Charmeine

Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the seventh volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy construct emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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Mini-Interlude 42 – Elisabet

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Of all the places that one might have expected to find the Crossroads Committee Counselor known as Elisabet spending her very valuable free time, one would have to know her quite well to guess that it would be a simple, quaint children’s play at a junior high school. Most people, even many of her co-counselors, would have run through quite an extensive list of other possibilities before ever getting close to that possibility.

The Spanish woman sat in the rear-most row of seats, despite the fact that the auditorium was barely half full. Half a dozen rows sat between her and the nearest other observers, all of whom were either proud parents or bored siblings, raptly watching or studiously ignoring the events on stage as the pint sized performers carried on with their own rendition of Beauty and the Beast.

Most would also have completely missed the arrival of the new figure who stepped into the darkened auditorium. For one thing, the figure simply stepped through the closed doors rather than opening them to admit any of the light from the outside hall. That coupled with the figure’s almost eerily silent movement within the near pitch-black room meant that they were all-but impossible to notice.

Elisabet, however, noticed. There were a wide assortment of powers that made that possible, from the three-hundred and sixty degree vision that gave her a full view of the entire auditorium and everyone within it at all times, coupled with more than a dozen different powers raising her ability to see in the dark or other vision enhancements, to her senses of smell and hearing being so refined that she could have noticed the arrival even if they had been invisible. Then there were the powers that allowed her to sense air being disturbed, the contents of the figure’s pockets, the calcium in their bones,  even the electrical impulses within their brain. It was all-but impossible to sneak up on a member of the Crossroads Committee, no matter what methods one used. Even teleportation was out, considering not only their multiple danger-warning powers, but also the ones that were able to detect most forms of energy teleportation created.

The point was, ambushing a member of the Crossroads Committee would only be possible by someone of equivalent or greater power. And those were exceedingly few and far between. There were the Eden’s Garden Victors, of course. Unlike the Committee, who all shared all of their powers with one another, each Victor (every tribe had two of them) gained a little bit of the power that each member of their tribe gained when killing a Stranger. That made them roughly equivalent to the power of a Committee member.

But the new arrival was not one of the Victors, or anyone anywhere near powerful enough to take Elisabet by surprise. She’d known that they were coming since even before the figure had come through the closed doors.

Still, she didn’t move. Remaining in her seat, the woman waited as the figure crossed the darkened auditorium to join her. Only once the new arrival had taken the next seat over did Elisabet speak. “You’re going to make your move against the Chambers girl.”

Charmeine, temporarily removed from her host, spoke flatly. “They know who I am. She has the choker, and I didn’t figure it out before…” A look of annoyance crossed her face before she spoke again. “I need authorization to use the spell sealers, Jophiel.”

Elisabet… or rather, the Seosten Jophiel, finally turned slightly to look at the woman. “Spell sealers won’t help you against the protection that was put on Liesje Aken’s heir. We already told you, if the girl dies before you remove that spell, all of us will be exposed. We have all ordered her death. We are responsible for your actions. If she dies by your order or hand, the spell will snake its way up through all of us. We will be revealed to the caster, permanently. That, as you have been reminded of repeatedly, cannot be allowed to happen.”

It obviously took Charmeine a moment to collect herself. Jophiel could tell that much even without the assortment of emotion-sensing powers that she had access to. Finally, the dark-skinned Seosten straightened before speaking. “I don’t need them for her. I need the spell sealers for the Chambers girl. She has the same protection spell, along with about half a dozen others. And that’s just the ones that we’ve been able to find without a thorough search.”

She continued before Jophiel could point out the obvious. “And yes, I know that if the Chambers girl dies, we’ll have the same problem. The energy from her death will trigger the spell that points them straight toward all of us. Even if we leave our bodies and get new hosts, it’ll keep leading them right to us. That’s why we’re not going to kill her. I need the spell sealers to block all the other spells on her long enough to take her in and do what we need to do. Before they wear off, I will send her to our space. The humans have no way of getting anywhere near her out there. After that, all we have to do is wait for the spell to wear off while our people work out why we can’t possess her at their leisure.”

She continued, telling the other Seosten the rest of her plan. At the end, Jophiel lifted her chin, considering for a moment. “You come to me rather than to Manakel because…”

“Manakel referred me to you,” Charmeine replied flatly. “You are the one who controls access to the spell sealers. And if this fails, he wants me to be blamed instead of himself. So he made me come to ask you. That way, if it goes wrong, he wasn’t the one who asked you. I was.”

A slight smile crossed the other woman’s face briefly, before she gave a slight nod. “We need this situation to be attended to. You have permission to use one spell sealer. It should be enough for your purposes. Just remember, they do not, as the humans say, grow on trees.” That was putting it lightly. One spell sealer, of the kind that the woman was asking for, required almost a hundred years to gather enough energy to be useful. They were also exceedingly hard to make, which was why their use had to be approved. Turning slightly, she faced Charmeine. “It should also go without saying–”

“Last chance,” Charmeine finished for her, already standing up. “Yes, I am aware. It won’t be a problem this time.”

Turning, she started to leave before pausing to look back. “… why come here?”

Jophiel nodded to the children on stage. “The girl there, she is my host’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.” Her chin rose. “One must, of course, maintain illusions. It also allows me time to think, and plan.” Slowly, she looked that way, her voice turning pointed, “In privacy.”  

The black woman squinted at her for a moment, but clearly didn’t want to risk challenging her superior on that. Turning on a heel, she strode away without another word.

For almost three full minutes, the woman sat there in relative silence, aside from the voices on stage. She watched the play, just as she had been doing with half her attention while the other Seosten had been there.

Finally, she was certain that Charmeine wasn’t coming back any time soon. Letting out a breath, she straightened up, standing from the seat while announcing softly, “She seems confident.”

From the seat that she had just vacated, a voice replied, “Of course she does. Between her arrogance and the fact that her failure will lead to her… punishment, it would be far more surprising if she didn’t project confidence.”

Jophiel turned, looking down at the woman who had spoken. Elisabet. The real Elisabet, now that she had vacated her body while standing up, leaving her host sitting there.

While Elisabet was a Spanish woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, Jophiel looked like a very… buxom brunette Caucasian who was barely in her twenties. She appeared to have more in common with Avalon Sinclaire than she did with her host. She was, in every sense of the word, utterly gorgeous, even for a Seosten.

There was a reason that she had been chosen to take the role of Aphrodite while the Seosten had been playing gods amongst the humans, after all.

For a moment, Jophiel and Elisabet stared at one another, both women remaining utterly motionless and silent. Then the Seosten took a step to the side before taking the seat next to the Spanish woman. “I’m sorry she had to interrupt,” she announced, “I promised that we’d watch Daniela’s play without distractions.”

Elisabet shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault,” she replied. “You could hardly send her away without addressing her. That might make her suspicious. And we don’t want that, do we?” She turned away from the play for a moment, looking toward her.

Jophiel continued to meet her gaze briefly before a very slight smile touched her beautiful face. “No,” she replied quietly while taking the other woman’s hand, “we certainly don’t… my love.”

Yes, Elisabet was far more than Jophiel’s host. She wasn’t enslaved, nor was her mind wiped. She wasn’t actually being controlled against her will in any way. No, the truth was that the two were partners, in every sense of the word. Partners in business, partners in combat, partners in all of their endeavors. And partners in love. As they had been for many, many years, since before Elisabet had actually been a part of the so-called Crossroads Committee.

It hadn’t started out that way. Jophiel’s assigned duty at the time of their meeting had been to assess the then-young Heretic for possible infiltration and recruitment into the just-formed Crossroads Academy. Jophiel had originally appeared to her as a young girl who had to be saved from monsters. Over the course of the next several months, she was supposed to determine whether the Spanish girl was worth recruitment.

Instead, the two gradually fell in love with one another, to the point that Jophiel revealed the truth of herself, and her people. And, to her surprise and joy, Elisabet had accepted her.

From that time on, they were partners in every way. Elisabet knew what the Seosten were truly doing, but she also knew about the war that they were fighting against the Fomorians. She knew what the Fomorians intended for humanity, and believed that fighting alongside the Seosten was their best chance for survival.

