Chef Escalan

Family Day 40-03

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Fossor. He had been here all this time, right under our noses. I had no doubt in that second that he’d been here for months, at least. Maybe even from the beginning of the school year. Or even earlier. Sands and Scout said the food tasted better when they were kids? How long had he been here? And how much had he stepped it up since I arrived? After all, he probably wanted to keep an eye on me once I was brought to the school, and who better to do it through then the school chef? No one ever paid attention to the cook. He just stayed in his kitchen and did his job.

And listened. And watched.

Casually, Escalan touched two fingers against the door behind him, and I saw a couple of red spell sigils appear briefly. Only then did he step away from the door and speak, “It’s good to see you in the flesh again, dear.” He paused, then looked down at the body he was currently puppeting. “So to speak, at least. Unfortunately, I believe my physical presence there would cause more problems than I’m currently prepared to deal with. But then, this wouldn’t be your first dealings with an absent parental figure.”

“Shut up!” I suddenly blurted despite myself. I couldn’t think. My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had to believe that he’d been telling the truth about me being cut off from contact. If my cell phone wasn’t working, maybe Wyatt’s protective spells would let them know what was going on.

Something in my face must have given that thought away, because Fossor, through Escalan, chuckled. “Oh, dear Felicity, your spells are still broadcasting just as they should, and will betray no surprises or trouble. For the moment, at least. Besides, as you well know, I mean you no harm right now.” He winked, the words somehow mocking. “I am utterly incapable of harming you, after all.”

We both knew what he meant by that, and how much he could get around it. My eyes snapped around quickly, looking for anything that could give me an idea what to do. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even get a message to Tabbris back with Dad. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why didn’t I possess someone at the camp? Then I could’ve recalled to them.

Finally, all I could do was snap my gaze back to the nearby man and blurt, “What are you doing here?! What do you want?! What are you— wait. Wait, the food. The food, what did you do to the food?!”

The horror of the possibilities had me already moving. Forgetting myself, I ran for the man, or rather, for the door behind him. I had to warn them.

To my surprise, Fossor didn’t try to stop me. In fact, he had Escalan’s body step out of the way. I knew that should have been a hint, but all I can think about was warning my friends. I got to the door… and suddenly the world swam and I was back on the other side of the room.

It was some kind of teleport spell, short range. When I got near the door, it simply reset me back over here.

My staff was in my hands then, as I went for the man, swinging it hard while demanding, “What did you do?!”

The blow struck home, not that it actually did anything, of course. Escalan’s head simply snapped a bit to the side, before Fossor made him sigh softly, like he was disappointed.

“You are entirely too old for temper tantrums, young lady. But because I understand this is an emotional time, I will indulge you.”

Using two fingers, he gestured, and I felt all of my strength suddenly leave me. It was all I could do to stand up, staggering a bit against the nearby counter before using it to brace myself.

He continued then. “To answer your question, I have been using this time as your chef productively, carefully preparing a very specific poison.”

My eyes widened at that, and I gathered what strength I had to throw myself at him once more with another swing. It meant nothing, as he just sighed and stepped backwards, letting me fall on my face.

“As I was saying, this very special poison required months of very careful testing and work. After all, if it was going to do what I needed to do, there could be no mistakes, no second chances. Fortunately, that meant that I had a ready excuse to stay here and see how you were doing. I must admit, though I don’t know the whole story, I am very impressed by your work this year. You are quite the overachiever. Your mother is proud. I promised her I’d tell you that.”

Using the end of my staff to push myself up a bit, I glared at him. “You’re a monster,” I spat. “What poison? What are you trying to do? You can’t possibly think that you can just poison all these Heretics to death. There’s no fucking way.”

“Well, no,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Heretics are entirely too resilient for that. Particularly the stronger ones. Fortunately, killing them was not my goal at this particular moment. Merely… distraction. And that is something that this particular poison is a very good at creating. You see, it’s not just a poison to make them sick. It’s also an… anchor to a specific spot. When it kicks in, the person who eats it is yanked to that specific spot and, until the poison is purged, they can’t leave. But yes, it also it makes them sick. Or rather, weak. It makes them quite tired. Similar to what you’re feeling now, actually. Which isn’t direct harm, helpfully enough. It’s an ingenious hunting method devised by the Kakaseun people. They would leave food out as bait, and when the bait was taken, their prey would be teleported to the spot they designated, and, conveniently enough, would also be quite tired. Dinner delivered directly to where the Kakaseun wanted them, and left too weak to fight back.

“And even better, every single body that is affected will give off a… let’s call it an aura, which infects those around them. That way, even those who weren’t directly planned for will be, well, dealt with.”

I stared at him. “Nothing that affects all those students without killing them is going to do a thing to Gaia, or the Committee members, or–”

“Of course not,” the man interrupted. “But as I said, a distraction. You see, each of the Heretics who are affected will be sent to one of a dozen different possible traps. Each of those traps is full of… let’s say very dangerous things. Your teachers and such may not be sick, but they will be quite thoroughly occupied with keeping their students alive for the time being.”

He winked then. “All in all, let’s just say no one will be in any shape to interrupt your mother anytime soon.”

“Mom?!” I blurted, eyes widening once more, “What are you talking about? Where’s my mom?! What are you making her do?!”

His response was a slow smile. “What I’ve been planning for this whole year, of course. Actually, for quite a bit longer. But I wanted it to be this year because you were here and, well, call me sentimental. I kind of wanted you to be here for it.

“Your mother is retrieving something very important for me. The rope of the creature who provides all of these people their power.”

“Wh- the rope?” Now I was really lost. “You mean the rope that hanging near Bosch’s place? What does that even… I mean… what?”

That smile, the one that I recognized as Fossor even on another man’s face, came back. “That’s right, you did get a chance to see it, didn’t you? Yes, the Heretics keep it under a very close watch, despite how it may have seemed at the time. It is very… protected, let’s say. And there are always plenty of lapdogs ready to come and defend it. But in this case, well, they will be rather distracted.”

The poisoned food, I realized. He was going to distract all of Crossroads by infecting everyone here with that… teleportation plus sickness food, and then have Mom attack that place and steal the rope while they were busy. My mouth opened and shut a few times before I blurted, “What do you even want the rope for?! This is a lot of work to go through just for a souvenir.” I knew it was for far more than that, of course. But I was hoping that dismissing it like that would make the man explain more than he intended to about his overall plan.

Unfortunately, given the look of that the man gave me, he knew exactly what I was trying to do. And he didn’t even indulge me. Instead, he wagged one finger at me a couple times. “Now now, I may be inclined to indulge your curiosity to a certain extent, given our close relationship, but there are limits even to that. After all, we can’t have all the surprises spoiled, can we?” He winked at me.

