it had been a very close thing. Another second or two and the staff would’ve frozen solid. Okay, so don’t let the chains wrap around the weapon. Or myself. Got it.

Pace was still right on top of me. She came in hard, one of her kama blades swinging up at my midsection. Charging the staff again, I shoved myself up and caught the blade with it before pivoting to smack the other kama out of the way with the other end. My foot went up to kick the girl, but she twisted aside and inward, driving an elbow toward my face that I barely turned my head away from.

Feeling Shiori’s arrival, I turned abruptly and stooped. The other girl took a quick leap, using my back as a spring-board to fling herself up and into the air before she turned over to throw both of her discs down onto either side of Pace. A line of electricity connected each disc, catching her in the middle. And while she was jerking backward with a cry, I brought the staff up and around, triggering some of the stored energy into a blast just as the staff itself took her right in the face. The blow spun her around so that her back was to me, and I flung myself into a full spinning hook kick that slammed into the girl’s back. Just before my foot landed, Pace’s body was covered in that bone-armor once more. It didn’t hurt my foot, the strength I had inherited made sure of that. But the armor was also good enough that Pace wasn’t hurt nearly as much as she should have been.

Shiori summoned her discs back and went straight forward, holding the discs in her hands to deflect both of the kama blades as Pace swung them at her. The armored werewolf-heretic lashed out with a sudden kick that made Shiori stumble. But before she could follow up, I came at her with a wide swing to catch the girl’s attention. She spun toward me, catching the staff with one of her blades while sending the chain of the second one at my face. I threw myself into a backward roll, using a bit of charge from my staff to send myself further away from her chain.

Rolling to a stop along the floor, I tugged at the ends of my staff even as I came up into a kneeling position. In one move, I pulled my weapon into its bow-configuration and tugged the energy-arrow into place. Sighting in, I released the arrow before Pace could realize that my being away from her didn’t make me less of a threat anymore.

Sure enough, she was focused on Shiori, waiting for me to get back up. The arrow caught the chain of one of her kusarigama, tearing it from her grasp before sending it flying away down the mall corridor.

Spinning toward me with her remaining weapon, she spat, “Technical foul!” Literally. A glob of greenish ooze launched itself from her mouth with the words, and I flung myself sideways to avoid it. The stuff landed on the floor where I had been, immediately melting a hole into the floor.

Before she could follow up with that, Shiori was on her. The crazy girl had to spin to block one of the flying discs, ducking the second one.

“You think that’s bad?” I asked while using the distraction to push myself up and set my weapon back into staff mode as I ran back to her. “You should see the rest of my tricks.”

With that, I brought the staff up and around while triggering the portals on the ends. At a pull from my power, sand erupted from each end of the staff. A quick spin filled the small area around us with the stuff, creating a thick, obscuring cloud. But I could sense everything Pace had on her, which meant I could sense her.

She was trying to say something, but I immediately shoved some of the sand into her open mouth, sending as much of it as I could down to choke her. I focused it into her eyes and nose, flooding her face with more and more sand while clouds of it continued to spin out around us.

Even then, Pace fought like a wildcat. Her foot came up and around so fast I could barely react to it even though I sensed the movement. Jerking my face out of the way, I still took the kick along the side of the head hard enough to briefly daze me.

But Shiori was there as well. Sensing the other girl catching Pace’s remaining weapon before she could follow up on me, I called out, “Sand!”

It wouldn’t mean anything to Pace, since there was already sand all around us. But Shiori knew what I meant. Instantly, I felt the girl use her power to shift her body entirely into sand. As far as Pace knew, she had just abruptly disappeared.

Taking a quick step back, I waved a hand to send all of the sand into the air above us while keeping my staff up. “I don’t suppose you’ve had enough yet?”

She stood there, covered by her bone armor as she looked one way, then the other, obviously warily watching for Shiori. “Enough?” Her laugh filled the air. “I’m famished. Yum, yum, yum. So hungry for more. I’ll eat you right up. Just like a big… bad… wolf.”

Her tone turned mockingly sweet then. “What’sa matter, huh? Did your friend run away scared? I’ll keep you nice and warm until she gets back.”

“Two problems with that,” I informed her. “One, you’re too cold to keep anyone warm.”

“My wounded heart,” she retorted airily, still watching warily for Shiori. “But you said two problems.”

Nodding, I took a breath. “And two, Shiori didn’t go anywhere.”

As I said those words, the Asian girl herself reformed directly in the middle of the cloud of sand that I had held up in the air above us. Pace instantly sensed her and jerked backward, but it was too late. Shiori had finished recharging. Her mouth opened, and another bolt of lightning erupted from it. The bolt slammed into Pace, taking the girl full on from above.