She did feel some guilt, at times, about the fate of the non-humans who were killed. But the truth was that, guilty as she might feel, her first loyalty was to humanity. And Elisabet believed that if humans didn’t grow stronger, if Heretics weren’t strong enough, that the Fomorians would enslave and destroy all of them. Human, Seosten, or any other race. The creatures that they called Fomorians (even the Seosten didn’t understand what they really called themselves, so Fomorian was a good enough term) would annihilate entire civilizations, just as they had for millennia. Very few were powerful enough to stand in their way. The Seosten stood the best chance of putting an end to the Fomorians. But they couldn’t do it without help.

And that help would be the humans, the Heretics. Once they were strong enough. But to get there… certain eggs had to be broken. Sacrifices had to be made. If that meant allowing certain innocents to die now so that everyone didn’t die later, then… that was something she could live with.

It was something they both lived with. Jophiel lied to her people, and Elisabet lied to hers. They were both lying to everyone except each other. They would never lie to one another. They were each all the other truly had. And if it came down to it, each would choose the other over everyone else in the known universe.

They were, after all…

Partners.

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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New York Minutemen 27-01

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“You sure keep yourself busy, don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

Turning away from the weight machine that I had been working on (having twelve hundred pounds stacked on it was still enough to make me do a double take whenever I look at the thing), I replied, “I only need an hour of sleep a day, Mr. Atrean. Gotta keep myself entertained through all my extra time. And I told you, it’s just Flick. Especially in the middle of the night.”

Not only was it the middle of the night, about 12:30 in the morning, but it was also Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it. It had been about two weeks since we found out that Columbus was the one who was possessed, and it had been a completely torturous two weeks. I had absolutely no idea how Shiori was lasting this long, though she said having people to talk to about it made it a little easier than when she had been keeping her vampire mother secret. Still, having to act normal while knowing that her brother had been enslaved by that bitch was obviously awful. I had been trying to make it so that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him by monopolizing her time myself. Which, to be fair, I actually enjoyed. Or at least, we enjoyed it whenever we could stop thinking about why I was monopolizing her time. Sometimes we spent as much as an hour forgetting the specifics of our situation.Then one of us would inevitably start thinking about it again and go quiet.

Now, the Committee’s stooge raised an eyebrow at me before clearing his throat. “And I believe I told you, it’s October. Maybe we can make a deal and both try to be a little less formal.”

“Are you sure your partner’ll be okay with that?” I asked idly while picking myself up from the machine. Stretching my arm out, I rubbed my bicep while watching him. I knew he wasn’t possessed now (or hadn’t been, at least), but I still didn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw–you know what, that wasn’t a very good figure of speech anymore. I didn’t trust them.

“Eh,” October gave a shrug, stepping back to take a towel off the nearby rack before tossing it to me so I could wipe off. “If Patrick ever eased up, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

“I feel like a broken record,” I admitted with a look at the blonde man, “but do you know anything about my dad yet? I mean, I don’t suppose you were coming in here to tell me that you guys finally found him and there’s a squad of Heretics on their way to rescue him as we speak.”

He had the grace to wince a little before shaking his head. “Would’ve opened with that, I promise.” The man met my gaze. “Just like you’d tell us if you ever hear from your dad?”

“I’d say you’d be the second to know after me,” I replied flatly, “but quite frankly, I’d probably tell my team first, and Gaia, and… maybe someone else. You’re probably in the top ten though.”

October squinted at me briefly before his head tilted as he considered. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. But seriously, if you hear from your father, please don’t try to handle the situation yourself, all right? Whatever or whoever took him, they might have done it so that they could use him to get at you. There are–” He paused, seeming to take a moment to consider his words. “There are people out there who would love to get hold of a promising young Heretic student and twist them. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Now see, that I could actually believe. I just didn’t think that my idea of ‘twisting a student toward bad things’ and his were in the same ballpark. Because quite frankly, ‘make sure that the person you’re killing has actually done something to deserve it beyond being born’ didn’t exactly sound like evil brainwashing to me. But what did I know? I wasn’t a Committee Representative.

“Believe me,” I replied with total and one hundred percent complete honesty, “I have no intention of running off by myself to go attack whoever has my dad without telling you about it first.”

“Good to hear.” The man watched me for another moment, probably trying to test if I was lying (which, thanks to Gaia’s ring, he wouldn’t be able to) before inclining his head in a nod of satisfaction. “I know you probably don’t like us being here that much. Honestly, I’d probably feel the same if I was you. But we really are trying to help, if you let us. Just… think about it.”

He left, heading heading out of the room. I let him go, waiting a minute to make sure he was actually gone before tapping a finger on the water bottle beside the weight machine. “Okay.”

An instant later, Sands appeared next to me, popping out of the bottle as she stopped possessing it. Shaking herself off, the brunette looked to me. “That was kind of close, huh?”

We’d barely gotten the alert that the man coming in time for Sands to hide and leave it looking like I was the only one in the room when October came in. Luckily, the other girl had actually worked out a pretty neat little alert spell and placed it in the corridor outside. It wasn’t anything big that would attract attention. It just had a very simple effect of changing a little ball that we had set up from red to blue whenever someone passed near it. Apparently she and Scout had had a noisy alarm variant of the spell used to keep them out of the treats when they were little.

I coughed at that, nodding emphatically. “Yeah, which is one reason why you staying out to work with me is a bad idea. Plus, there’s that thing where you need a lot more sleep than I do.”

For the past couple of weeks, Sands had insisted on spending at least part of several nights a week doing extra workouts with me, whenever I wasn’t with Gaia. Not only that, she was also now training with Avalon, Deveron, and me early in the morning and in the afternoon. Before all of this had come out, Sands had mostly slept in until the last possible moment. But now? Now she was like a woman possess–shit. A lot of old phrases had been ruined lately, apparently.

Still, Sands shook her head. “I can’t sleep anyway. I just lay there and look at the ceiling, Flick. I might as well do something useful with it. I… “ She paused, biting her lip before looking at me imploringly. “I have to do something. If we’re right and–you know, then just sitting here feels…” She cringed. “I just have to get out of there. Doing this stuff helps get me tired enough to sleep.”

“Trust me,” I replied after wincing, “I understand. I get it. But right now,” I glanced to the clock on the wall, “it’s almost one o’clock. If you’re gonna get enough sleep to function, it’s time.”

“Yeah…” Sands straightened. “Plus, Scout gets worried if she wakes up and I’m gone. Thanks.”

She jumped back into possessing the water bottle then, which I picked up before making my way out of the room and back across the grounds to the dorms. Passing a couple of the security guards on the way, I gave them a wave. They knew me by then and simply waved back before continuing on their patrol. No one was really going to question why I was carrying water around.

After dropping Sands off at the room she shared with Scout and paying a quick visit to my own, I found myself back outside. But I didn’t go anywhere else. Instead, I stood there in the space between and slightly in front of the two dorm buildings. This, right in the spot I was standing, was where Professor Pericles had been murdered in cold blood, his body eventually found by security more than an hour later.

Opening my special notebook that I’d retrieved from its hiding place, I scribbled in it while looking at the ground where Pericles’ body had been found.

We knew a lot more than we had at the start of this whole thing. We knew why Pericles had been killed: because the murderers thought that killing him would undo the spell that protected Avalon. And they thought that because when they used a spell to determine the identity of the spellcaster, it returned the name ‘Zedekiah’, which they thought referred to Zedekiah Pericles.

We also knew who had done the killing, or at least who was responsible for it: the Seosten and whoever they were possessing. This Manakel guy, he was probably the one who had done the job. He-or she depending on who he was possessing- had walked right up behind Pericles and-

Huh. According to everything I’d heard, Professor Pericles had been killed by being stabbed in the back, literally. But how could someone– I turned slightly, positioning myself the way that Pericles had apparently been before he was stabbed. According to what everyone said, based on the position of the body and the fact that, as far as they could tell, he hadn’t been moved, Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he was murdered. He was standing here, facing the boy’s dorm. From that position, the front of the girl’s dorm would still be in his peripheral.