Damn it, what was I supposed to do?! What could I do? Delaying things clearly only worked in his favor. He was speaking to me through this zombie proxy, so whatever he was really doing, my talking wasn’t stopping it. Besides, he had Mom to do the dirty work. But I couldn’t get past him. I couldn’t get out of the room, and I couldn’t contact anybody. I couldn’t do anything!

Or maybe… maybe I could do something. Refocusing on Escalan, I thought about what I had been learning from Brom. Zombie. Zombie. Escalan was a zombie. So maybe I could control him to let me out of here. Biting my lip, I pushed as hard as I could at making his arm move.

His arm rose, and I felt a brief moment of elation. Which lasted just long enough for me to realize that it was the wrong arm. I’d been focusing on the right one, and the left had risen.

Seeing my expression, Fossor made Escalan laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was this one, wasn’t it?” Raising his right hand, the man chuckled low. “A fine effort. Really, I’m rather impressed. Yes, dear girl, you are developing very nicely. When we’re all a nice, happy family, I’ll teach you.”

“We’re not a family!” I shouted then, unable to help myself. “I’m never going to be some stupid devoted daughter for you, you sick fuck!”

“Daughter?” Fossor had the nerve to make Escalan look sickened and offended by that. “I should hope not. That would make our future engagements quite… creepy indeed.”

The blood drained from my face, and I forced myself back to my feet. It was so hard. I felt more tired than I had pretty much all year, or at least since I’d gotten the Amarok boost. Whatever Fossor had done to me, it took all I had just to stand up, even leaning on my staff. “You… you sick piece of shit. I don’t know why you want that rope, or what the hell you think you’re doing. But you’re going to fail. We’re going to find my mother, and we’re going to kill you.”

Of course, in that moment it was an impotent promise. And Fossor treated it as such, simply inclining Escalan’s head before offering a casual, “I eagerly anticipate your attempts. But in the meantime, perhaps you should be focusing on rescuing a different family member.”

That threw me more than almost anything else he could have said right then. “I don’t–what?”

His expression turned wistful. “I have to admit, I’m rather impressed that Ammon managed to keep her a secret for so long. Months, really. But in the end, the truth always emerges. Whether it’s heard from your lips or has to be read off of your extracted intestines, that part is up to you.”

Before I could say anything to that, he elaborated. “Her name is Karen, isn’t it? No, Koren. That was it. Just like her mother should have been. Very…” He breathed in, then out, smiling. “Very touching.”

My blood had run cold as soon as he said the name, and the man continued while I was still trying to find my voice. “Yes, I must admit, of all the things I expected his little secret to be about, that was not one of them. But it was a pleasant surprise. Our family is even bigger than expected. It must have been quite nice for you, hmm? A living niece and a half-sister. For the time being, at least.”

“What–what do you mean, for the time being?” I demanded, finding enough strength to straighten a bit more. I felt almost numb, my emotions incapable of keeping up the level of horror and disgust that this entire conversation was forcing onto me. The helplessness was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to avoid throwing up.

“Well,” he replied, “you see, that’s the thing. I have no need for a woman who reached menopause before ever becoming a Heretic. What on Earth would I ever need such a useless creature for? Fortunately, she had the foresight to bear a child ahead of time. Quite convenient, that. And now, she will provide sufficient entertainment for your little brother, while her death will motivate your niece to wonderful heights of emotion that will be very useful.”

Oh. Apparently my horror could reach new levels. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Ammon’s with–no! No, they’re with the other–” I stopped. “That–that teleportation sickness thing. You… you made it send them somewhere else. Not with the others.”

Adopting a tone as though he was talking to a small child, Fossor-through-Escalan nodded slowly. “Yes, very good. Very good. Koren and Abigail are spending a little quality time with Ammon, so they can all have some fun.” He smiled then. “He really is a rambunctious boy.”

That was enough. More than enough. The rage and helplessness that I had felt building within me every second since realizing just who I was talking to had reached a crescendo. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, it was time to get past him and stop this. Somehow.

And then Fossor made Escalan simply step aside, gesturing to the door to make the glowing runes disappear. “Well, that should be long enough to get things going.”

Unable to believe it, I stared at him for just a second. “What–now you’re just letting me go?”

That smile returned, as the zombified man replied, “Of course. You have an issue with Ammon, and I prefer to allow my family to work out their own issues amongst themselves. And I do mean amongst themselves. You’ll find it quite impossible to contact anyone else for the time being. After all, this spat is between you and your little brother, not the old king’s remnants. Yes, this will be up to you. It will be interesting, however, to see what you choose.”

“What I choose?” I felt my strength returning. Whatever he had done to me was wearing off. Or maybe he was dismissing it. Either way, it was getting easier to stand up straight.

“Of course.” Fossor’s amusement was plain to both see and hear. “After all, you know precisely where your mother is and what she is doing. You could go to her. How long has it been since you spoke to her in person, since you touched her? Perhaps you could bring her back to you, even save her. Or, you could go and see about Ammon and that entire… situation.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I suppose it depends on what matters more to you right now, hmm?”

“You’re a piece of shit,” I snapped at him, my voice cracking. “And a coward.”

My insults might as well have been water sliding off a duck’s back, for all the attention he paid to them. “You’ll find two portals on the beach. The one on the left will lead you to the same area that your mother is going to. The one on the right will lead you to Ammon’s little game.” He chuckled to himself, his voice turning introspective. “Yes, it will be quite interesting to see what you choose to do. Quite interesting indeed.”

With that, the man stopped talking. Escalan’s body abruptly fell to the floor and lay completely still like the… the corpse that it was. I felt a brief moment of sorrow and loss for the man I’d probably never actually known, before springing into motion. I raced for the door, bracing myself just in case.

There was no teleportation spell. I hit the door and burst through, still moving at a sprint through the empty cafeteria. Portals. Portals on the beach. Could I even trust that? It was stupid. But then again, Fossor’s binding magical agreement with my mother made it so that he couldn’t directly hurt me. So I knew the portals couldn’t actually be that dangerous. But still… still…

This was wrong. It was all wrong. Fossor controlling a body at Crossroads. Why didn’t they detect him? Was he that powerful that he could hide the fact that Escalan was dead and a zombie from… from… all of them, from everyone? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.

And now, now apparently all the Heretics that should have been able to help me were busy being teleported to some other place and wouldn’t be able to get back here until they actually fixed the poison and dealt with all the ambushes that Fossor had arranged. Which was just great.

