Choo

Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Exodus 44-08 (End Of Year One)

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Eventually, we arrived in the lake, the one by the Atherby camp. It actually took a couple jumps. First we were in one of the Earth oceans, then another lake, and another, before we finally made it to the right one. It took a lot of juice to move something this size with this many people on it, so Nevada had to send it through a few hops before getting to our destination.

Through it all, hundreds of questions were being hurled in every direction. No one knew what was going on. All the people we had picked up were caught between realizing just what they had just done, and all the newfound knowledge about the rebellion that was still fresh in their minds. It was a lot to cope with, and the ones who weren’t blurting questions were sitting down wherever they could, staring off into the distance. The latter was mostly the older people, the ones who had probably been a part of the rebellion before and were now coming to terms with everything that had happened, everything they’d done, over the past couple of decades.

Dare, Kohaku, and a couple others were fielding as many questions as they could, telling people where we were going and that we would figure out what to do once we were there. Gabriel spoke up at one point, promising that there would be a meeting with everyone to get people on the same page, if they would just be a little patient right now. It helped, but there were still a lot of questions being thrown out. Especially from the students who had left without their parents.

It was going to take a long time to get people situated, to say the least. I tried to tune most of it out, looking toward the Atherby camp once we arrived in the middle of the lake and started heading closer to shore. There were already people there waiting, and I was pretty sure one of them was my dad.

He’s there, Tabbris assured me. Everyone else has been telling him what just happened.

Speaking of which, I thought back to her. You knew the whole time what I was using that notebook for, didn’t you? You knew what was going on and you kept quiet about it.

There was a brief pause before she hesitantly confirmed, Uh huh. I… you agreed to having it umm… erased, so I didn’t think I should un-erase it. Miss Gaia, when we… when she talked to me about it, she said that it was okay and that you would understand.

She was right, I assured her quickly. You did well, Tabs. You did really well.

I was distracted then, as the yacht got close to shore, by Avalon. She looked over, meeting my gaze before raising an eyebrow. “You really did it now, Chambers.” Her voice was soft.

Wincing, I started to reply before blinking slightly to the left. From his place on her shoulder, Porthos was busy staring over at the new Harper while making twitterpated sighing sounds as he pressed both hands where his heart would be. He was practically fluttering into the air.

“Err…” Shaking myself, I focused. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I… I guess I agreed to keep that secret from everyone, even you. It was a really big deal and I didn’t even say anything to you about it before agreeing to keep it secret. So–”

“It’s okay,” Avalon interrupted. She started to say something else before stopping herself to swallow hard. “It’s… it was about your mom. It was your secret to agree to. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “the more people who knew about it, like me, the harder it would’ve been to erase it. I get it. I’m just…” The next bit was clearly hard for her to admit, the vulnerability too much.

“You’re worried about Gaia,” I supplied, waiting until she nodded before hugging her. “We’ll get her back, Valley. They’re not going to do anything that bad to her. We’ll find her. We’ve got a lot more people on our side now, people who know what’s going on and can help.”

“Your mother is okay.” That was Sariel, who had stepped over to join us while speaking quietly. She looked to Avalon, continuing with, “I just checked in on her. She’s… unconscious. Too far down for me to reach. The spell she did took a lot out of her. She was prepared for it, but it’s still going to take a long time for her to wake up.” A brief pause then before, “Maybe weeks. Or even months. I’m not sure, exactly. Not yet. But we were ready. She knew it’d drain her, so I helped set it up.”

“You helped with that?” Tristan blurted from nearby. “But you never said anything to us!”

Shaking her head at that, Sariel reached out to pull her son over by the arm. “Yes,” she confirmed while mussing his hair a little bit, “because it was a secret.”

Turning away from the railing she had been leaning on, Scout nodded to me. “A big secret.”