The fact that he had been stabbed in the back… Yes, Manakel was obviously possessing someone, clearly someone that Pericles wouldn’t have reason to suspect. And yet, they had stabbed the man in the back. That kind of said that Manakel wasn’t confident in his ability to take Pericles in a one-on-one fight. Or at least, not quickly enough to avoid attracting attention.

And yet, how would someone, even a Seosten possessing an adult Heretic, sneak up on someone like Pericles and avoid being seen? Would they rely entirely on their own stealth, or…

Again, I looked over toward the boy’s dorm, frowning a little. Pericles had been facing that way when he died. Would Columbus have been possessed back then? God, I really hoped not.

I was speculating too much. It could’ve been nothing. Maybe Pericles was just distracted by something else. Or maybe whoever Manakel was possessing was just that good at avoiding detection. Or maybe… any number of things. I kept half-expecting the same magical intuition that had made me realize that Sands’ and Scout’s mom had been friends with Tristan and Vanessa’s mother to pop up again to give me the answer to this. But nothing happened. I thought there might be something to the fact that Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm, but maybe there wasn’t. I just… didn’t know. With a sigh, I closed my notebook.

What I did know, was that I had missed out on a lot by not getting the chance to have Zedekiah Pericles as a teacher. Manakel and Charmeine had taken away a lot when they killed him. And I was pretty sure they’d also taken away a lot when they put Tangle in that coma. I had the cure for it, but the second I actually used it, they’d know that we knew more than we should. Given that we had no idea who in the hospital might be working with them, it… felt safer to wait. Even if it was yet another reminder of how much the Seosten had taken from us.

I just hoped that, one day, we’d have a chance to take a lot away from them in return.

******

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Columbus’s voice intoned skeptically. “You guys went out in the regular world for almost an entire day, and nothing bad happened? Nothing at all?”

It was about a week after I’d had that conversation with October in the middle of the night, making it late February. We still had no idea who Manakel was possessing, and it was all I could do not to sarcastically retort that ‘Columbus’ would’ve known if anything had happened.

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since we started looking for Manakel and there was still no sign of who he had possessed. I’d even had some of the others test people when it made more sense for them to do it. Hell, even Gaia had done a couple, working her way through her staff. Though she did say that she didn’t want to tell anyone else what was going on. Not even people she trusted. There was too much chance of them being possessed at some point in the future. She wanted to keep this as small as possible until we’d actually identified Manakel.

But again, it wasn’t like we were having any luck at that. Which was why we had to sit here and keep pretending that we didn’t know that Columbus was being puppeted by that Seosten bitch.

Thankfully, it was Avalon who spoke up while I was still swallowing back that comment. “Yes, Porter,” she answered simply, “six whole hours in the Bystander world and nothing went wrong.”

We were standing out on the grass near the Pathmaker building. And by we, that was the entire team, Deveron included. The seven of us were waiting for Dare to show up with Paul, Rudolph, and the rest of Roxa’s former team. Because it was finally time for that trip to New York. Yeah, wouldn’t that be fun? A whole weekend with people who were convinced that I was somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance (okay, I kind of was, but not in the way they were thinking) sharing a hotel, transportation, and everything else with us. That wouldn’t be awkward at all.

Thankfully, we already had a plan for that. Once we were up there and were given free time, Roxa was going to join us. I’d meet up her privately, pass her the choker so she’d be safe, and let her come visit with her old team. Then they’d see that the girl was okay, that I wasn’t some psychopath that had her trussed up in my basement or something, and it’d all be hunky dory.

Shut up, I could pretend to be optimistic for a little while.

Deveron was smiling, arms folded over his chest as he watched us. “So you guys actually went on a real date, huh?” he asked, in a way that made me feel like he was just barely suppressing the urge to reach over and ruffle my hair or something equally embarrassing and weird.

‘Columbus’ spoke up then. “So, how did it go? I mean, you two and Shiori out on a date together? Didn’t that get… you know, weird?” If I hadn’t already known that Charmeine was the one pulling his strings, it would’ve sounded like the boy was just being a protective brother. As it was, the question just made me feel nauseous. She was obviously poking for sore points and seeing if there were ways that she could get Columbus to screw with us if need be. Probably so that they could cause a problem and isolate Avalon in the future whenever they needed to.

Somehow, I made myself smile, winking at ‘him’. “Sure, but it was more like two separate dates. Gaia sent us out in the middle of some city in California. She and Professor Dare were the only ones who knew where we were. They picked the city at random. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there. And we had Wyatt and Dare shadowing us, playing bodyguards, just in case. They were pretty good about staying out of the way though.”

Sean, kneeling next to Vulcan while letting the mechanical dog munch metal nuts out of his hand, raised an eyebrow. “Two separate dates?” he asked curiously. “How’d that work?”

I shrugged. “Shiori and I spent a couple hours together first. We went to play laser tag, visited this cool little train museum, and did some shopping. Avalon did uh, whatever she did, with Professor Dare watching. Then we switched. Professor Dare and Shiori went out to do something while Avalon and I went and did our thing. Mostly we took this boat out on this lake in the park and did some fishing. It was pretty cool. Plus, we actually caught some fish.

“Then we all went to dinner together, and saw a movie.” I smiled, glancing toward Avalon, who was blushing while looking away from all of us. Obviously, she was thinking about other things that had happened during that movie and immediately afterward. “It was pretty great,” I finished.  

“Good,” Deveron announced. “You all deserved a break, and a real date. Or two real dates.”

Sands reached out to poke me in the forehead. “Yeah, we all deserve that kind of break. But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one person that likes us like that. Let alone two.”

From his kneeling position, Sean teased, “I dunno, I’m sure Zeke would love to take you out.”

The other girl made a face at that, leaning over to kick lightly at him. “Don’t even start with that. Our parents used to make us play together as kids and he was a selfish jerk then too. Now he thinks I should be his girlfriend or something just because we spent some time in the sandbox when we were five. I ate worms back then too, and you don’t see me doing that anymore.”

Snickering despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “At least he actually likes you. Even if he’s got a weird way of showing it. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m crazy.” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock, letting him perch on my palm. “Doesn’t he, little buddy?” Pausing for a moment to listen, I nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs. Truly, you are the most noble of us all, Sir Herbie.”

“Believe me, Flick,” Sands informed me then, “I’d rather date your rock than that jerk.”

Before we could say anything else about the (amazing) date that Shiori, Avalon, and I had gone on, Scout nodded past us. I turned, to see Dare heading our way with the other team. Right. It was time, I guessed. Time for our trip to New York.

This was going to be… interesting.

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Spy Hunt 26-06

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“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.

******

Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all, was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they were still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The better off I am,” I finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much more.”

 ******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…. No.”

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Spy Hunt 26-02

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“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” my father started a short time later as he sat with Avalon, Shiori, and me in one of the cabins around the lake. His eyes focused on Avalon. “Your father was supposed to be dead, but someone turned him into a vampire instead. And now he’s spent the past few years repeatedly trying to kill you. Just this year, that effort was stepped up, getting you kicked out of this other school after they drugged one of your friends into attacking you until you had to kill him in self-defense, and trying to separate you from any protection you have. Now it’s not just your father, but others, these… angels who can possess people. They’re all trying to kill you, and manipulating people like your father into helping, because you’re the closest living relation to that… Hieronymus Bosch guy, whose daughter created some kind of magical vault that will only open for her closest living relative. In this case, you. In that vault, there’s something these angels want badly enough that they’re going to all this trouble to get rid of you so that the woman they’ve been taking control of, this… Professor Tangle, will become the closest living relative and then they can use her to get into the vault. That about sum it up?”

Blinking a couple times, I looked at Shiori to my left, then to Avalon to my right. “Uh, I think so.”

“Yes,” Avalon answered flatly. She was sitting there at the table, one hand on the bottle of flavored water that Gabriel had provided when she’d asked. “That is… essentially the size of it.” Her hand was tight on the bottle, and she was sitting stiffly for some reason. The whole time we’d been talking to my father, she had seemed uncomfortable and on the edge of bolting.

Whistling low, Dad looked down at the table, taking that in for a few seconds before he looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a pretty impressive girl, you know that?”