I didn’t know how much power it took Fossor to make the magical poison… things that he’d used to send that many Heretics away and keep them occupied. It felt like it should have been impossible. But that was kind of the point of magic. Given enough time and effort, it could do a lot. And time was something Fossor had had plenty of in this case.

Magic wasn’t fast, as Professor Carfried was so fond of saying. But it was thorough. The psycho necromancer had had all year to plan for this. All year–hell, more than that, according to him. Years, maybe even decades, he’d spent preparing for this exact moment. He’d just chosen this particular year to do it because I happened to be here.

Boy, didn’t I just feel special.

Sure enough, as I hit the exit and emerged onto the grounds, I found the place empty. Where there had been hundreds of people just minutes earlier, there was now just… no one. Fossor had successfully teleported every last Heretic away from Crossroads. It was perfect timing on his part. Everyone was attending this thing. Everyone at the school, anyway. And a lot of others besides.

Fumbling my phone out of my pocket, I tried using it again. Nothing. Fossor had been telling the truth. I couldn’t contact anyone. Maybe once I went through the portal, but even then I was pretty damn sure that communications would be blocked on that side too. Which was just great.

I had to focus. They were okay. Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, the other teachers, they were all a lot more powerful and capable than I was and they were with my team, with my friends, with… with my girls. They’d be able to deal with wherever Fossor had sent everyone. Dare wasn’t there, of course. She was still with Kohaku and Tangle at wherever they were staying, keeping the pair company through this. Even without her, however, there were plenty of powerful Heretics that could deal with whatever was out there. Not to mention the Committee members who were there and–yeah, they’d be fine.

But there were others who wouldn’t be. And I had to–

“Felicity!”

Whirling at the sound of the voice, I was just in time to be swept into a tight hug by Avalon. With a gasp, I grabbed on tight. “What–Valley?! How–what?”

She was there. And Vanessa was with her. Avalon and Vanessa were both standing there.

“Mom,” Avalon started shortly, after letting go. “When everything started happening and everyone was disappearing, she said a strange word and then she put this symbol on my arm.”

She showed me her bicep then, where a magical rune glowed. “It burned, but when everyone disappeared, I stayed.”

“Same,” Vanessa confirmed. “Only it was my dad. Err, maybe my mom. I’m not sure who was driving the body right then. It’s some kind of counterspell to whatever… whatever pulled them away.” She looked to me then, frowning. “What pulled them away?”

Oh thank God. Thank whoever. Thank whatever. Avalon was safe. She was here, she hadn’t been sucked away. Well, consciously I knew she would’ve been just as safe with Gaia, if not more so, but still. She was here. She was right here with me. It felt as though a little bit of the weight had lifted from my shoulders. And if Gaia and Haiden or Sariel had the counterspell that readily, maybe they’d be back here sooner than that evil jackass expected.

But still not soon enough.

“Come on,” I blurted, already heading for the beach. “It’s Fossor, I’ll explain on the way.”

So, I did. Running across the table and chair-strewn grounds to reach the beach, I blurted an explanation for everything that Fossor had said about what he was doing and what had happened to the others. “And now Mom’s stealing that rope for Fossor while Ammon has Abigail and Koren. He’s going to kill Abigail just to torture Koren, just to–to break her.”

“We can’t let that happen.” That was Vanessa, as we all skidded to a stop in front of both portals. “But… but your mother.”

“She’ll still be there later,” I announced without hesitation. I’d thought about it the entire time we’d been running. Ever since Fossor had brought it up, really. I’d thought about it, and while there was a bit of… of guilt and disappointment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t even a choice, really. Which showed just how little Fossor actually understood about families and loved ones if he thought it would be. I loved my mother. I missed her. But she would survive this. I wouldn’t throw away Abigail’s life and Koren’s… soul just to get a few minutes face to face with my mother. Fossor… he had no idea how actual people worked.

“But you guys can’t come,” I realized then, my gaze snapping to them. “Ammon’s there. You’re–you’re not immune to his power. If he gets near you–” I stopped myself then, not trusting my voice.

“Chambers,” Avalon announced, “we’re not idiots. Show her, Vanessa.”

Blinking that way, I saw the other girl produce something from her pockets. They were… earplugs? They looked sort of like earplugs. Really tiny ones that would be almost entirely invisible inside of the ear.

“We’ve been working on them ever since you explained what Ammon could do,” Avalon informed me. “She did the research for the spells, I worked on them in the lab. Less so after I switched to Security, but I still tinkered with them. We’ve been finishing them up at the camp while I was recovering.”

“They’ve got six charges,” Vanessa informed me. “Every time they hear ‘My name is’ after they’re activated, it triggers one of the charges. The first five make you deaf for a few seconds. So you don’t hear the rest of it, or the order. The last charge knocks you out for a few minutes. We’ve been working on adding more charges to them, but that’s all we managed so far.”

“So, you can hear Ammon try to use his power six times,” I murmured, “and then it just knocks you out.”

The two of them were already putting the little earbud things in place, both of them nodding to me. Avalon lifted her chin. “So no, you’re not doing this by yourself, Chambers.”

“Your mom?” I asked her before looking to Vanessa. “Your… your entire family. You have a thing with people being teleported away.”

“They’ll be okay,” the blonde girl replied. “They’re together. And they’ve got plenty of others with them. They’re not the ones that need help right now. You are. Koren is. Tristan would say we should stay and help you, if he was here. If we hadn’t already erased his anchor spell thing. And I could go straight to Dad if I hadn’t been practicing with my possession power today.”

She sighed then. “I didn’t think I’d need to hold onto that connection with him because they were home. Great timing, huh? But hey, work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a chance to save Koren and her mom.”  

I looked back and forth between the two of them briefly, as Avalon nodded in agreement. “Okay then,” I murmured, looking back to the portal in question. “I think we should all go through together, since it’ll probably disappear as soon as one of us goes.”

The three of us held hands then. I took a breath, murmured a quiet prayer, then took three quick steps forward with the others. This was what Fossor wanted me to do, run off to find Ammon so we could get into a fight. But I had to believe that he didn’t expect me to have help. So maybe that would screw up whatever plans he had. Either way, I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t time to debate anything, and there wasn’t time to wait for the others to get back. There wasn’t time… period. We had to do this, and do it right now.

Together, Avalon, Vanessa, and I passed through the portal, to find Koren and Abigail…

And to deal with Ammon.

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Family Day 40-02

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The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

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Begin Again 10-05

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“Tell me something. When exactly did you decide to turn traitor and destroy our entire civilization?”

Rebecca Jameson, all less than five feet of her, stared with wide eyes at the figure looming over her. Which, to be honest, was really only possible because of her own diminutive form. Wyatt’s (of course it was Wyatt) scrawny figure didn’t really tend to do much in the way of looming most of the time.