“I’m sorry your dad didn’t listen, guys,” I told her and Sands. “I guess I was kinda hoping he’d change his mind and… and join us if you and your mom were…” Trailing off, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Larissa appeared nearby, putting her hand on my arm briefly. “Liam made his choice, more than once. Maybe he’ll change his mind, but…” She hesitated before exhaling. “I’m not basing my happiness on what he does.” The woman moved beside her daughters then, putting an arm around both of them with an added, “We will… figure it out.”

“Yeah, Flick,” Sands put in while leaning against her mother. “We’ll work with our own family. Pretty sure you’ve got enough to deal with right now anyway.” After a brief pause, she added, “But for the record, that was really cool. Especially seeing the looks on their faces.”

The two of us exchanged brief grins before Nevada called out for everyone to head off. She had done something to summon the energy bridge once more, attaching it to the end of the dock at the dock. People were already heading off, chattering with a mixture of confusion, worry, and awe as they started across the bridge. Some, of course, were more eager than others. A few stayed back, staring apprehensively at either me, one of the other adults, or the camp.

“Uh.” An awkward voice drew my attention, and I blinked over to see that boy from before, the hybrid who had spoken up and brought his whole team with him. Miles. That’s what the red-haired girl had called him when she’d called the Committee dickheads.

“Oh, uhh, hi?” I gave a little wave, feeling somewhat awkward. “Miles, right?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “It’s Miles Cleary. You’re–” He looked like he was going to say one thing, before settling on another. “That thing about the necromancer, about… Fossor. He really has your mom?” When I nodded, he breathed out. “Right, I–later. I need to talk to you later. It can wait until after the rest of this gets… figured out.” His hand waved around vaguely. With another brief apology, he moved back to where his team was waiting and started off the ship.

“What do you think that was all about?” Vanessa asked from nearby, watching the boy leave.

I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but we’ll find out before long.” Shaking off the uncertainty, I gestured to the others. “Come on, we better head into the camp before Dad charges in here to find me.”

Joining the crowd heading off the boat, we made our way over the bridge. I could see Dad in the distance, watching until he saw us. Abigail was next to him, along with Savvy, who was sitting on Choo. Miranda and Theia were behind the electric-pig and his Seosten toddler rider.

Seeing them, particularly my dad, made me walk faster. I moved across the bridge, hopping off once we were close enough that the water only came up to my knees. Landing hurt a good bit, but I didn’t care. Dad was already coming around the side, and I rushed the last few steps to hug him tightly. Tears that I hadn’t known were coming sprang into my eyes.

“I told them about her, Dad. I told them about Mom. They know. Everyone knows who she is.

“They can’t erase her anymore.”

*******

“I’m sorry we had to leave without your grandfather.”

My words were directed to Aylen, as the two of us stood together near one of the campfires.

It was awhile later. Late enough that the sun would be coming up soon. Everything was still getting organized, as people were assigned at least temporary cabins. The Kitsune, Busy, was… well… busy setting up brand new cabins (apparently he had dozens of them in storage that could be put up with less trouble or effort than most people put up a tent) for them. Gabriel had made it clear that no one had to stay. But they would be welcome for as long as they wanted to. Plus, there would be more coming. People who now remembered the rebellion, or who were learning about it for the first time. They would be looking for a place to stay.

It was a good thing Busy had a lot of those collapsible cabins, because I was pretty sure we would need them.

Also importantly, Wyatt had brought my sharks with us. Apparently he’d taken the time to carefully implant an emergency teleport beacon into each of them, triggering it as we left. Now they were safely swimming around in their new home, the lake. Which normally would have been a problem, being that it was a freshwater lake. But Wyatt had taken care of that too. Something about injecting them with a concoction he and Koren had put together once every few days until their bodies adjusted.

In any case, they were here in the lake. Which meant that, uhh, yeah, we were probably going to have to make sure there was a bigger supply of fish for them, pronto.

Aylen, for her part, was staring down into the fire. She smiled faintly without looking at me. “It’s okay, he’s not going anywhere.” Glancing up then, the girl added, “They need him too much.”

“Still,” I replied with a shrug, “I know you were looking forward to getting him out of there.”

“I am,” she confirmed, making a point of stressing the present tense. “And I will.”