Judging from the way Avalon blinked at him and took a moment to respond, I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have said anything that would have surprised her more than that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she squinted, her suspicion obviously taking over. “What? You–” She paused, eyes shifting to me for half a second before she looked back to my father. “You’re not going to tell me to keep myself and my problems away from your daughter?”

For a moment, Dad didn’t say anything. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. “Do you remember what I said that first morning before you left for school? The thing I told you to do?”

I thought about it briefly, head tilting before I remembered. “Stay away from drug dealers?”

He nodded. “That’s the one. And what happened to make me feel the need to tell you that?”

“Um.” I coughed. “Because I took it upon myself to taunt a drug dealer into confessing to his crimes?”

“And was I at all surprised that you would do something like that?” Dad prompted with a raised eyebrow.

My head shook quickly. “Surprised? No, not really. Exasperated maybe, but not surprised.”

Dad nodded once before turning his attention back toward Avalon. “She’s never been shy about getting into trouble, especially if she thought it was the right thing to do. It didn’t take a bunch of monster hunters to turn my daughter into a hero. I always knew she would be. Whether it would be throwing herself into war zones to report on atrocities, or going up against politicians that could throw her in prison and ruin her life, she was always going to do the right thing, no matter what powerful person tried to stop her. This Edge thing didn’t make her into anything she’s not, and you didn’t create this danger, or drag her into it.”

“Dad…” My voice was a tiny little mouse squeak as I felt my ears turn bright red. I wondered if I could actually manage to hit him if I kicked out.

He held up a hand to forestall me. “Believe it or not, I have a point beyond embarrassing you.” He paused then before conceding with a grin, “Embarrassing you is just a delightful bonus.”

I groaned, but Dad was already moving on. Raising his finger he gestured toward first Avalon, and then Shiori. “I may not understand this whole combined relationship thing. It’s not really my cup of tea. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Felicity.”

Yeah, we had sort-of explained the whole… relationship thing. At least as much as any of us actually understood it. Dad–well, he was taking it in stride, as far as that went. I guess when you get to the point of accepting that your daughter was a monster-hunter who gained superpowers by killing things, and that your missing wife had been the leader of a revolutionary faction of those monster hunters, it wasn’t too hard to get from that to ‘your daughter also has two girlfriends.’ Still, I was pretty sure he found it strange, even more strange than he was admitting right now.

Shiori blinked, holding up several fingers and counting them before she brightened. “Tea, me, Felicity, you did that on purpose!”

Dad winked at her before continuing, “The point is, there are three things that are actually important when it comes to anyone who wants to have a relationship with my daughter. First, they have to make her happy. Second, they need to help her rise into the kind of person that I know she is, not hold her down. And third, they have to be able and willing to stand with her, protect her when she needs protecting, challenge her, and defend her when her sense of justice exceeds her means to defend herself. Make her happy, inspire her, and protect her.”

Pausing then, Dad took a breath as he looked at the other two girls for a moment. “As far as I can tell, you girls do all of that. And probably far more than I will ever understand. So now, I’m not going to tell either of you to stay away from her. Just… let her protect you as much as you protect her.”

Focusing solely on Avalon then, Dad’s gaze softened a little bit. “And for the record, if I had your dad in front of me, I’d teach him exactly what I think about pathetic, drunk, child abusing pieces of shit. Vampire or not, a coward is a coward is a coward.”

After letting that sit for a few seconds, he brightened. “And now, I think I’ve been patient long enough. I’ve been the good, concerned dad. Now I want to see them.”

“See them?” I echoed, blinking over at the others blankly.

“The superpowers!” Dad blurted out loud. He sounded as eager as a little kid, and I realized just how hard it had been for him to hold back and remain serious for as long as he had.

“Come on, you’ve gotta show me the superpowers.”

********

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Gaia announced about an hour later. It was as long as I had been able to stretch spending time with my dad and the others before we had to get back to the school. After all, the last thing we needed was for Patrick and October, the Committee’s summoned minions, to get too suspicious about where we were. To say nothing of our Seosten ‘friends’. They’d know by now that we had been there, but they had to keep thinking that the choker had been destroyed. Which meant we should have come back here before too long.

There had been a lot more to do back at the camp. Each of the three groups (the Wonderland people, Mateo’s pack and the wolves they had managed to pull together, and Gabriel’s people) had lost people. Luckily, none of Roxa’s actual pack had died, though two of them (Corson and Hasty) had been injured enough that they’d be down for awhile. But still, there was a lot for them to sort out. Everything from deciding who was responsible for the prisoners that they’d taken, to where they were going to go to rest up, to how they would divide up the supplies that had been left behind. And more, a lot more.

Yeah, they’d won a lot. But they’d also lost. They were obviously trying not to show too much of it, but I knew that people had died. People had gone into that fight against that pack of weres at least partially because I asked them to, and now they were dead. Yet, if we hadn’t gone in, a lot more people would be dead. Hell, we’d managed to rescue all those Alter kids, so… that had to be worth it, right? Would I think the same thing if it was Avalon or Shiori who had died? Or even Vanessa or Tristan?

I’m a seventeen-year-old kid. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with those kind of questions, exactly?

But we didn’t even have time to stick around for all of that to really sink in. We’d had to leave far too soon, as far as I was concerned. It was just the safest way to avoid problems with the Committee, or the Seosten. Though these days, I wasn’t sure how much actually separated the two groups.

That wasn’t fair. One of the Committee members had saved my dad, had actually helped him break the Bystander Effect. And I still wasn’t sure what the hell that was all about.  

In any case, now we were in Gaia’s office. ‘We’ meant Avalon, Shiori, the Moon twins, and myself. Roxa had stayed behind, as she’d chosen to. We were going to plan for the best time for her to talk to her old team in person. Obviously, it couldn’t be on the school grounds or anywhere that the Seosten would know about it. And I (or someone else wearing the choker)  was going to have to touch each of them to make sure they weren’t possessed. After all, it’d be pretty stupid to go through all the trouble of hiding that the choker was intact only to have Roxa waltz right onto the island wearing it in a way that every Seosten would know should have been impossible without the choker.

In fact, it was getting to the point that I was thinking it might be better for Roxa not to reveal herself to her team at all until we had identified all the Seosten. Just in case. If her old team stopped being so obsessed about finding her, even if none of them were possessed, it might still tip the wannabe angels off. And nothing said they couldn’t be possessed later.

“Congratulations?” Tristan raised both hands, showing off the retractable claws that he had inherited from the werejaguar that he’d killed. The boy was also considerably stronger, courtesy of the other kill he’d gotten, a wereape.  “We just beat a giant pack of were-whatevers and Flick over there stole the one thing that can identify Seosten that are possessing people. We deserve a freaking parade, and a–” He yelped as Vanessa pecked him on the side of the head. Yeah, pecked. While Tristan had inherited some extra strength and retractable claws, Vanessa had gotten incredibly lucky. Not only did she inherit the ability to turn into a full raven, which she was using right then to perch on her brother’s shoulder, but she had also gained the ability to turn into a full-sized bear. Which was… more than a little intimidating. Especially seeing innocent little bookworm Vanessa transform into a gigantic fuck-off grizzly.

Coughing at his sister’s silent reprimand, Tristan gestured. “Uh, I mean, or congratulations from you, Headmistress. That’s just as good.”

Chuckling softly, Gaia inclined her head. “I am quite certain that there will be more of a reward for your efforts in the future, Mr. Moon.” There was amusement in her gaze as she glanced back toward me. “In the meantime, would you like me to have him come in now, Felicity?”

My eyes turned to the door briefly before I gave a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

So, the headmistress made a gesture with one finger. The door on the other side of the room opened smoothly, and a short, lanky figure stepped through. Wyatt. He smiled broadly (and a bit goofily, showing his buck teeth) at the sight of me and held his arms open. “You’re all right!”

Blinking at that, I shrugged and took a step that way to return the offered hug. Clearly, he’d been even more worried about me going through with that fight than I’d thought he would b–

He punched me in the shoulder, harder than someone of his tiny frame should have been able to. As I took a reflexive step back and yelped, Wyatt put a finger in my face. “No!” he chastised me. “What if I was possessed? What if I came to take the choker away from you? Never, ever, ever put yourself in that kind of compromised position with someone you’re not sure you can trust. I could’ve cut your throat before you knew what was happening. I could’ve taken you hostage and either stolen the choker from you or ordered whoever has it to give it over. Are you crazy? Do you want to be a victim? Never, ever, ever be that naive. Anyone could be your enemy. Until you use the choker on them, you don’t know. So assume the worst, and be ready!”