“No answer, huh?” the enthusiastic security guard that happened to be my half-brother pushed on in the face of the girl’s utterly bewildered stare. “Didn’t expect old Wyatt to catch onto you so quick, did ya?”

It was the end of dinner that evening. Columbus, Shiori, and Sean were all sitting with me on one side of the cafeteria, finishing up dessert. All of us were watching the action going on two tables away.

“Should we uhh, do something?” Shiori whispered under her breath while leaning a little closer to me.

I tried not to be too distracted by the warmth of the other girl’s body leaning so close. Really, I did. But in the end, Columbus spoke up before I could. “What’re we supposed to do, throw something at him?”

Meanwhile, Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested earnestly.

“A likely story, knave!” Wyatt retorted. Yeah, he said knave. Seriously. “You weren’t expecting me to notice your chicanery,” he continued dramatically. “But my eyes are always watching.” He pointed two fingers toward his face, then gestured around the room. “They’re everywhere. Watching you. Seeing you. You can’t hide from the gaze of justice, girl. The gaze of justice sees everything. Everything.”

The others were all looking at me pointedly by then, and I waved them off before sliding to my feet to move that way. “Okay, okay, okay. Before this accidentally gets too close to something that might make Chris Hansen start paying attention, maybe you could explain what you think Rebecca did? Uh, sir.”

Wyatt looked to me, then back to Rebecca, his gaze narrowing even further. “You wanna know what she did, Miss Chambers? Oh, I’ll do better than tell you. I’ll show you.” The scrawny man straightened to his most imposing height (which basically put him about an inch taller than I was) before commanding, “Jameson, are you going to empty your pockets right now, or do we have to make you?”

Obviously still confused, Rebecca echoed, “Empty my pockets?” When the man’s mouth opened to bellow again, she hurriedly complied. “Fine, fine. Here, look.” Straightening, the tiny girl started to dig random junk out of her pants. I saw a half-used pack of gum, an unopened thing of Tic Tacs, a wallet with a pink flower on the side, a white cell phone, and a set of keys that included the same kind of red key as the one I had to get into my own dorm. Finally, she produced one final object: a butter knife.

Wyatt grabbed the knife. “Aha! You thought you were gonna sneak this right on out of here, didn’t you? Who were you planning to take out with this, huh? Roommate, teacher, maybe a really perceptive security guard?” He was holding the knife like it was a machete. “Gonna try gutting a classmate?”

Rebecca just stared at him. It took her a second to find her voice (which meant she was doing better than I was on that front). “It’s just a butter knife, sir. My mom sent me crackers and peanut butter, but I don’t have any way to spread it. I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. I’m not—I wasn’t trying to—I mean…”

Before Wyatt or I could respond, there was another voice that spoke up. This one sounded harsh and guttural, with a deep Russian accent. “Vhat iz problem here? Vhy all still in my stolovaya? Is closed.”

Looking up, I found Chef Escalan, the squat, rather rotund man with stringy straw-yellow hair sticking out of his flat chef’s hat. The man was standing there looking at us all with an expectant, annoyed glare.

Coughing, I quickly spoke up. “Uh, Chef Escalan, is it okay if Rebecca borrows one of your butter knives for awhile?” I indicated the utensil that Wyatt was still holding. “She needs it for some peanut-”

“Pah,” the man interrupted dismissively. “I am not caring vhat she is using for, only dzat she is returning eet vhen finished.” His hand lashed out so fast I barely saw him move before he had the utensil. “Is knife for butter, not chainsaw. Vhy need steal little knife for killing when have big guns?”

He had a point there. Rebecca’s weapon was a backpack that turned into a massive mounted cannon. If she wanted to do damage to someone, that would’ve been a hell of a lot easier than a butter knife.

“So, I can take it?” the other girl asked rather hesitantly, looking back and forth between the two men.

In response, the chef produced a small notebook with an attached pen from his pocket, flipping it open before turning the thing around to present to her. “You vill sign out knife, dzhen return vhen finished.”

Rebecca promptly took the pen and signed her name into the notebook, along with the fact that she was borrowing a butter knife. “Is, um, is that it?” she asked with a confused glance toward me.

“Is all,” Escalan confirmed before snapping the notebook shut. He presented the butter knife to her.

“Yeah, that’s all, for now.” Wyatt informed her. “You get off easy this time. But I’m watching. Always-”

Clearing my throat to interrupt, I quickly stepped between them. “Hey, uh, Mr. Rendell. I had some questions about the, um…” I thought fast. “About taking a hike through the jungle. Where do we sign up for it? And do I need to buy insect repellent, or is there some kind of spell that we can do for that?”

Rebecca used the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat, while Escalan muttered something about getting the hell out of his dining room so it could be cleaned. Then he was gone too, back into the kitchen.

Wyatt was staring at me then, eyes narrowed as if trying to figure out whether I was a secret spy or not. And, as usual, he was clearly leaning toward the former. “You’re that one that was late to start school.”

“Uh, yup.” I let my head bob up and down quickly. “That’s me, Flick Chambers. So how about that sign-up list? I sort of just found out about it and I’d really like to get in on one of those jungle hikes.”

As quick as the man was to accuse people of something nefarious, he shifted gears equally fast. “Hikes!” Wyatt blurted, fingers snapping. “Yes, come on then. I’ll show you where the sign-in sheet is.” He started walking to the exit quickly, forcing me into a near-jog to keep up. His words came as fast as his steps. “The next group excursion is Saturday. That’s when they take everyone who wants to go on a guided tour. Or you can look at the list to find one of the approved escorts and ask them to sign you up for a special trip any day that you don’t have anything else going on. That’s either for you or a small group. I,” he added proudly, “am one of those approved guides. Of course, as busy as my days are, I don’t get a chance to run too many hikes. Still, if you insist on it, I suppose I might be able to squeeze–”

“Sure,” I blurted quickly, before I could think too much about it. When the man looked back at me with a confused expression, I clarified, “I mean go ahead and sign me up to go out on a hike with you. When’s a good time? I’ve got detention on Saturday, but maybe after? Or Sunday. Whenever works.”

Poor Wyatt was staring at me like I’d just grown two heads. “You want to sign up for–” he started with a baffled tone before covering it, straightening proudly. “Well. Of course you do. Let’s see… I’ll have to clear some time, look over my schedule. You understand how it is. But maybe… yes. I think I can squeeze in a little hike somewhere. I’ll give it a look, call off a few other plans, and let you know.”

“Let you know what?” The voice, coming from almost directly behind me, drew a yelp as I turned.