At the exact same time, I had already launched myself forward with a blast from my staff. Whipping it around, I used the last of the stored energy in a blow directly into the already-reeling girl’s bone-armored face. The bone shattered under the impact and she was flung away with a cry, skidding along the floor before hitting the wall. She lay there, mostly still while groaning quietly.

It wouldn’t keep her down for long, I knew. Not with werewolf healing and whatever other powers she had that would get her back on her feet. We had to follow up.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to. Even as Shiori landed on the floor and I took a step that way, the sound of something moving incredibly quickly reached my ears. I barely had a chance to register what it was before the thing slammed into my side. The staff fell from my hands, and there was a heavy weight on my chest as I fell onto my back.

A werewolf perched there in full wolf form, growling hatefully at me with his front paws pinning my shoulders down. The thing, even as a full wolf, was huge, and its teeth were right at my throat. Even with my strength, I didn’t have the leverage to throw the thing off me before it could bite.

“Flick!” Shiori shouted, spinning my way only to go still as the wolf growled menacingly and put its open mouth nearer to my throat.

“Awww.” Pace had picked herself up, breathing hard as she dusted herself off. “So close, but now we’re still taking the blonde present. Wave goodbye. Say bye bye, bye bye!”

“Bye,” I started while snapping my fingers once, then a second time. As my hand moved back into the shape of a grip, the watch on my wrist popped open, and the silver knife from my mother flew out of the contraption that Columbus had made. It leapt into my hand, and I slammed the blade into the paw of the wolf that was pinning my shoulder down.

The wolf gave a deafening noise that was half-scream and half-howl. Its paw lifted off me, and I twisted free. Coming to my knees, I shoved the silver knife into the wolf’s throat, dragging it along to cut as much as I could before driving the blade up into his brain. The golden aura sprang up around me, and the orgasmic feeling rushed through my body.

“Bye.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-03

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A sneezing sound interrupted before I could say anything in response to Senny’s announcement. A familiar sneezing sound, that immediately made my head snap over toward Shiori.

Sure enough, Choo was sticking his head up out of a container on her hip that she had just opened. The little warthog-like Jerkern was looking around with obvious interest, head turning this way and that.

“You brought Choo?” I asked, surprised at the appearance of the little guy. “How?”

Shiori blushed, rubbing a couple fingers over his head. “I couldn’t just leave him alone for three weeks. Even if Avalon visited him, he’d get lonely. So… she talked to Gaia and found out that as long as he’s in one of these containers like they give us for our weapons, he’s technically not on school grounds because of the whole extra-dimensional pocket thing. If it stays closed and he never pops out, the security spells won’t detect him. So I put him in there and it let me take him through the grounds to the portal to go home. I was about to tell you about it, but then Senny talked about her big surprise with bringing us here, and I sort of got distracted.”

After hesitating slightly, I smiled and reached out to rub under the Jekern’s pig-like snout. “I get it. Wouldn’t want to make you think Shiori abandoned you, would we, little guy?”

In response, Choo sneezed sparks of electricity over my hand, then gave it a quick, curious lick.

“I think he’s hungry,” I informed the other girl as the little lightning-warthog continued licking my palm.

Shiori snorted, reaching into her pocket. “He’s always hungry.” Pulling out a raw carrot, she offered it to him. “Here you go, buddy.” Her smile grew as Choo proceeded to start chomping happily at the thing.

While the other girl was busy feeding her pet, I focused on looking around once more. “So this whole place is just, like, one big hiding place for Alters?” I murmured quietly, marveling even more as I looked around at all the little stores again. Everything looked simultaneously incredible and normal. The Alters here may have looked strange to me, but the things they were doing were just ordinary, like they were normal people trying to live their lives. Of course there were things I wouldn’t see in the Bystander world. They were selling magic, I saw one silver-skinned figure literally step through a solid wall before continuing on their way, and those pixies were still flying around. But at the heart of it, when you looked past all the uniqueness, they were just… people, people trying to live.

“It’s more than a hiding place,” Senny replied, watching the same people that I was. Her voice was soft and contemplative. “It’s a home. Like I said, it’s a place they don’t have to worry about being hunted.”

I felt the approach of someone with a gun and plethora of bladed weapons, along with a notepad, radio, and some jingling coins. Turning that way, I found tall (though not nearly as tall as Buddy) humanoid-bird figure with dark blue feathers and a beak. He looked like Falco from Starfox, and he was wearing what looked like a more official security outfit than Buddy. He did not, however, look quite as friendly.

“She’s right,” he spoke up flatly, in a voice that sounded far more gravelly than I would’ve expected it to. And whenever his beak closed far enough while he was talking, there was a sharp clacking noise. “People don’t have to worry about being hunted here. So you endanger that, and I’ll make sure you-”

Then Senny was there, hand on the bird-man’s chest to stop him from stalking closer. “Easy, Quing. You heard the Septs. Felicity and Reathma are allowed to be here. I already told you, I trust them.”