Somewhere behind me, I heard Avalon actually chuckle, voice soft. “He has a point, Chambers.”

Wincing, I rubbed my shoulder while looking back toward Gaia. The headmistress was just smiling a little bit. When I looked to her, she offered a slight shrug, as if to say that he wasn’t wrong. “Right,” I murmured before looking back to him. “Um, Headmistress, would you mind…”

She nodded once before making another slight gesture with one finger. As she did so, a collection of dark green vines literally rose out of the floor, wrapping around Wyatt’s arms and legs to hold him firmly in place. Her voice was calm. “You may test him safely now, Felicity.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket and took out the choker. Carefully affixing it to my own neck, I extended my hand to press gingerly against Wyatt’s arm. Not because I was worried that he was actually possessed or anything, but because I was half-afraid he might have some kind of electrified trap to zap my fingers or something just to teach me about touching people like that.

Nothing happened. There was no zap or other trap from my (justifiably) paranoid older brother, and obviously no reveal that he was actually possessed. Just as I’d known there wouldn’t be. We never would have gotten as far as we had if Wyatt had been possessed. Hell, Avalon would’ve been dead a dozen times over by now if he was. No, Wyatt being possessed would’ve ended everything a long time ago. I’d known he was safe before ever using the choker on him.

Still, I nodded for everyone else. “Clear,” I announced while stepping back. “You can let him go.”

The vines disappeared, and Wyatt shook himself off a bit. “Still,” he announced almost as though he was disappointed that we’d cleared him so easily, “you can never be too careful. Eyes wide, eyes open. Remember, they can switch bodies, so check everyone as much as you can.”

“We could do that more easily,” Avalon pointed out while stepping beside me, “with your help.”

I nodded quickly, taking the choker off before offering it to him. “Yeah. Right now, the Seosten think it’s been destroyed. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t just think this was some other fashion accessory if we started walking around wearing it. So we were hoping you could do something to it first. You know, make it invisible or something, so it’s not so obvious that we have it.”

Taking the offered choker, Wyatt frowned thoughtfully down at it for a few seconds. “Invisible…” he murmured under his breath before nodding. “Yes.” Giving another goofy smile, he looked up to me. “Yes, I think I can do exactly what you want. But it’ll take a little while to do it properly.”

“Are you sure?” That was Vanessa. The blonde girl had turned into her human form (using her own discarded shirt as cover while shifting back and dressing) before stepping over to join us, her expression pensive as she worried aloud, “They said that the thing was already damaged from the spell that was used to turn it into a choker instead of a ring. That’s what lowered it to touch-range to begin with. What if putting any more spells on it damages the identification effect even more?”

Wyatt’s head bobbed up-and-down. “Yes yes, of course, changing shape would be harder. Too dangerous to risk losing the spell. But making it invisible, that I can do. Just need a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Echoing his words, I gave a little nod before looking back at the others. “I guess that means we need to get to dinner, and face the music.”

“Lies,” Shiori murmured. “More lying.”

“One more time,” I assured her while putting a handout to touch the other girl’s shoulder. “We just lie one more time. Once we know who we can trust, then we can tell them the truth.”

“Except for whoever is possessed,” Vanessa pointed out quietly. “They’re all connected, they all know what happens to each other. So, until you know who every possessed person is, you’re going to have to keep lying to the one that you know about. It’s the only way to get them all at once.”

Sometimes… I really hated how smart that girl was.

********

“Okay, you guys have got some serious explaining to do,” Sands informed Avalon and me as we sat with the rest of the team at the table in the corner of the cafeteria as far away from any other group as possible. Her voice was low, but intense.

“She’s right,” Sean agreed. The Hispanic boy with drumming his fingers on the table as he watched us. “We looked all over the place for you guys. What happened?”

We had already prepared for this, from the moment that we knew we were going to have to explain where we had gone. We couldn’t lie about where we went, because if whoever Seosten was possessing happen to be within this group, they might get a little suspicious about what we knew if we were lying to people we were supposed to trust.

So, glancing at the privacy coin that was sitting on the table, I winced before starting to explain. “Sorry guys, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were with Vanessa and Tristan when Gabriel called. They tracked down that werewolf pack, and they needed us to go right then. There wasn’t time to say anything else or find you. We had to go.”

“Besides,” Avalon added. “Gabriel said that there was only a very brief window where he could open the portal that would get us off the island without alerting the security. If we waited any longer, he might not have been able to do it.”

Even now, when the other girl said the name of the man who had been her idol for so long, her voice faltered a little bit and she looked a bit flushed.

“Oh man,” Sands complained. “You got to fight a bunch of werewolves? Come on you gotta tell us everything that happened. Did you kick their…” She trailed off, looking around at Avalon and me with a slight frown. “What happened, is everyone okay? Everyone made it back right?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “We all made it back, but…” Trailing off, I gave a soft, slow sigh. “The choker that we were trying to get for Roxa, the one that would let her be here without setting off everyone’s Stranger-sense? Yeah, it…” Biting my lip, I looked down. “It was destroyed. Pace–we couldn’t…”

Sitting beside his roommate, Columbus winced before cursing quietly. “They couldn’t fix it? I mean, how destroyed are we talking here?”

“Melted,” Avalon replied flatly. “Pace’s acid spit, it was… bad.”

“Which just means we’ll have to find something else,” I announced. “We promised Roxa we’d find a way to help her. I’m not going back on that. If you guys–”

“Don’t even say it,” Sands warned me. “We said we’d help Roxa, so we’re gonna help Roxa.” She paused, frowning. “… somehow.” Belatedly, she added, “Maybe we can find something in New York.”

I started to nod, then blinked. “Yeah, maybe we–wait, what?”

“New York,” Sands explained. “We’re going there. Like, all of us. The team.”

She continued, telling us about the whole contest thing with the Investigation Track and how she and Jasmine had won, meaning that we’d be going on a trip to New York with Roxa’s old team.

This… could get complicated. But at least we knew a good time for Roxa to show up and tell her team that she was okay. A month should be enough time to use the choker to check each of them and make sure they weren’t possessed.  

Beside her sister, Scout leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. Sands listened for a moment before giving a sharp nod. “Right, Scout’s got a point. We still need to know how the fight went. What happened? We won, right?”

“We?” I echoed before snickering despite myself. “Yes, we won. Roxa even killed Lemuel.”

Eyes widening, Sands blurted, “She did? Oh come on, you can’t spoil the ending like that. That’s not fair. Tell us everything.”

So… as much as we could without spoiling things they couldn’t know yet… we did.

******

“How much do you think they eat?”

It was the next afternoon, and four of us (Sands, Scout, Shiori, and me) were out on the ocean, treading water as we watched my shiver of sharks swimming below and around us. They’d been like eager puppies, showing off new tricks that they’d learned for the past ten minutes or so.

“How much?” I echoed, glancing to the Asian girl beside me before shrugging. “I’m pretty sure Princess Cuddles could polish off half of what the entire student body puts away in a day all by herself. Or, you know, half the entire student body, period.” I gestured at the enormous shark in question, who was swimming further away than all the others.

“At least they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the waters around here clean and safe,” Shiori pointed out, giggling a little bit as Simpson, the yellow-tinted Lemon shark, came up to bump against her, clearly looking for head pats.

“He likes those,” I pointed out. “Here, Scout, check it out.” Reaching out, I waited for the other girl to give a little nod before gently taking her wrist to press against the shark’s snout. “Rub carefully just like that. See? Careful, it’s kind of rough.”

Feeling something bump up against my back, I glanced that way before laughing. “Jealous, Sherman?” The bull shark gave another heavy bump against me, and I snickered. “Okay, okay. Sands, here.” Carefully, I did the same with her, letting the girl give Sherman the attention that he wanted.