Deveron stood there, giving me that lazy, casual smirk. Like there was some kind of joke that only he was in on. Like the whole world was just one big game that he could ignore or just sleep through. “Hey there, Chambers,” he drawled easily while giving me a quick two fingered salute. “You getting in trouble with security again? Figured you would’ve learned your lesson after all the zombies.”

The words made me squint at him suspiciously. “How did you know about that?” Sure, there’d been zombies everywhere, but most of the students had been safe in their dorms, not fighting. Plus, there was the way he said it as if our being around zombies had something to do with breaking the rules.

He just smiled, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “Got a little talk from Kohaku. Apparently I’m such a terrible mentor that you had to find out if I had blackmail material or something to keep my position?”

Flushing slightly at the reminder of what Sands had used for our cover story, I lifted my chin. “Well, you’re definitely not winning any awards. When was the last time you actually helped train us? Actually, scratch that. When was the first time you helped train us? Because I can’t remember any.”

Before Deveron could say anything, Wyatt had a finger in his face. “Hey! Is that true? You’re a mentor who doesn’t mentor? What’s that about? Do you have any idea how much of an honor it is to be selected as a team mentor? Any idea at all? You’re supposed to be the best. You’re supposed to help them. These kids are learning to fight for their lives out there! If you can’t help them, if you can’t be there, if you can’t do your job, then you quit and let someone else do it. If you don’t help, they’ll get hurt. They’ll die, and that’s on you. You understand me, pretty boy?”

He went on before the other boy could respond, and while I was still doing a double-take. “I’ve got eyes on you. My eyes on you. Eyes. You. One of these kids gets hurt, just one gets a hair on their head hurt and I find out it’s because you weren’t training them, I will be on your ass. You can smile, you can laugh it off now, but if they die because you were too lazy to teach them, I will make it my life’s work to pin you for it. That is my promise to you. If something happens to your team because you didn’t teach them, you won’t just get drubbed out of this school faster than you can make one of those stupid smirks, I’ll make sure your cocky little ass ends up serving time. You understand me, Adams? I said, do you understand me?”

For a second, Deveron didn’t respond. His eyes moved from the security guard to me and back again before he gave a slight nod. “Actually, you’re right. Why don’t we make that jungle hike a group thing? We can get all three of us out there, really hash out just how we should fix this whole team thing.”

Shit. My mouth opened to say something about how he wasn’t invited. Unfortunately, before I could get the words out, Wyatt gave an excited nod. Just like that, his mood shifted again. “That’s a great idea! Then you can see how to be a good—no, a great role model. Fantastic initiative, Adams. Truly a turn-around. You keep that up.” Eyes narrowing again, he pointed. “But don’t think you’re getting off easy. I will be watching. You do your job with this team of yours. You teach them, you pay attention, you work. If I think you’re slacking off again…” His voice trailed off threateningly.

Deveron made a quick little bowing motion. “Absolutely. I’ll be there… Sunday? That good for you?”

“Sunday!” Cheerfully, Wyatt pointed at both of us. “Sunday, jungle tour. Be in the cafeteria at nine in the morning. No, make it eight so we have time to go over your survival packs. Bring anyone else that wants to come, we’ll make a whole day of it! Believe me, you’re going to learn so much! It’ll be great!”

With that, he walked off, whistling happily. The man was clearly giddy about the whole concept of taking us out on a jungle hike, and I took a second to picture him bringing the same level of enthusiasm to that as he normally brought to being a security guard. Wow. Just… wow.

Then my eyes moved back to Deveron, and I found the older boy gazing after Wyatt with a weird expression. It wasn’t his usual cocky smirk or disinterested gaze. It looked like he was… sad? What? Had Wyatt’s threat to expel him or whatever else he’d gone on about actually hit home for him or something? That didn’t sound right, didn’t feel right. Not with that kind of look. The expression on his face, I couldn’t really understand it, but it reminded me of something else. Something familiar.

It was my look, I realized a second later. It was the look I had when I thought about my mom. Deveron was thinking about someone he lost, someone who wasn’t there anymore. He was missing someone.

The doors to the cafeteria opened then, and Shiori, Columbus, and Sean emerged with Escalan shouting after them that the place wasn’t a lounge to lay around in. The second they appeared, that look vanished from Deveron’s face. He turned, giving me a quick, casual wink. “Well, guess I got told off, huh? See you tomorrow, little Flickster and friends.”

“Wait, tomorrow?” Columbus asked, looking just as confused as I felt.

“Sure,” the boy gave us a thumbs up before turning to walk away. “You wanted to train. We’ll train. Let’s call it five o’clock, soon as the gym opens in the morning. That’ll give us the whole two hours. Tell the others! I’ll expect to see all of you there. Wouldn’t wanna piss off Captain Security, would we?”

Then he was gone, wandering off through the halls while whistling casually. Columbus looked at me. “What just happened?”

“And,” Shiori put in while rubbing Vulcan’s head fondly. “Does he realize I’m not actually a part of your team?”

All I could do was give a helpless shrug of confusion. “You know what, at this point, I don’t even know anymore. But I’m pretty sure I’m going on the world’s most awkward jungle hike this week.”

Sean slung an arm around my shoulders. “Hey, don’t feel bad. It can’t be any worse than what you’re doing tonight.”

Shuddering in spite of myself, I gave him a fake-sweet smile. “Sure you don’t want to come with and keep me company?”

He just smirked back at me, snapping his fingers in mock disappointment. “Damn, you know, I just don’t have any kind of power that’ll let me get in there. Shoot.”

“I do,” Shiori put in, waving a hand a little shyly.

Blinking back at her, I found myself blushing pink. “Oh, I wasn’t serious. It’s okay, you don’t have to go through this with me. It’s… not gonna be fun. Plus, I mean, don’t you have enhanced senses? That’d really suck.”

“That’s okay,” the other girl assured me. “You really shouldn’t go in all by yourself.

“And besides, if you can put up with the smell, I don’t mind it either.”

******

“Oh. Oh god, I changed my mind,” Shiori groaned a couple hours later while holding her nose. “That is nasty. I know you said it was gonna be bad, but not that bad. Gaaaah.” she made a weak little retching noise.

We were out behind the faculty building, mostly hidden by some trees and bushes. It was my whole team, plus Shiori. The seven of us had gradually made our way out here one or two at a time until all of us made it by the time the sun had set. I could hear other students running around and calling to each other over on the main part of the grounds, but we were alone here.

Sands and Scout were each holding the source of the overpowering stench that Shiori was complaining about (and I couldn’t blame her). It was a large bucket full of what looked like water balloons. But from the look of the sludge inside, not to mention the smell, they weren’t filled with water.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the other girl. “You don’t have to come in with me. It’s okay.”