The bird-man, Quing, apparently, stared over her shoulder at the two of us. “Never said they weren’t,” he ground out with obvious annoyance. “Wouldn’t dream of going against the Septs’ decision. Nope.”

He gave us another look that clearly screamed that he wasn’t going to stop watching us before stalking past. As he did, I noticed that he had a pair of wings separate from his arms. They were folded tight against his back, but rustled with annoyance as if he could barely control himself from lashing out.

Once he was far enough away, I looked to Senny. “That man is not happy about us being here, is he?”

“Quing was the most outspoken voice against it,” the vampire explained quietly, her eyes focused on the pixie shop. “He sees himself as responsible for everyone’s safety. Buddy is the physical and visible deterrent, and Quing is the… subtle one, the one who watches threats and points Buddy at them.”

The big troll himself spoke up then, sounding just as pleased and optimistic as before. “Quing is laser. I am missile. Quing point, I blow up.” Grinning happily, he put his hands together before moving them apart like an explosion while mimicking the sound. “Boom. No more of dze bad guys. Buddy System.”

“Like the military,” Shiori put in. “He paints the target like a laser, then you fly in like a missile and… well, you destroy them.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Makes sense. Isn’t he a Lavinsi?”

“He’s a what?” I blinked, trying to remember if I’d heard that name before. It didn’t sound familiar.

Shiori blushed. “Oh, right, sorry. We learned about them in the Hunter’s track. They’re bird-men with all kinds of vision powers. X-Ray, telescopic, heat, all that stuff. And they’re really, really good at reading body language. A lot of powerful Alters use them as bodyguards because they can tell if someone’s about to attack or even if they’re doing something subtle, like about to use poison. Or even if people are lying. They’re so good at reading body language and facial expressions that a lot of people used to think they were telepathic. Until…” She trailed off, cringing as her expression fell from eager to ashamed. “Until Heretics killed enough of them to figure out what kind of powers they were getting.”

“He is a Lavinsi,” Asenath confirmed. “And Heretics killed most of his family, including his son. That’s why Quing hates them so much. It’s why he doesn’t trust you. I’m sorry, it’s just… the way things are.”

“It shouldn’t be,” I replied flatly while looking after the the way the bird-man had gone. I wondered if he had been a part of Mom’s rebellion. Or would he not have trusted her that much? How different would his life be if Ruthers and his ilk hadn’t erased everyone’s memory? How different would this entire place and everyone in it be if the rebellion had continued, if they hadn’t had their minds wiped?

A heavy hand settled over my shoulder, large enough to practically encircle my entire torso. When I glanced that way, I found Buddy giving me another smile of encouragement. “You are not dze same as dze odzer Heretics. I have seen dzem. Fought dzem. Lost some. Von some. You are not like dzem.”

Taking in a long, deep breath before putting my hand over one of the troll’s fingers to squeeze, I nodded. “I’m trying not to be. Thanks, big guy. Sorry your partner isn’t happy about us being here.”

“Quing will feel better soon,” the big troll assured me while moving his hand. “You vill change mind, not for arguing, but for not doing dze bad sings dzat he sinks you vill do. Dzat is how to change mind.”

Smiling, I gave him a quick pat on the arm. “You’re a smart guy, Buddy. They’re lucky to have you here.” Then I glanced to Asenath. “He mentioned the Septs. Isn’t a Sept like a clan or something?”

“Yes, but not in this case,” Senny replied. “The name Septs comes from the Latin word Septem, or Seven. There’s, you know, seven of them and they’re basically the leadership for this place. Actually, they’re kind of the leadership for a few different places, but this is the biggest one. The rest are all little settlements scattered around here and there. The Septs mediate disputes, pass judgments, establish and interpret the rules, and all the rest of that stuff. They’re the judges and the leaders, and their territory covers… hmm, maybe about a quarter of the United States? A little less. Mostly in the North-West.”

“Does that include Wyoming?” I asked, curious about how this whole thing was set up. “And how do they decide who the Septs are. Is it an inherited title like royalty, or do they fight for it, or… what?”

Senny nodded again. “It covers most of Wyoming, yeah. The edge of their territory is right around the south-eastern area of the state. It comes down around most of Utah, then up through Nevada and cuts through down through most of California. For the most part, they control Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. But there’s obviously disputes. You know, some groups just don’t like following the Septs’ rules, yet they want to live there. It gets violent sometimes.”