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “We will. Mom–my mom… she had a bond with him too. She’d want us to get him out of there.”

That earned me a new little smile. “You know, I think I need to introduce you to my own mothers soon.” She paused slightly before adding, with an emphasis I didn’t understand, “And my other grandfather. He’s gonna love you so much.”

Her eyes unfocused then, a sign I had quickly figured out meant she was seeing through Sovereign’s eyes. At the moment, her cyberform hawk was perched on the roof of a nearby cabin.

“Professor,” she greeted without needing to turn around. “I’m glad you escaped.”

Dare, freshly changed into new clothes (a pair of khakis and a dark blue button up shirt), nodded to her with a brief smile. “Thank you, Aylen. I’m glad you made it too. Especially after what you did for Miss Chambers here.”

Flushing just a little, Aylen shook her head. “It was just–I couldn’t let her die. You…” She looked up then, hesitating before offering a slight shrug. “I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed, adding a wink, “but I’ve been told I have a habit of throwing myself into danger a few times. I’m glad you called for help instead of trying to handle it on your own.”

Looking back and forth between us, Aylen coughed. “I think I’m going to see if I’ve got a cabin yet. I… I’ll talk to you later, Flick.” She waved and headed off, leaving me alone with Dare.

“How many?” I asked, watching Sovereign fly down to join his partner.

“Eighty-four students came with us, beyond your group,” Dare answered. “It’s about half and half between Bystander-kin and Heretic-born. Which means a bigger percentage of the Bystander-kin came, considering they’re a smaller part of the school overall. But still. And there will be others, those who change their mind after sleeping on it, or who couldn’t get away at first. Or even those who slept through it.”

“And there might be those here who change their minds and want to go back to Crossroads,” I pointed out.

She nodded. “Yes, there may well be. We’ll have to deal with that. Beyond the students, we also have eleven teachers. There’s me, Risa, Nevada, and Benji Carfried from your year, as well as two from the second year, three from the third year, and one from the fourth year. And Hisao, of course.”

Grinning at her despite myself, I couldn’t help but tease, “I’m glad Hisao got out too.”

I was rewarded with a slight blush. “Yes,” Dare murmured, “well, without him, it would have been a lot more complicated for me to get out of there.”

There was a brief moment of silence then before I offered, “I know I never knew him, but… I think Grandpa Joshua would be… glad that you found someone else who makes you happy.”

That earned a smile, as Dare looked to me. Her gaze was a bit longing, but also happy. Happy to be here with me. Happy to share at least this little bit of herself with someone. “I think he would too.”

We stood there quietly together for a few seconds, each contemplating that until I looked over and cleared my throat. “I… I saw some of the security members fighting each other, and a few of the Committee’s people,” I mused. “They came with?”

“Some of them,” she confirmed. “That’s another eight adults, with more that couldn’t get away. Plus Larissa and Haiden, who should count for a few adults separately.”

“And whoever else comes in eventually,” I mused quietly, shaking my head in wonder. “We really blew up Crossroads, huh? Err, metaphorically speaking.”

She chuckled lightly. “Yes, metaphorically speaking, you blew the hell out of Crossroads.”

“It’s funny,” I murmured quietly, “Ruthers didn’t want me there because he thought I’d destroy your society. I guess he was closer to being right than anyone thought.”

Dare shook her head. “You didn’t destroy anything, Felicity. You helped bring things back to where they should be. This was a war that needed to start again. We need to make things right.”

“We need to find Mom,” I stressed. “And find out why Fossor wanted to kill a Committee member. Not to mention how he did it.”  

“There’s a lot to work out,” Dare confirmed. “Which we will. And we’ll find Joselyn.”

“Mom and Gaia,” I added. “And Sean. And… anyone else that we need to.” I coughed, shaking my head. “It’s gonna be a busy summer.”

She gave me a brief smile. “Yes. But at least we’ll have help. Including Lancelot, of all people.” A slight grimace came then. “I can’t believe we had no idea who she was.”