Still, she shook her head a bit stubbornly. “No, it’s all right. I can deal. I’m coming with you. You should have someone watching your back, helping you search, keeping an eye out. You can’t do all of it.”

Avalon stood behind me, her gaze on the building. “You sure these things are going to be enough, Mason?”

Sands just grinned, reaching in to take one of the balloons into her hand. “Oh, it’ll be enough.” Cringing at the smell of the thing, she turned her head away while holding it out. “Wanna get a better sniff?”

“I’m fine,” Avalon retorted dryly. “I just want to make sure it’s enough to drive them out of the building. A lot of the faculty have powers that could detect someone going through Tangle’s apartment. This stuff has to make sure they all leave and explain any alarms that go off.”

Trust us, Avalon,” Sands pressed. “You may be the goddess of combat and aloof snark, but Scout and I know how to prank people. It’s simple. See those open windows? Those are the halls. We opened them this morning. So the two of us and the boys spread out and throw the balloons in through the windows. Hit every floor that you can. The balloons pop, spread their stench everywhere and sets off the alarms. It pisses off the faculty, they come out to catch us. We try to run, we get caught, we get lectured, we get punished. No big deal, happens all the time. Just kids being kids.”

“Meanwhile,” I added, “Shiori, Avalon, and I go to the other side of the building, right under Tangle’s apartment. Avalon turns it into wood so I can use my power to get inside, while Shiori turns into sand and follows me through the vent.”

“And when you two are done,” Avalon confirmed, “Shiori comes out to let me know so I can I turn the wall wood again and let you out, Chambers.”

“Like I said,” Sands put in then, “That smell is gonna be everywhere. That’s the whole point. If it doesn’t get into the rooms, it won’t get the staff out of there. You think it’s bad now, it’s gonna be worse when the stuff is out of the balloons.”

“Yeah,” Sean snorted. “You two have fun with that. We’ll just be over here getting more detention.”

I flinched. “Sorry guys. Look, if there’s a way to do this without anyone getting in trouble… Maybe you throw them and then run? You should be able to–”

“No,” Sands shook her head. “They need someone to lecture. Trust me, we know adults. Let them lecture us and they’ll stay way more distracted. It’s cool, Flick. We’ve been in trouble for much less important things than this. It’s just detention.”

“She’s right,” Columbus agreed. “You need to get in there and see if there’s anything in Tangle’s place.”

“Stop second guessing it, Chambers,” Avalon instructed, taking me by the arm. “Let’s get busy.”

On the opposite side, Shiori attached her own hand to my other arm. “Yeah, before someone notices us over here.”

So I went on toward the building, Avalon on one side and Shiori on the other. Behind me, I heard Sean whisper toward Columbus.

“Why do I get the feeling that, stink or no stink, she’s making out like a freaking bandit right now?”

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Orientation 1-07

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For a meal that had been both quicker and more convenient than anything my good old friend, Mr. Microwave could have whipped up, the food here was pretty damn good. Scratch that, it was good regardless of how quickly it had come out. Dad and I had gotten to be decent at putting meals together, but we were still dependent on boxes with things like ‘ready in fifteen minutes’ written on the label.

I scraped the plate clean entirely and was just putting the fork down when the collective scraping of chairs drew my attention back toward the front. The Headmistress was standing again, though she seemed fairly content to wait until everyone looked at her before she began speaking. She drew attention not by demanding it, but simply by expecting it to be given. Force of personality, rather than loud words eventually drew the eyes of every student until the whole school was once again watching.

“Another wonderful meal provided by our dear Chef Escalan,” Headmistress Sinclaire announced with a graceful smile and nod toward a man standing near the doorway that led into the kitchen. I couldn’t see him that well, but from here he looked like a squat, portly man in a red and white striped apron. Stray bits of straw-yellow hair stuck out from under his flattened chef’s hat. Unlike the headmistress, he wasn’t smiling. In fact, it pretty much looked like he’d rather be anywhere in the world but here.

Either ignoring or not noticing the man’s ugly scowl, Headmistress Sinclaire pressed on. “I know that he enjoys feeding you students almost as much as you enjoy his concoctions. But alas, we must press on if we are going to meet our deadline for the evening.” Clearing her throat then, she clarified, “Not a literal dead line, mind you. The team that was sent to clean up the last of those Thanatosis Marks from last year has assured us that the top floor of the academics building is now perfectly safe.”

Well my attention was caught in a stranglehold by those words, but the headmistress continued by listing several rules that seemed pretty common sense. No going into the beach or the jungle while you were supposed to be in class (with a reminder that the environmental seal, as she called it, would detect if anyone passed it), no fighting between classes, no food in the classroom (though drinks were allowed), the Pathmaker was off limits on threat of horrible things happening to your stomach until the staff arrived to cure you and assign detention, curfew was eleven on school nights, at which point we were expected to be in our dorms, and so on. She also mentioned that there was to be no truth about where we were or what we were doing in messages sent to those ‘outside of the Knowledge.’

Finally, the headmistress smiled. “But enough of our rules. I assure you, we spend less time obsessing upon such things than some would assume given their placement at the start of each semester. For now, it is my pleasure to introduce three new faculty members this year. Professor Inisclic will be taking over for the unfortunately deceased Professor Memon in the general histories courses.” She indicated a thin man in a tweed suit that seemed to be paying more attention to his empty plate than the students.

“Next,” the woman continued, “we have Professor Armstrong, who will be heading up our languages department for the time being, and Professor Carfried, who is filling in for poor Professor Tangle while she recovers from her recent ordeal.” In turn, an older woman with a severe overbite, and a jolly looking younger guy in his twenties that looked too young to be a teacher both stood. I had to both sit on my hand and bite my lip to stop myself from calling out questions. One former teacher that was unfortunately deceased, and another who was ‘recovering from her recent ordeal?’ Was that normal?

Whether it was or not, the headmistress wasn’t saying. She simply made those introductions and then pressed on. “Also, while we happen to be on the subject of introductions, allow me to introduce your specialization instructors for this semester.” Lifting her arm, the woman indicated several of the faculty who stood briefly to be counted, including Professor Dare. “If you have any questions regarding your chosen track, feel free to speak with one of them after we finish here, or at any other time. Their job is to ensure that you are in the correct track for your skills and interests.”

That started a flurry of whispered discussion, and the headmistress chuckled slightly. “As I said, such questions should come when we are done. Be careful, the question you whisper to a neighbor may be one that is answered while you are so distracted.” With that minor bit of chiding done, she continued.