She trailed off then, looking away like she was remembering something before shaking it off. “Anyway, like I said, there’s seven of them. As for how they’re chosen, it’s a mixture. Three of the positions are sort-of inherited. Basically, the last person in that position designates a successor. It’s usually one of their relatives, but sometimes it’s a friend or a student. Then the next three are voted in by every ‘member in good-standing’ every ten years. Basically, if you live in this area, follow the rules and aren’t considered an enemy, you get to vote. So three and three, half inherited, half voted on.”

“And the last one?” I asked, even more curious by that point. This was obviously a lot more thought out and civilized than people at Crossroads or even Eden’s Garden would’ve given them credit for.

“Tie-Breaker,” Senny explained. “That’s what the seventh member of the Septs is called, it’s their title. That’s the one that’s earned through battle. One day a year, the Tie-Breaker can be challenged to a fight. If the challenger wins, they become the new Tie-Breaker, the new seventh member of the Septs.”

Shiori whistled low. “And here I thought you guys just sort-of all ran around doing your own thing.”

Chuckling, Senny shrugged. “For the most part, we do. The ones who don’t live here or in one of the smaller settlements mostly do our own thing. Especially those of us who don’t really stay in one place that often. I move in and out of the Septs’ territory a lot. But there has to be some kind of organization. It can’t all just be complete anarchy, even if there’s some who would actually prefer it that way.”

Shaking her head, she gestured before starting off. “Come on, we’ve been standing here long enough. Let me show you around before we meet the Septs. They’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile.”

I blinked, glancing toward Shiori before starting to follow. “They want to talk to us? Um. How much do they know? I mean, you called Shiori your sister, so… did you tell them about, you know, me?”

Senny paused before looking over her shoulder. Her face was serious. “Not all of it. I didn’t tell them about your mother or any of that. I figured that was yours to share if you want to. It’s kind of a big deal. But I did tell them that you were different, that you had a connection to a group of Heretics that don’t think that all of us are evil, and that there’s more to it. If you want to tell them the rest, that’s up to you.”

I hesitated, thinking about it. From what Avalon had explained (after learning from Gaia), since I wasn’t actually targeted directly by the original memory spell, I could tell them about my mother and their little rebellion. The mnemosyne magic wouldn’t stop me, because I was just sharing a story rather than a specific memory. I had learned about Mom’s rebellion myself, which meant there was a rather big loophole. If I chose to, I could tell these Septs that there had been a major Heretic-Alter alliance against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden before their memories were erased. But was telling them that the best idea? My instinct said it was, but I didn’t want to jump into it without considering the consequences.

So I thought long and hard about it, while Asenath began to show us around the place they called Wonderland. We started by going into the store where the pixies were flying around, doing their little shows. Most of them immediately flew away, pretty much hiding behind safety screens or completely disappearing from sight. But a few actually fluttered up a bit closer, clearly curious to see Shiori and me, even if they were still obviously nervous and incredibly skittish about the whole situation.

Well, most of them were obviously nervous. One, however, came flying straight up to hover in front of my face. She was a tiny thing, with bright violet wings and dark blue hair. She was wearing what looked like leather armor, and she had a needle-like sword sheathed at her side. When she spoke, her voice was high-pitched and excitable. “Hello!” She waved with both hands. “Hi, I’m Namythiet!”

“Oh, uh, hi.” Leaning back a little to see the winged figure a little more clearly (she was hovering very close), I examined her. All of them were tiny, of course. But somehow, this one looked even smaller. Going by her face and build, my guess was that she was still a young pixie, maybe in her early teens. Assuming pixies had ‘teenagers’ of course. The point was, most of the others I had seen in the store looked like women (albeit incredibly small ones), and this one looked like barely more than a child.

“Namythut, you said your name was?” I asked, hesitantly holding my hand up with a couple fingers out for her to perch on if she wanted to. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette for that sort of thing was, so I hoped it wasn’t rude.

If she was offended, the tiny pixie didn’t show it. She just landed on my fingers before straightening up. Now that I had a close look at her, I estimated her size at about four and a half inches. Meanwhile, the adult pixies that were hovering in the background, watching us with obvious uncertainty, mostly topped out at about six inches or so. It looked like human heights, except with inches instead of feet.

“It’s Namythiet,” the little pixie corrected me. “Nah-Mee-Thee-It. Namythiet. And you’re a Heretic.”

There was a collective gasp from the other pixies, as if they were afraid that having it stated flat out was going to send me into some kind of murderous rage, or like they thought I’d somehow forgotten about being a Heretic, and reminding me would make me suddenly realize I was supposed to kill them.

“Oh, don’t be such big babies,” Namythiet snapped over her shoulder at the rest of the pixies. “Senny says they’re nice, so they’re nice. You think Senny’s stupid or something? She wouldn’t bring bad Heretics here.” Turning back to me, she puffed herself up a bit proudly, hand settling onto the hilt of her little sword. “Besides, if you guys cause any trouble, you’ll have to deal with me and Clubber.”