“To be fair,” I put in, “she did a really good job of pretending to b–” I stopped talking then.

“Felicity?” Dare blinked at me. “Are you okay?”

“I… yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I was just thinking about how I really have to thank her for everything she did tonight. Everything she’s been doing… for awhile, apparently.”

******

“You weren’t frozen.”

I’d found Harper, in her adult form, standing near the woods. It was like she was waiting for me, watching the busy campgrounds with everyone running around, trying to get things set up for the new arrivals. When I approached, she simply stood there, waiting for me to start.

“At the library, when… when they came. You weren’t frozen.”

The woman watched me with a hint of a smile, and I had a good chance to look at her face finally. She looked… well, enough like Harper that I could see the resemblance, though there were differences. Besides obviously being older, her own face was slightly thinner where Harper’s had been more rounded. Not in an unhealthy or anorexic way, just… thin. It made her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes, like Harper’s, seemed almost too big for her face. It made them incredibly expressive. Especially now, as her amusement at my announcement was obvious. “No,” she finally replied, “I was not. And by now, your… other teachers have realized that as well. They will be contacting you as soon as they can get away.”

“You… you’ve known–you were there!” I blurted out loud. “You were there that day, when we ambushed that bus. You were in the trees. Tristan almost saw you.”

Coughing, she waved a hand. “Yes, well, he is very perceptive. More so than he will admit, in some cases.” Sobering then, she watched me. “You are wondering the same thing they will be, whether I will tell anyone what I heard. Before I answer that, I would like to speak to your boyfriend.”

Well. Of all the things she could have said right then, that was one that I never would have expected. I blinked a couple times. “Errr, my what?”

Harper chuckled. “It’s alright. I… I know you’ve been possessed by a Seosten for a long time, and that he kind of… fell for you. I’d like to have a discussion between the three of us. You, me, and this Tabbris.”

For a moment, all I could do was stare. My mouth opened, shut, then opened again. There was essentially static playing inside my head. When I finally found my voice, it cracked. “Y-you… you… you think that… you… oh… oh my… God…”

Then I laughed. A lot. Doubling over, I clutched my stomach and laughed until I almost peed. It was all I could do to catch myself. “Oh, my God. You think that I have a–that Tabbris is a–is my–” Then I had to stop talking, I was laughing too much. It probably wasn’t that funny, but after everything that had happened, my emotions were pretty high-strung and I needed it.

Finally getting hold of myself while Harper just stared in confusion, I took my phone and texted Tabbris to recall to me as soon as she had a chance. “Okay, um, I’m sorry, but there’s a little thing you’re mistaken about.”

What’s going on? The girl herself appeared in me a moment later, reading my thoughts briefly before she too started to laugh inwardly. In between making disgusted noises. “Gross, gross! Yuck! Eww!”

“Ah, something I’m mistaken about?” Harper prompted, frowning in clear confusion. “Are you saying he’s not your boyfriend?”

“Umm, well…” I drawled before gesturing. “Come on out, Tabs.”

She did so, appearing in front of me with a grand, “Ta da!”

That lasted for about three seconds before she suddenly blurted, “Oh gosh, you are so freaking cool! That thing you did with the swords and the blocking and the ‘yah, you’re dumb, Ruthers, hiiii yah!’ Parry, parry, fire, block, your timestop does nothing to me, parry!  And then you said you were Darkwing Duck, and he was like, ‘buh?’ and you were like, ‘fwoosh, I’m behind you, dummy who doesn’t know like the best cartoons, have at you!’ Kwoosh, skewer, aaaaaahh! Wiff, punch, haha, and you smell bad too. Kick!”

All of this was accompanied by dramatic hand gestures or full on physical reenactments as Tabbris bounced around, spinning in circles, kicking empty air, and pantomiming a sword duel. At the end, as she spun back, the girl nearly fell over before my hands quickly caught her shoulders. She was panting, and gave a final, exhilarated, “Can I have your autograph?”

If this had been a cartoon, Harper’s mouth would have been on the ground. It was wide open already, as she pointed and gaped, making weak noises of confusion.