After watching the two of them pat the sharks for a moment, I gave a single nod. “Peanut brittle.”

Blinking up at me from Sherman, Sands asked, “Uh, what’d you say?”

“She said peanut brittle.”

That was Avalon, who rose from the water, dismissing the air-bubble spell that she’d been using in order to stay under water and out of sight behind Princess Cuddles until I gave the signal.

If it was possible to literally jump out of the water like a cartoon, Sands would’ve managed it right then. “Fuck!” she blurted, twisting that way. “Where’d you–what did-huh?”

Scout, for her part, was just watching me with a curious – yet understanding – tilt to her head. It was like she’d already worked out most of what was going on, and just needed me to fill in the details.

“We’re clear, then?” Avalon asked.

Looking toward Shiori, I echoed the question. “Clear?”

The other girl paused before nodding. Apparently one of the powers that she had inherited during that whole battle royal back there had been some kind of warning tingle that alerted her any time anyone was observing her that she didn’t know about.

Apparently it was rather less than useful any time we were anywhere near most of our fellow teenage classmates.

But out here, it had helped a lot. Now, she’d be able to tell us if anyone was paying attention or eavesdropping that we didn’t know about.

“Guys?” Sands interrupted my brief musing. “What the hell is going on? What–”

“You’re clear,” I announced. “We had to be sure, before we could tell you.” As I spoke, Brody, one of my two Mako sharks, drifted up under me so that I could hang off of him with one hand. With my other, I reached up to undo the choker around my neck. It came off, turning visible in the process as I showed it to the twins. “But now we know you’re not possessed.

“So we can tell you the truth about what’s really going on. All of it.”

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Investigations 25-06 – Isaac Acosta (Interlude Arc)

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Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Isaac Acosta was a bit of a clown, but relatively harmless aside from some issues with personal boundaries. That wasn’t exactly true, since… well, there were a lot of responses that could be used to describe a boy who deliberately murdered his own older sister when he was twelve years old. But none of those responses was anything like, ‘relatively harmless’. Many responses to learning of the boy’s acts likely would have involved shouting archaic Latin at him while sprinkling holy water onto his forehead. For all the good that would have done.

No, Isaac wasn’t possessed (not that the holy water trick would’ve helped if he was). All of his choices were his and his alone. Well, the regular choices anyway. His… employers made the big choices about what he was allowed to do and how he was allowed to entertain himself. But he chose to work with them, chose to follow their instructions. And before they had found and recruited him, he had chosen to indulge his own whims. Isabella, his sister, had been his choice. As had the others. Everyone he had killed, everyone he had enjoyed, had been his choice.

Isabella had been the first, a sort-of… test case. She was babysitting him at the time, which in her case, meant that she was babbling on her phone while watching music videos on her laptop and taking up the television for some stupid celebrity dance contest reality show. Talking on the phone, watching music videos on her laptop, and hogging the TV all at the same time. Could he really be blamed for slicing her throat with the kitchen knife? It was clearly her own fault. Clearly.

After that, it had simply been a matter of staging the scene to make everything look like someone had broken in and Isabella had been murdered while heroically putting herself between him and the intruder so that Isaac could get to safety. One broken door, muddy boot trail (accomplished by stomping around the muddy flower garden in his own father’s work boots and then carefully cleaning them), and a couple more choice bits of evidence later, and he’d simply called 911 before putting on a performance that quite frankly proved that he’d deserved to be more than a fucking tree in the sixth grade play, Mrs. Kettle.

True genius was never appreciated in its time.

Now he was appreciated, though. Now, he was working for people who saw his potential, who saw what he could do for them. And those people had repaid him by putting him into a situation where he could gain superpowers simply by doing what he liked to do anyway: kill people.

Best. Bosses. Ever.

And speaking of enjoying his work, at the moment, Isaac was doing exactly that. He was sitting at a table in the kitchen of what looked like a simple wooden cabin (the place he’d been instructed to wait for contact). His enjoyment came not from his location, of course, but from the sight of the figure struggling in front of him. The female pixie, only a few inches in height, had been pinned to the table by her wings with a couple of iron nails, like a butterfly on display.

The kicking, squirming pixie was probably trying to say something, but he’d gagged her with a tiny strip of cloth from one of his socks earlier. Because damn, she complained a lot. Occasionally pushing a finger against one of her limbs until the sound of a bone snapping was never gonna stop being fun, sure, but the shrieking had been getting a bit obnoxious. Have some damn pride and self-respect.Or at least have some common courtesy. Whining was rude.

“Someone’s been playing with his food,” a voice announced abruptly from just behind Isaac.

He jumped a bit, spinning and almost falling while jerking to his feet. Hearts (he had several by that point, thanks to the experimentation he’d done with several Jekern) beating in his chest, Isaac stared at the figure that had been behind him. “Fuck’s sake, you crazy cunt, don’t do that!”

Lies, the werewolf-Heretic (or rather, werewolf-Heretic possessed by a psychotic angel), gave him a wide, uncaring smile. “Aww, poor puppy. Should’ve used the peepers on watching for anyone coming, not playing stupid torture games.” Her hand gestured to the pinned pixie.

Rolling his eyes, Isaac gave the girl a dirty look. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t put a lot of stock in the reprimand of someone who managed to get the only thing stopping everyone from knowing the body she’s possessing is a fucking werewolf destroyed. I’m sorry, how are you still useful?”

Her subsequent grin showed a partial change into her wolf-form, revealing a mouthful of sharp, entirely canine teeth. “Britches, boy. Stay in yours and don’t try to crawl into the larger ones just yet. You’ve failed too. Don’t see your team of innocents heading for the Committee, do you?”

For a moment, Isaac glared at her, before giving a tight shake of his head. “There was nothing I could do about it. Dougie-boy used his power, the one he can only use once per day. If I erased their memories and tried again, he would’ve figured out that he’d already used his power, but couldn’t remember doing it. And you know, I’m pretty sure that the big guy in charge wants these morons looking into things that could erase their memories a lot less than he wants them to go to the Committee right this fucking second. We’ll figure out how to use them as witnesses later.”

“Maybe,” the girl replied mysteriously. “Or maybe he’ll tell you to cut your losses.” She seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a careless shrug and chirping, “We’ll find out! Cuz it’s time to go see him!” With that, Lies added a sly wink, watching him. “He summoned us.” Her hand gestured toward the door of the cabin before giving an offhand gesture toward the pixie. “And do clean up your toys. Always so terribly inconsiderate. Not like my Doxer.”

Giving a careless glance down toward the pinned pixie, Isaac flicked a knife up from his belt. “Right,” he replied easily before addressing the winged creature itself, “Just so you know, your death is going to a good cause.” Leaning close, he stage-whispered, “Because killing you freaks makes me feel really, really good.” With a wink, he brought the knife over and down to cut the tiny bitch’s head off, not all that different than tugging an ant or butterfly apart with his fingers.

The knife never made it to the target. Instead, a hand caught his wrist in an iron grip, immediately crushing the bone in a way that brought a yelp from the boy. Lies was there, holding his wrist like a vice. Before he could react more than that single yelp, she was forcing his broken wrist down and back. Isaac felt the blade shove into his own chest, unable to release the thing before the thing was embedded deep inside him. Blood gushed from the wound.

His mouth opened to gurgle a demand, when her fist struck him hard in the face. So hard, in fact, that his nose broke and the boy would have gone careening backwards and fallen to the floor if the girl’s other hand hadn’t grabbed his shoulder to keep him right where he was. 

Even then, he might have defended himself, might have done something. But then the girl’s knee drove itself into his crotch, and all thought of fighting back vanished as he doubled over with a wheezing squeal of pain. Doubled over, save for the fact that her hand was still holding him up partway, just enough that she could keep hitting him.

Her fist struck his face again. Then again, and again. The girl pummeled him repeatedly, each blow knocking the boy’s head back and rattling his brain, adding to the unbelievable pain in his nether regions. He felt the blood on her hand from his shattered nose as she kept hitting him, lost in some kind of psychotic, violent freak-out. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise, couldn’t even lift a hand to defend himself in his surprise. Blows continued to hammer down on him over and over again. 