Shiori piped up from beside me, “Is that Clubber?” She nodded to the sword at the pixie’s hip.

Giggling, Namythiet shook her head. “Nope. That’s Clubber.” She lifted a hand to point off to the side.

The two of us looked that way, only to find what looked like the world’s smallest, greenest saber-toothed tiger. The thing was obviously still a kitten, its emerald fur bright against the white cushion it was sitting on. It yawned at us, showing off impressive fangs for its size.

Choo had popped out again, and after making sure it was all right, Shiori carefully took him out of her little container and set him down on the cushion beside Clubber. The Jekern and the tiny saber-toothed tiger proceeded to sniff and investigate one another.

“So you and Clubber protect this place, huh?” I asked Namythiet.

The little pixie bobbed her head rapidly. “Yup! Dozeran’s teaching me how to fight. I’m his apprentice!”

“The tie-breaker,” Asenath explained. “Dozeran’s the current tie-breaker of the Septs.” To Namythiet, she added, “You wanna help me show them around? You spend more time here than I do.”

Perking up, Namythiet hovered up off my finger, hands on her hips. “You mean it? You want me to come with?”

I had to smile at her enthusiasm. “Sure, if you’re not too busy keeping the riffraff out of here.”

“Eh,” she waved a hand dismissively. “They can get along on their own for awhile. Clubber!” Whistling, the little pixie flew that way before landing on the saber-toothed kitten’s back. “Let’s go, boy!”

With that, Clubber hopped to the floor with the pixie on his back and pranced to the doorway, with Choo following along behind. Shiori and I looked at each other, giggling in spite of ourselves before we trailed after them.

“So!” Namythiet called up from her mount once we were all back in the mall proper. “Whattaya wanna see first, huh? What’re you interested in, big-Heretic-people?”

“Yeah,” a strangely familiar voice spoke up from nearby. “I’m kind of interested in that too. What are you interested in… Heretics?”

I turned that way. My Stranger-sense, which had been quiet for awhile after giving me the initial screaming warning about all the Alters around me, kicked in again to inform me that the figure standing a few feet away was, in fact, also not human.

“Septer,” Asenath greeted the figure with obvious surprise. “We didn’t expect to see any of you until I brought them to the meeting hall.” To us, she added, “Septer is the title for any member of the Septs. This is one of the inherited positions. His name is–”

“I know his name,” I retorted flatly. I hadn’t looked away from the man, had barely blinked. “And he knows me.”

Calvin. The man who had been my boss at the theater, the one whose little drug ring I had helped dismantle as one of the last things I’d done before being recruited by Crossroads. The man who had pretty much run or had heavy investments in half the businesses in Laramie Falls before I helped Scott take him down so that he had to sell off almost all his holdings.

My drug-dealing, skeevy old boss was one of the Septs. He was one of the people in charge here. He was an Alter.

Well…. shit.

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Winter Wonderland 18-02

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“Miss Chambers.” A hand waved in front of my face as the voice repeated louder, “Miss Chambers.”

Snapping out of my daze, I blinked a couple times and looked around. Bus. I was on the bus that was bringing me back home. Hours had passed since… since that… since Avalon and I had… since we had…

“Miss Chambers.” Again, the hand was back while another shook my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Oh, oh! Bus, right, yes. I straightened, face flushed while looking toward the woman who was speaking. Professor Kohaku. She had accompanied me for the trip. Apparently the plan was for her to stay on the bus after I got off, just watching over me long enough to make sure I made it to my father.

I wasn’t entirely sure what difference it made if I was with my father or not, since if anyone was going to come after me, Dad’s presence wasn’t going to stop them. But I wasn’t in the position to argue. So, I’d taken the little bus ride next to Kohaku and ended up zoning out a bit while thinking about that… that…

“I’m okay,” I quickly blurted before the woman shook me again. My blush was deeper, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Hadn’t stopped smiling throughout the entire trip, ever since… Crap, focus, focus. Don’t zone out. “I’m okay.”

The Asian woman continued to eye me for a moment before speaking carefully. “If something happened at the school that you wish to talk about… something between you and Miss Sinclaire…”

Eyes widening, I blurted, “No. No, nothing. I mean, it’s fine. It’s all good. Really good.” Okay, now I was outright blushing. Stupid traitor blood vessels. “I mean, nothing happened. I’m just… thinking.”

Yeah, just thinking about how that kiss had felt. And about how Avalon had looked at me afterward, how her hand had lingered on my face, and how… how… Okay, Flick, don’t zone out again. Focus.

“I, um.” Clearing my throat, I tried to change the subject by looking at Kohaku. “How are you?”