“But I believe that means we have come to the end of what is relevant to our returning students. Class schedules will be delivered during breakfast in the morning, which will be provided, as always, between six am and eight am. Other than that, second years and above, if there are no questions, you are excused. Except, of course, for our team mentors.”

Deveron, who had started to stand with three quarters of the students, sighed and dropped back into his seat. The look he shot toward me made it clear that he somehow blamed us for not being able to leave.

Annoyed, I whispered, “So tell the truth. Which was more important for getting this mentor gig. Was it your stunning and helpful personality, or was it your devotion and strict work ethic?”

He answered me with a fairly infuriating smirk and shrug. “If you must know, I pulled a sword out of a stone. Some people get to be king, I get to babysit a bunch of lemmings.” Patting the table, he added, “At least my round table’s loaded with babes instead of dudes though.” Pausing, he waved a hand toward Columbus and his roommate Sean while adding, “No offense, dudes. Sure you’re quite the conversationalists.”

Rolling my eyes, I leaned over to Herbie, who was still sitting on the table. “Sic him, boy. Bite him.” Herbie, sadly, was far too well behaved to take the suggestion. He did, however, glare menacingly.

By that point, the second, third, and fourth years had all filed out. Left with the smaller audience, Headmistress Sinclaire continued. “Ahh, yes. Our first year students. Another welcome to each of you, whether you have grown up within the Knowledge, or are Bystander-kin. I’m sure many of you have a lot of questions, but let’s see how fast we can get through this first and save those inquiries for afterward, shall we?” She waited for any objections, then continued.

“Good. Now, many of you have already chosen your track for the semester either by attending early orientation last week or by sending your request forms in over the summer. For those who haven’t and do not know what we are talking about, allow me to explain. There are five types of what we call specialization tracks in this school. Those are: Development, Investigation, Security, Hunters, and Explorers. These are indicated by the color provided on your school uniform: blue, purple, white, green, and red, respectively. Those same colors may be found outside of specialization rooms, to indicate that you are in the correct location when you attend those classes.”

That matched up with what the twins had said earlier. They were in the investigation track, which was purple. A glance toward Avalon confirmed that she wore the light blue of the so-called ‘development’ track, while Deveron’s uniform trim was red for the ‘explorer’, whatever that was. Frankly, as lazily as he was coming off, I had my doubts about whether that sounded like the right specialization for him. On the other hand, none of what had been listed sounded like a ‘sit around and eat Cheetos’ career track.

Headmistress Sinclaire went on. “I’ll let our track advisers explain a bit about each specialization while they introduce themselves. Afterward, a sheet will appear in front of you if you have not yet chosen a specialty. Circle the track you are most interested in beginning. This choice may be changed for one week at the beginning of each semester while you attend this school. Indeed, some careers require a certain number of semesters spent under more than one specialty track. All of this information will be available to you at any point as you continue your education here. Professor Pericles, would you mind starting us off?”

A man who looked so old I was surprised he hadn’t been declared legally deceased stood up from the table. In spite of looking positively ancient, he moved without apparent effort. “Good evening!” His voice boomed loudly, another contrast with his deceptively decrepit appearance. “So glad to meet new students every year. I’ve been around for quite awhile, let me tell you, and every year I think I’ll get tired of meeting you young newcomers. But don’t you know, it never happens. I’d tell you how absolutely wonderful it is to see each and every one of you, but we’d be here all night and while I may be old, I am vaguely aware that there are other activities you whippersnappers would rather focus on that don’t include listening to some old coot ramble on. So let me just inform you of the very basics.

“My name is Zedekiah Pericles, and I teach mechanical engineering and a bit of science within what we call the general education courses, and on the other side of things, I’ll be instructing you in how these Stranger sons of bitches are put together and what kinda stuff they can do, as well as a bit about the old magic doodads we’ve whipped up in the time since our ancestors started poking at the creeps with their sharp sticks. Specialization wise, I’m the man that runs the Development track. In layman’s terms, that means we work on making up new toys, new magic, new everything to either kill these things, or just clean up the messes they leave behind. Any of you ever seen those old Bond flicks, we’re Q. ‘Cept we use magic as much as tech to make our little gadgets and doodads. Those of you wearing or soon-to-wear the blue uniforms, you’re all mine.”

I glanced toward Avalon, who was busy watching the man intently with an unreadable expression. She had joined his track, which clearly meant she was interested in the research side of things. Or maybe she really liked building things and putting stuff together? Maybe that was how she’d known so much about that circle surrounding the Pathmaker building. Assuming, of course, it wasn’t just something she’d learned from whatever Headmistress Sinclaire was to her. I still needed to find that out.

After Professor Pericles sat down, it was Professor Dare’s turn. She introduced herself again, stating that most there already knew her. Then she added that she taught fencing and American History, and that she ran the Investigation specialization track, which focused on interacting with those ‘outside of the knowledge’ to determine whether unexplained events in the mundane world were supernatural in nature or not. Usually those investigations were conducted under some false authority, the Heretic posing as a member of a legitimate law enforcement body. In other words, they lied a lot and used those lies to find out whether any random strange or outlandish event was a Stranger or not, and attempted to deal with it if possible. They were also the ones most responsible for keeping ‘bystanders’ out of the way, concocting the lies that prevented ordinary law enforcement (or say, random snoopy reporters like I aspired to be) from learning too much about this shadow world full of monsters. They were, of course, purple. The same color that Sands and Scout both wore.

Next there was the previously mentioned Professor Carfried, the young-looking teacher who had apparently taken over for Professor Tangle while she ‘recovered,’ from whatever she was recovering from. He was clearly nervous, stammering a fair bit but cheerful enough as he explained that he would be heading up the red-trimmed Explorer track. Their job, apparently, was to actually go into breaches between our world and the ones that these Strangers came from, documenting various information about their origins, the lands and homes they built, and more.

Professor Katarin, a male professor with very dark skin and the sort of bodybuilder look I associated with professional football linebackers, stood briefly to say that his classes were gym, general self defense, and that he was the specialization adviser for those in the Hunter track, those with green-lined uniforms. They were, to put it simply, those that actively fought against the Strangers. Unlike the Investigators, Hunters focused on areas where we knew for a fact the Strangers were coming through. They dealt with known and established threats, and were basically the straight up combat troops.

Finally, an Asian woman who appeared to be either in her late twenties or very early thirties stood up and introduced herself as Professor Kohaku. She spoke in carefully measured tones, her voice never rising above what felt like a whisper even though we could hear her just fine. She taught art classes and was responsible for the security of the school. Conveniently, she was also the adviser for those that were a part of the Security track itself, those with the white-lined uniforms. They were essentially responsible for keeping various places safe from Stranger infiltration. Hunters openly attacked, while Security protected.