As suddenly as it had started, the attack stopped. Blinking through his bloodied daze, the boy saw Lies abruptly freeze up. She went completely still before her expression twisted. “Not… let… my… not…” The words, confusing as they were, came through harshly gritted teeth.

She turned then. Her hand, shaking violently as if she had no idea how to actually use it, snapped down toward the table. Snatching the nails out of the pixie’s wings, she grabbed the little freak before turning. A quick throw sent the thing flying out the nearby window, while Lies blurted a short, strangled entreaty, a single word. “Run!”

A choked sound escaped Isaac then, as he slumped against the table, too weak to stand and in far too much pain to think straight. The sound became a chuckle, his blood-covered hands fumbling to catch the handle of the knife in his chest. “Not… totally a puppet yet, huh… Pace?” he asked through the pain, finally managing to grip the handle so he could slowly pull the damn thing out, breath hitching a bit as he did so. Everything hurt, especially down below. But his healing was taking care of it. 

The girl, who hadn’t moved since throwing the pixie out the window, gave a sharp jerk. Her head snapped first to one side, then the other. Bringing both hands up, she slammed them down against her own legs and gave a short, almost squawk-like sound, which morphed into a laugh. “Whoo, whoo!” she repeated a couple times while giving a full-body shudder from head to toe. “What a rush. Whoo!” Another shudder and her head gave a violent shake before she clapped her hands a couple times. “Jeeze, Pacey Pace really didn’t like that, huh? Strong. Wow.”

Pace. It had been the real Pace. Somehow, she’d taken control again and stabbed Isaac before he could end that stupid fucking pixie. After realizing that, it took him another couple minutes to recover. Ripping the remains of his shirt off, he balled it up and pushed the cloth against his wound to hold in his own blood while counting on his super-charged regeneration (one of the side-benefits from all the extra killing he’d been doing) to take care of the worst of the problem. Eventually, it seemed to be under control. But it still hurt like a bitch.

Spitting blood, the boy snarled, “You know how lucky-ugh–” Stopping for a second to collect himself once more, he gritted through the pain. “You know how lucky you are that I’ve got redundant organs, huh? That cunt could’ve really killed me there.”

Her response to that was an amused giggle. “Could’ve died, didn’t die. I’m not lucky, you are.”

“Hey,” he snapped then, giving the little bitch a dark, annoyed look. “You can’t keep that little puppet in line, sounds like something the big guy needs to know about before something-”

Before Isaac could get any further, he found himself under assault once more. This time, it was definitely Lies in control. Her hand grabbed hold of his throat, nails digging painfully through the skin as she glared at him. “You won’t tell anyone,” she hissed. “Pacey Pace wants you dead. Make me mad, and she and I will be best friends. Understand? Don’t make me agree with her.”

Grimacing a little, Isaac twisted until she released his throat. Rubbing it with one bloody hand, he muttered,  “Fine, whatever. You fuck up the mission, it’s on you. Not like I really give a shit. Now, you gonna go get that little bug before she gets away, or what?”

“Eh,” the wolf-girl sniffed once before shrugging. “Gone now. Not my problem. Bad for you if Mr. Boss finds out, so maybe don’t be telling him bad things about me, and I won’t be telling him bad things about you.”

The two of them stood there glaring at one another for a moment before Lies snapped her fingers (or Pace’s fingers, whatever) and gave a sharp jerk of her head toward the cabin door. “Time to go. Can’t be late for our very important date. Not that I would date you. I like my boys more…” She paused, seeming to consider it for a moment before finishing with, “… stable.”

“Yeah?” Isaac gave a pointed nod toward his bare, bloodied torso. “Well I’m pretty sure that boss of yours won’t like me showing up to his little debriefing looking like this. I need a shirt.”

Waggling two of her fingers in his face, the green-haired Hispanic girl replied with a sing-song taunt. “Aw, psycho-boy didn’t prepare. Not a good boy scout, psycho-boy. Always prepare.” Her head nodded toward the other door in the small cabin. “There,” she instructed. “Find your size. Have to be prepared, don’t know what body I might be in later. Might be yours.” That was added with an appraising look. “Hope not. Bad hair. Creepy eyes. Murder-hands. I do have standards.”

“Right,” Isaac muttered as he walked to the other door. It led into a small bedroom with an attached bath area, and along the walls were several dressers. The bitch was right, she had clothes of all shapes and sizes in there. It wasn’t hard to find something that would fit him. Before pulling it on, however, he took a short detour into the bathroom to wash all of the blood off his chest and face. Once he was relatively clean, the boy tugged on the fresh shirt and walked back out. “Right, let’s go see the big man. Though,” he added pointedly, “I don’t see why Fetch isn’t here. He let it happen too.”

“He’s important,” Lies informed him flatly. “You’re not. In the order of expendable ones, the big guy would rather like… a hundred of you die before one of the Fetch. That’s why you have this job, because you’re expendable. No crying if you die. Just get another one.”

“Yeah, fuck you too,” he retorted. They might think he was expendable, but he was learning. He was learning more than they probably wanted him to. He was paying attention, watching everything they did. He knew that they were low on options for this mission. That was whole reason he was being included in the first place. Manakel, the angel-fuck, the one that showed up and took over after that Paschar guy recruited him, wasn’t accustomed to Earth, where he had to hide what he was constantly. No, Manakel was used to the way things were back in the angel-world, where they were lords and masters over everything and every other race were their servants. Using people like Isaac to get what he wanted, that’s what Manakel was accustomed to. And whoever they were fighting, whoever the angels were so obsessed with beating… unless he missed his guess, Manakel’s people weren’t exactly winning that particular war.

From what he’d been able to piece together, mostly from the angels treating him like a disposable idiot who turned deaf and dumb on command, they needed Avalon dead so they could use that teacher that was in a coma in the hospital to get into some vault. He had no idea what was in the vault, except that it was important enough that they were pretty desperate to get to it. Except whatever protection spell had been put on the bouncy-chested bitch was strong enough that if she was killed, everyone responsible for her death (not just the person who pulled the trigger, but also whoever had ordered it) would be marked. It was some kind of elaborate magic that would be powered by the girl’s own death. Whatever, he didn’t know how it worked, exactly. What he did know was that the only reason he hadn’t been told to slit her throat himself kamikaze-style was that the spell would lead not only to him, but also to Manakel for ordering it.

They had thought that the spell was cast by that old guy, Pericles. But even with him cold and six feet under, the spell was still kicking. Last Isaac knew, Manakel and the other angels had been arguing over whether the one responsible for the spell was the headmistress, a somehow-secretly-still-alive Pericles, or someone else. Trying to figure it out was driving them nuts. It was actually kind of fun to watch, as long as he stopped himself from reacting to any of it.

In any case, his job was to get his team to go tattle about Gaia’s secret activities to the Committee, so they had an excuse to remove her from power. The original plan for that had been for him to pick a member of his team, kill them, and then find a way to blame it on that Flick chick. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to actually have any of his fun before Roxa disappeared. Manakel thought it would be a waste not to use that, and had ordered Isaac to guide his team toward blaming Flick for what had happened. It was a task that had been made infinitely easier when Doug had ended up with the power from that juvenile Epsiteme. All of a sudden, it wasn’t Isaac trying to find a way to get them to blame Flick for it. They were doing it all by themselves. All he had to do was keep nudging them toward investigating, but not confronting. And, of course, erasing their memories any time they decided to go off and do something else that didn’t fit with the plan.

Getting them to the point where they’d willingly bypass Gaia to go to the Committee and tattle about it was tricky, but he’d almost been there with the revelation that Flick’s dad had a vampire living in his house. At least, he’d been there until they suggested the idea of actually talking to Flick about it yet again. And that time, Isaac couldn’t just erase the idea and start over, because fucking Doug went and used his power at the worst possible time, screwing everything up.

And now he had to go and explain that to Manakel yet again. Maybe Isaac should just get ‘not my fucking fault’ tattooed on his forehead and be done with it.

One thing was for sure, he wasn’t going to mention the missing pixie. He’d found her on his own, so there was no reason to tell the already-annoyed head angel guy about her escape.