Rather than answer the admittedly lame question, the professor nodded toward the front of the bus. “We are almost at your stop.” After a brief pause, she added, “If it would make you would feel more comfortable, I can step off with you and find a reason to escort you and your father to your home.”

My head shook a bit at that. “No, it’s—I mean, if anything happens, I’ll let you guys know. Wyatt gave me a couple…” Pausing, I looked around the bus briefly. There was almost no one on it, and the seats surrounding us were empty. Still, I lowered my voice. “He gave me a couple emergency alert things in case anything goes wrong. If any of the you-know-who’s decide to come visit, I’ll set them off.”

“As you wish.” Kohaku put her hand lightly on my wrist. “But if anything happens, promise that you aren’t going to try to play hero, Miss Chambers. Now is not the time to prove how capable you are.”

Meeting the woman’s intense stare, I nodded quickly. “I know. I promise, Professor. I’m not going to do anything stupid. The second anything bad happens, I’ll throw up every alert and alarm that I can. Hell, if it comes down to it, I’ll start a fire and throw up smoke signals. I’m not about to take that risk.”

“Good.” Kohaku took her hand off my wrist. “Make sure that Miss Porter understands the seriousness of the situation as well when she arrives, as well as Mr. Porter. They are both visiting, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I confirmed. “Well, Shiori’s coming in a couple days, and Columbus is visiting late on Christmas. I mean—she’s going back to her adopted parents’ place on Christmas Eve to do the actual holiday stuff, then they’re both coming late on Christmas day.” I didn’t add that it made the most sense that way since night would be when Asenath could be the most active. Nor did I mention the frankly almost predatorily interested sound of Twister’s voice when she had asked if Columbus was coming.

The woman smiled. “Good,” she repeated. “The more people you have with you, the less likely that anyone will make a move.” Pausing, she looked to me. “I know it may sound as though we’re being paranoid, Miss Chambers. But in the case of this particular threat, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.”

My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know, I know. I get it, I promise. No being stupid. No problem.”

She continued to study me for another few seconds before her smile returned. “I’m glad that you know better, Miss Chambers. And as I said, put a little thought into my offer. You would do well in Security.”

The bus had stopped by then, and I promised to think about it before thanking her again for the escort. Then I straightened up, grabbed my bag, and shrugged into my coat before stepping off the bus. As I entered the cold Wyoming winter air, my eyes looked around for my father.

It wasn’t hard to find him. He was the one standing all by himself near the bus, holding a sign up over his head as though he was in a busy airport waiting for some arrival he barely knew. I blinked up toward the sign, and didn’t bother suppressing my groan.

The sign read, ‘Mrs. Felicity Depp.’

Quickly moving across the snowy ground, I reached up to grab the sign out of his hand, face flushed. “Jerk,” I informed my oh-so-hilarious dad. “I haven’t had a crush on Johnny Depp in years.”

Dad continued to smirk while letting me yank the sign away and crumple it up. “I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear that. Ten-year-old you did send that letter swearing your undying love.”

Red-faced, I gave him a light kick, careful to watch my strength. “I was ten. I also thought The Last Airbender was gonna be a great movie, so I was naive and my tastes sucked. Also, you’re a jerk, jerk. A jerky jerk jerkington.”

Even as I said it, however, my arms were wrapping around my father and I held him tight while repeating one last, “Jerk.”

He chuckled before hugging me tight enough to lift me off the ground. “Love you too, Cubby.”

We stayed there like that for a few moments, clutching onto each other. I’d missed my father more than I realized while everything was going on. Yes, I’d seen him not that long ago at Thanksgiving. But still, weeks apart was a long time for the two of us.

Eventually, however, Dad pulled back and smiled down at me. “Wanna grab chicken for lunch on the way back? You’ve gotta be starving after that bus ride.”

“Sure, Dad,” I replied, unable to resist returning his smile. Being around my father just made me… happier. Between that and what had happened back on the island with Avalon when we…

Dad’s fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hey, yo. You okay, kid?”

Well, if I’d been blushing before, now it was practically a five-alarm fire. My head jerked up and down rapidly. “I’m good,” I squeaked. “All good. Hungry. Let’s eat. Eating’s good.”

From the look on his face, Dad knew there was something else going on (I mean, obviously, he wasn’t blind and deaf). Still, he didn’t push. Instead, he led the way to the car.

As we went, I glanced up to see the bus pulling away with Professor Kohaku. Watching the exhaust as it disappeared down the road for just a moment, I shook myself and continued after my father.

It was time for a vacation. And I definitely, undeniably needed it.

******

“So, um, what exactly does the name Reathma mean, anyway? And where does it come from?”