And that was it. Development, Investigation, Explorers, Hunters, and Security. Once the advisers were done introducing themselves, a bit of plastic not-unlike the menu that had appeared previously popped up out of thin air in front of me. Columbus and his roommate received their own, and the three of us looked at one another while the rest of the table’s occupants either watched curiously (Sands and Scout) or ignored us completely (Deveron and Avalon).

“Hey,” Columbus whispered across the table toward my roommate. “Can I ask you a question?”

Slowly, the beautiful brunette turned her attention to him. She remained silent for a couple of seconds while obviously gathering herself before she spoke. “If it’s about the specializations, yes. Otherwise, you are seriously barking up the wrong tree.”

“Right, it’s about this.” The boy waved his sheet. “The Development track, is that, you know, interesting?”

Again, Avalon was silent. I had a feeling she was trying to determine how serious Columbus was. Finally, she breathed out a long, low sigh. “If you are told about a career that is focused on creating weapons and researching the weaknesses of monsters and have to ask if it’s interesting, either you weren’t listening to begin with or your line for what is interesting sits far beyond what humanity can measure.”

“Gotcha,” Columbus just grinned while circling that with his finger. “Just making sure.”

“What are you going for, Flick?” Sands asked, leaning a bit over the table to watch me as I tapped the sheet a few times.

“Well,” I answered. “Honestly, Explorer sounds pretty interesting. Seeing all those new worlds and stuff? Really cool. And Avalon’s right, so does Development. But I’ve wanted to be a reporter my whole life, one of those people that goes out and finds out the truth. So I think Investigation is pretty much the only real choice for me.” I used my finger to circle that, and my sheet disappeared a second later.

“Hell yeah,” Sands held her hand up, and I gave her five. “Though I guess this makes us kind of Investigator heavy. You, me, Scout. Plus we’ve got two Developers and one Explorer.” Glancing toward Deveron, who appeared to be daydreaming, she rolled her eyes. “Sort of.” To Sean, she asked, “What about you?”

Columbus’s roommate was a Hispanic boy with shaggy hair. He stared at the sheet for another fifteen seconds or so in silence before running his finger around one of the options. “Security.”

“Cool, guess all we’re missing is a Hunter then,” I frowned. “I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Should be okay,” Columbus pointed out. “They said we could change every semester if we want to, right? So we’ll probably go back and forth. I don’t know about you guys, but I wanna check out each track at least once.”

There was a little more conversation, and the headmistress spoke again. But eventually, we were dismissed. As everyone started to file out, I grabbed my rock off the table and stood up. “C’mon, Herbie, time to give you a bath.”

******

A couple hours later, I was exhausted. I’d spent the time using the computer in the dorm room to write an extensive e-mail to my father. Honestly, I felt really bad about the lies I had to tell him. Part of me wanted to put it off because of how… icky the idea of deceiving my own dad felt. Especially since I was apparently going to have to continue doing it not only for the next four years, but forever.

On the other hand, I couldn’t tell him the truth and end up putting him in danger. And I couldn’t just ignore him either. My mother had abandoned the man. The last thing I was going to do was avoid writing to him. It was bad enough that I wasn’t living there and couldn’t see him every night.

So no, there would be no delaying. I was going to write my father a message every day. Sure I’d have to rephrase things or tone them down, and leave out a lot of details. But I told him about Avalon and the rest of my new teammates (I called them an assigned study group), and about some of the school. I did, of course, leave out the part about being on a tropical island. That probably would have earned me a few questions.

After sending the e-mail, I stood up and turned at the sound of the door opening. Avalon was coming in with a damp towel over her shoulders. When I’d asked where she was going earlier, she’d simply said that her body didn’t just magically appear and that she had to work for it.

“Did you have a good work-out?” I asked.

“No,” she retorted flatly. “Too many people. Hey, what the hell is that stupid rock doing up there?”

Adopting a surprised expression, I turned to see where she was looking. The rock in question was resting up on top of large window, balanced on the rim. Gasping out loud, I moved past the scowling girl. “Herbie!” Jumping up, I caught the rock with one hand. “Be careful, buddy, I know you like to see what’s going on, but you could fall. Here, see anything interesting?” Holding the rock in my palm, I aimed it at out the window toward the grounds outside before speaking over my shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s just feeling adventurous after his bath. See?” Turning, I showed the other girl that the stone had been scrubbed clean in the restroom sink.

My roommate just stood there for a moment, then sighed before crossing over to her side of the room. She disappeared into the closet before returning with a nightshirt, which she quietly changed into. “Hey, Chambers, put down the fucking rock and pay attention.”

I set Herbie on the windowsill and looked toward the girl as she moved to a spot on her desk. “See this button? Look at the one on your side.”

Interested, I leaned over to look at side of my desk. Sure enough, there was a small red button there that I hadn’t noticed. “Got it.”

“Great,” her tone was even. “Now watch. You push it and…” A second later, that side of the room was plunged into pitch-black darkness. I couldn’t see any sign of the girl or any of her furniture. It was as if a solid wall had appeared to block it off.

The darkness went away then, and I asked, “So it’s a light switch?”

Avalon snorted. “No, that’s a light switch.” She pointed to the wall. “This is a privacy switch. Press it once, wait, then press it again.”

I shrugged and followed her instructions, pressing my finger against the button. As soon as I did, the same blackness seemed to appear. This time, however, it appeared right on the edge of my own space. It was a wall, I realized. A non-solid wall made out of darkness that prevented anyone outside from seeing in and anyone inside from seeing out.

Flipping the switch off again, I coughed. “That’s cool. Privacy switch.”

“You can’t see through it, you can’t hear through it, and you can’t walk through it unless you’re a faculty member or you have permission,” she explained. “Otherwise, they can’t hear you at all. Understand?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “I get it. Do you think–”

“Good,” she interrupted. “Because I wanted you to know exactly what this means.” A second later, her side of the room was plunged into darkness again as she activated the privacy screen. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be taking it down for the rest of the evening.

So much for asking Avalon what her relation to the headmistress was. Sighing, I crossed to my own bed, picked up my rock, and set him on the dresser next to me while laying down. “Guess it’s you and me tonight, Herbie.”

I lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling for a few minutes while letting my mind wander. So much had happened today. So much was still incredibly confusing and more than a little frightening. Yet even with that uncertainty, I knew I’d made the right decision to go through that mirror when Professor Dare had offered me the choice. It… felt like I was where I belonged.

In the morning, classes would begin. Classes that would tell me more about this world I had suddenly become a part of, that would explain what these ‘Strangers’ were and how we were expected to combat them.

I’d never been more excited for school in my life.

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