Stepping through the door of the cabin with the psycho-possessed-chick led to a tiny island. Much smaller than the one the school was on, to the point that he could easily throw a rock from one side to the other. It was barely big enough for the cabin and a small beach that surrounded it. According to Charmiene, the island was one of several ‘bolt-holes’ that were semi-connected to the same pocket-dimension that the school’s island was in. There were a few different ways to get to it from the main island, if you knew what you were doing.

At the edge of the tiny beach there was a small boat that was tied to a single wooden post. Stepping into the boat before taking a seat, Isaac lounged back as much as possible while gesturing for the girl to go ahead. “Post-modern feminism and all that,” he drawled easily. “Wouldn’t dream of taking away your right to work.”

Lies stepped into the boat, giving him a short look before producing a small gold coin from her pocket. Using her thumb, she flicked the coin down into the bottom of the boat, between them. It bounced once, then seemed to melt into the surface, disappearing almost immediately.

A second later, the boat started to move seemingly by itself. Lies remained standing, giving him a disdainful look through pretty much the entire five minute trip until the boat bumped up against the dock of a slightly larger island. Another one in the pocket dimension, secretly connected to Crossroads.

Two figures stood on the dock waiting for them as they disembarked. Manakel, a man who looked a lot like that actor, James Spader, and Charmeine, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short white hair. Neither looked that happy.

“So, I gotta ask,” Isaac started as soon as he was on dry ground. “Those new stooges that just showed up from the Committee, October and Patrick? One of those guys is working for you, right? Cuz I gotta tell you, there are a lot of rumors going around about those guys.”

“Isaac, Isaac, Isaac,” Manakel tutted while stepping that way to put an arm around him. “Now, you know I can’t tell you that. Where would our operational security be? Just like I can’t tell our other agents about you. Come, have you eaten? We have a marvelous spread inside.”

Leading Isaac into the much larger cabin and to a table that was, indeed, laden with more food than all of them could’ve eaten in a week, the man urged him to take part. When Charmeine started to bring up the mission, Manakel waved her off. “After,” he ordered. “Pleasure first. I do enjoy a good meal, don’t you?” he added the last with a look toward the boy.

“Sure,” Isaac replied slowly while filling his plate. “I love gluttony. It’s my third-favorite sin, after wrath and lust. Which, you’d be surprised how often those two go together.”

“Very little about you would surprise me, Mr. Acosta,” Manakel informed him. “Very little indeed.” His look turned intense for a brief second before he shifted his eyes toward Lies. “My dear, aren’t you going to eat? There’s plenty, as you can see.”

“No thanks,” she replied easily. “I wouldn’t want to take up any of the poison that he’s supposed to get.”

While Isaac reflexively dropped the piece of chicken from his mouth, Manakel barked a short, genuine laugh. “Oh, she’s teasing you, my boy. She’s teasing you. No, if we wanted you dead, there would be no need for poison. You’re not a um, a threat, you see?” He leaned forward a bit, his tone dropping slightly. “No, if I wanted you dead, you never would have made it off the boat. And I certainly wouldn’t have you in here. A body, lying over this beautiful assortment of delights, are you mad?”

So they ate. Or Manakel and Isaac did, in any case. Lies stayed away from the table despite her boss’s words, and Charmeine seemed content to sit and watch him, plate empty.

Eventually, Manakel set down his fork, cocking his head a little bit before looking toward Isaac. “I have… asked you to do one thing. And that one thing was to ensure that these humans that you work with would take what they see and go to the Crossroads Committee. Thus far, I have been… unimpressed with your results. Now, that is not to say that you’re not trying. But the options we have as this failure continues are rapidly dwindling. At this point, we’re pretty much down to two possibilities. Either this is beyond your capability, and you are of no use. Or you aren’t trying hard enough. I would prefer it be the second option. That, at least, may be corrected.”

“Hey, I told you,” Isaac started. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it once that jackass used th–”

“One thing you should understand about me,” Manakel interrupted, “is that I abhor vulgarity as much as I do excuses. So please, content yourself to offering neither. Simply answer the question. It is a binary choice. Have you tried as hard as you can, or should you be trying a bit harder?”

Mouth opening and then shutting, Isaac finally gritted out, “I’ll try harder.”

“Excellent,” the man replied, giving a small smile before plucking up his fork to take another bite. Swallowing it, he used the fork to gesture toward Isaac. “You can start with this new mission. This trip to New York, it presents an opportunity for a boy of your… pursuits.”

“Well, now you got my attention,” Isaac replied, lifting an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be pissed that they were going there. You do know they want to have a sit down chat with girl, right?”

“Indeed.” Giving a thin, humorless smile, Manakel continued. “Fortunately, you are going to ensure that meeting never happens. Now, let me make this clear. A moment ago, when you agreed that you should be trying harder, this will be the time to raise that effort. Because if you fail this time, I…” He paused then, seeming to consider his next words for a moment. “I will spend as much time as it takes to ensure that you forget that a state other than unimaginable pain exists. I will set your body aflame and keep you alive through it, because you will not be allowed to die until I am satisfied. You are a miserable, lecherous little creature whom I despise. So give me one more reason to doubt your capability to perform these tasks, and my utter disdain for you will outweigh my need to use you. Do you understand?”

There were no smart remarks. Not at that point. Isaac simply gave a short nod. “Yes.”

The man’s demeanor shifted just as suddenly as it had changed before. He sat back, smiling slightly. “Excellent. Then there won’t be a problem.”

Looking toward Lies/Pace then, the man gave a soft smile. “As for you my dear…” A tutting noise escaped him as his head shook. “What are we going to do with you? The weres may be an alpha version of the much more useful Heretics, but they were still useful in their own way. And you–well, you kind of lost them. Lemuel is dead, as are a large number of his most important people. Of the rest who survived, they’ve all scattered. And,” he added, “Let’s not forget the part where the choker that allows you to operate within the Heretic ranks was destroyed.”

“Destroyed though,” the girl piped up. “Not stolen.”

The man gave a light, seemingly-honest chuckle. “Yes,” he replied with a smile that showed his teeth. “Yes, it was. And that’s the only reason you’re still alive, isn’t it?”

There was no response, and Manakel leaned back, taking a bite or two of his food while making a noise of enjoyment. “Mmmm, it really is delicious. You both should be indulging. You’re young,” he added with a broad smile. “Enjoy it.”

After another bite, he set the fork down and looked toward Lies. “We’ll find another job for you. I don’t throw away things that might still be useful. And you, my dear, could still be very useful indeed.”

His attention moved to Isaac then. “As for you, we’ll use this trip to our advantage. You’ll go to New York. Before this ‘meeting’ has a chance to take place, you will ensure that Miss Chambers and each member of your team aside from yourself and Mr. Fetch are all in possession of one of these.”

Laying his hand on the table, he lifted it to reveal several small, marble-sized orbs that seemed to be made out of crystal. “Once you have secretly placed one on each of their persons, you will break the last one.”

“Yeah?” Isaac’s eyes moved from the orb to the man’s face and back again. “Why? What do they do?”

It was Charmeine who answered. “Breaking the final orb will take everyone that’s closest to the other orbs and banish all of them from Earth and any pocket-dimension connected to it, sending them clear across the universe. Far beyond the reach of any magic or power that could be used to track them down.”

“Our goal,” Manakel added, “which you and Mr. Fetch will assist with through your own testimony, is to create the illusion that Miss Chambers recruited your teammates to join a… rebellion against Crossroads. You and your team leader objected, a fight ensued, and your traitorous teammates, along with the girl herself, fled.”

“They’ll look for them,” Charmeine put in then. “But they won’t find them. And losing three-quarters of a Freshman team because the Chambers girl took off with them… yeah, that’ll get the headmistress in pretty hot water.”

“Hot water,” Manakel finished, “which our ever-so-eager, yet unknowing friend Gentleman Ruthers will seize upon as a pretense for removing Gaia Sinclaire from her position so that he can install his own loyal puppet in her place. And without Sinclaire corrupting our system, this school will return to its primary purpose: creating loyal soldiers who kill anything and everything we point them toward.”

“Now, see, this was a lot of great food and all,” Isaac started while gesturing at the assortment still covering the table.

“But what you just said? That sounds absolutely delicious.”  

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