It was a few days later, about a week before Christmas itself. Asenath had said from the beginning of my vacation that she wanted to take Shiori and me somewhere special. And now that Shiori had actually arrived, Senny had insisted on having us come with her to whatever the surprise was. So, while Twister stayed with my dad to make sure nothing happened to him, the three of us took off.

I didn’t know where we were going, since Senny had insisted that we blindfold ourselves and sit in the back seat of the car while she drove. Which, honestly, I could always use the Blemmye’s power to know exactly where we were in relation to home. But that felt like cheating, so I avoided it for the time being.

Senny had been driving and taking more twists and turns than were probably absolutely necessary. She’d said something about taking magical ‘shortcuts’ that would get us much further a lot faster, and apologized for taking the roundabout way. Apparently, however, it was one of the conditions for her bringing us to… wherever she was bringing us. All I knew was that it was apparently a pretty big deal.

Shiori, beside me in the seat and equally blind, continued. “I mean, I tried to look it up, but I wasn’t sure how to spell it. Is it Wraith, like ghost? Wraith-Ma. Like Wraith-Mom. Am I a ghost-mom?”

I could hear the amusement in Asenath’s voice. “Nope. It’s R-E-A-T-H-M-A. Reathma. It just sounds like Wraith-muh. And it’s a word from my father’s homeworld that means oath or promise, basically. A reathma is essentially a blood oath, a um, a promise not for anything specific but just to be there for the other person. If you and someone else have a reathma, you’ll back them them up no matter what happens. If they need protection, food, a place to stay, anything. And they’ll do the same for you.”

She paused then, clearly hesitating before adding in a soft voice. “I hope you don’t mind being named after something from my dad’s world. I know he doesn’t really—he’s not really related to you or any-”

“It’s great,” Shiori interrupted quickly, her voice making it obvious that she was sincere. “It sounds beautiful, really. And… Senny, maybe he’s not my dad, but he’s—he’s yours and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it sounds like the name means a lot. ” After another hesitation, she added in a quieter voice. “I guess I was just kind of wondering if the name had anything to do with my real dad.”

That was kind of a good question, actually. Why had Shiori’s mother named her after a word from Senny’s father’s world instead of giving her a name that had something to do with Shiori’s father? What did that name have to do with Shiori herself other than the fact that Jiao obviously loved her husband. Did she not care as much about Shiori’s father, whoever he was? Or was I reading too much into it?

Asenath was quiet for a few moments before her voice returned. “Mom will tell you everything about your father and… and the rest of it, I promise. She sent a message saying she’d be here by Christmas.”

We continued on that way for another hour before the car finally parked. Asenath got out and helped the two of us out without taking the blindfolds off. Carefully, she led us across what felt and sounded like a vast, mostly empty parking garage considering the echo in the vampire’s voice as she directed us.

We entered what was obviously an elevator, and ascended a ways until a ding announced our arrival. Senny ushered us off, then reached up and removed the blindfolds. “All right, here we go.”

Blinking at the sudden bright fluorescent lights, I looked around, squinting uncertainly. “A hallway?” From what I could see from where I stood, we were in some kind of plain corridor. There was linoleum on the floor, plain, unremarkable walls, and a simple door in front of us. It looked incredibly mundane.

Shiori looked just as uncertain and unimpressed, but Senny just smiled at us before starting to explain. “I can’t exactly tell you where we are. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was just to get permission to bring you both here to begin with. Lots of favors and promises, and you’re going to have to meet the big guy so he can chat with you before you go anywhere else. But still, here we are.”

She continued to hold the doorknob, and I paused while glancing to Shiori to find out if she had any idea what her sister was talking about. Getting nothing but a shrug in response, I coughed. “Okay, got it. Big secret place. But uh, exactly what kind of secret place are we talking about? What’s going on?”

Asenath smiled at us, as if that was the question she had been waiting for. Rather than answer verbally, she pushed the door open and stepped aside, gesturing for us to go ahead. So, after giving Shiori another uncertain look, I took a step forward and moved through the doorway to see what lay beyond.

A mall. We were in a mall, stepping out of one of the service corridors. But it wasn’t an ordinary mall. Even as my eyes took in the semi-familiar layout that immediately screamed ‘mall’, I was recognizing some of the differences. For one thing, I was pretty sure that no actual mall I’d ever heard of would have had an eight and a half foot tall troll wearing a comically undersized security hat on his massive head standing in the middle of the aisle.

It wasn’t just a hat the troll was wearing. He also wore a shirt that probably would have been too big for Shaquille O’Neal. But on the troll, it was tiny and stretched impossibly tight over his huge form. On the front of the shirt, the words, ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’ were written.

My Stranger-sense started screaming at me (obviously), as soon as my eyes spotted the enormous troll. But he wasn’t the only Alter in sight. No. Everywhere I looked there was another non-human. The entire mall was full of them. Looking left, I saw a group of blue-skinned figures that were about three feet tall with bald heads and enormous yellow eyes that took up most of their faces. They were walking quickly past a Menmeran (that was what the bodybuilder frogmen that Scout and Sean had killed on the Meregan planet had been called, I’d eventually found out), who was studying the window display of one of the stores. A window display that didn’t actually have any mannequins. Instead, about a dozen of what I swore were actual flying pixies fluttered about performing some kind of show for the Menmeran and a few other figures who had slowed or stopped to watch. It involved ribbons and really intricate flying sequences. Further in the same store, I caught a glimpse of more elaborate shows going on.

Looking right, my eyes spotted one of the Relukun wood people walking alongside a couple Satyrs as the trio moved into another store that appeared to be selling every movie from the past hundred years or so, if the window display was any indication. And further on, there was an actual clothing store that a group of teenage Alters of half a dozen different species were all loitering in front of, while the proprietor (a humanoid lion whose mane was graying with age) barked angrily at them to come in and buy something or move the hell away from the entrance so that actual customers could get through.

There was more and more to see. Everywhere I looked, there were other Alters going about their day. It was like we’d stepped through a portal into some kind of alternate universe where the whole world was Alters. The entire mall was full of them. Some of the stores I looked at seemed fairly normal and close to what you’d see in the human world, such as the clothing store or the place that was selling movies. Then there were the clearly abnormal ones, such as the place where the pixies were giving their flying shows, or a magic shop that appeared to be selling actual magic things rather than tricks and illusions.

And that was all before I looked up. Because when I did, I realized that this was only the first floor. There were two more floors above that one, with open space clear to the ceiling so that we could see the railings that surrounded the upper landings. In those upper floors, there weren’t stores. Instead, I caught glimpses of actual homes that had been built into what had been the rest of the mall’s shops, tiny apartments here and there, and even what looked like over-sized birdhouses where more pixies fluttered about. I saw wet clothing hanging from lines to dry, children of every shape and size running around, old women gossiping, and even what had to be a teacher leading her students on a field trip. There was an ugly old Harpy perched on the top railing, cackling to herself while watching something that was happening further back on the third floor where I couldn’t see. And more, so much more.

By that point, Shiori had moved up to join me. She looked just as taken aback as I was, her eyes wandering back and forth while she made noises of surprise and fascination. Together, we stared.

“It’s pretty impressive, huh?” Asenath spoke up, moving up on Shiori’s other side while watching us, wearing an amused expression on her face. “Twister and I figured you guys might like to see this.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, the big troll took two lumbering steps our way. Now, I noticed that he carried a gigantic club in one hand. The thing looked like a broken part of a telephone pole that had some railroad spikes driven through it to make a sort-of oversized nailbat.

“Dzese are dzem?” the troll asked in what sounded like an awfully chipper and upbeat voice considering his size and the weapon he was carrying. “Dzese are dze Heretics, Senny? Huh, huh?”

“Easy, Buddy, easy.” Asenath chuckled, smiling as she nodded. “Yes, this is my friend. And my sister.”

I blinked, but it was Shiori who realized how Senny had said it and blurted, “Your name is Buddy?”

The troll grinned and thumped his free hand against the words on his shirt. “I am Buddy System. Using Buddy System for being safe. Funny, yes?” He had what sounded like a heavy Russian accent.

Shiori was clearly delighted by it going by her face, and I had to chuckle too as I eyed his massive spiked club. “Buddy System. Yeah, I guess you would be pretty damn effective at protecting people.”

Buddy gave a clearly proud and delighted smile, thumping his chest again. “Buddy System keep safe.”

Senny spoke up again. “Buddy’s pretty much the first line of defense in this place. I mean, besides the magic keeping people away from it to begin with, of course. He’s kind of the most visible deterrent to stop anyone from starting trouble once they’re in here. And he does a really great job at it.”

“But what is this place?” I asked, looking around at the Alters again. Some of them had stopped short, staring and whispering to one another as they watched us with obviously worried expressions. At least no one had panicked yet, probably because of who we were standing with. That and they had probably been warned about our arrival. Even then, however, I could tell that a lot weren’t very comfortable.

Smiling at the question, Senny replied, “This? On the outside, it’s just some rundown mall in some random city that never gets worked on, yet the humans all somehow leave alone. But in here, on the inside, it’s a place for Alters to go and relax. It’s a place for us to be safe from prying eyes and the wild world out there. There’s no fighting in here, no violence unless the aggressor wants to be banned for life. It’s a place for Alter children to run around without worrying about Heretic boogeymen jumping out of the woodwork, or Nocen monsters snatching them. Basically, it’s home for a lot of Alters.

“Flick, Reathma… welcome to Wonderland.”

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