“Harper, Lancelot, whatever… this is Tabbris,” I gestured to her. “My… Seosten little sister.” Briefly, I explained what had happened, and where she came from.

“Of course… I… that… makes sense.” Shaking that off, the woman took a knee in front of Tabbris. “You know, I’ve met a lot of brave people in my life. But you might just be one of the bravest.”

Blushing deeply, Tabbris hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re really Lancelot?”

“Let you in on a little secret?” the woman asked. When Tabbris gave an eager nod, she made a point of looking around before quietly informing us, “I’m also Guinevere.” As both Tabbris and I made noises of surprise, she added, “You can call me Gwen.”

That raised a lot of questions. I was going to have to get the full story about that eventually. Later, once there was more time. For the moment, I just said, “You know I… can’t really tell you the whole story about… about what you saw.” It was impossible. Jophiel and Elisabet had made sure of that. “None of us can.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on getting it from you,” the woman assured me. “I’ll get it from them. For now, I’ll keep quiet. Until I find out the whole story, at least. And when I do, we’re going to be making a few adjustments to whatever deal you made with them. Starting with you not being forced to lie to your friends and family. There’s been enough of that.

“But we can work out the rest of that later. Right now, you just… let me know when they contact you, okay? You can do that without violating the spell?”

I paused before nodding. “I mean, I guess so. I can’t tell you about our deal, or anything about… them. But I don’t see why I can’t let you know when they make contact.”

“Good,” Harper–errr, Gwen smiled. “Do that. All of us need to have a nice long conversation, so we can get on the same page.”

She sighed then. “In the meantime, I better go talk to Shiloh and Eiji. See how much of this I can explain.” Taking a step, the woman paused before looking at me. “Are you going to be okay?”

I took a breath before answering, letting the question float in my head for a moment before looking to my little sister. “Yeah,” I confirmed while laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”

******

Walking toward the lake a few minute later with Tabbris at my side, I saw a small group waiting for me. Seller was there, with Miranda, Theia, Pace, and Roxa.

As we approached, Randi greeted me by walking forward and giving me a high five. “You know,” she started, “Principal Bonnelly used to tell me you were going to drag me into trouble.”

Blinking as she brought up that name from so long ago, I asked, “What did you tell her?”

She grinned, catching my hand to push it into a fist before bumping her own against it. “That you don’t drag me anywhere. We run into trouble together. Same thing here. Even if you are a bit ahead in the, ahhh, field of trouble.”

“I guess I did run off without you a bit,” I admitted before meeting her gaze. “Sorry for starting all the fun without you.”

“Eh, I’ll catch up.” With a wink, Randi gestured. “At least we already left Garden before you blew the whole civil war wide open again. I can’t imagine what’s going on back there.”

“Theia-I–” Theia started before catching herself. “I… mean… I can. My imagination needs more popcorn though. And a soda.” Despite her light words, something about the Seosten girl looked… emotional, and ragged. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and didn’t want to pry. But it was obvious that she was still working her way through things. She had technically killed her own mother less than twelve hours earlier.

God damn, when things got busy around here, they got really busy.

Pace spoke up then. “Things are probably pretty bad back there. But you know what… you’re fucking awesome, Flick.” She gave me a thumbs up. “What you did, what you and Headmistress Sinclaire did… it–you’re… holy shit.”

“Yeah…” I coughed. “I think holy shit sums it up. I really didn’t think it’d be that dramatic back when we were talking about it. I wasn’t picturing… well, that.”

“Things rarely go the way we picture,” Seller put in. “I, for example, never pictured my descendant starting a Heretic civil war… and my next descendant continuing it.”

Turning to the man, I tilted my head curiously. “What do you think about that?”

He met my gaze, deadpanning, “I think I’ve got a couple of hilariously overachieving nutjobs for descendants… who are going to need a lot of help. And I’m glad I get the chance to be there for them.” He paused then before adding, “And that taking care of Hannah taught me how to be there for them for once in my life.”

Smiling a little at that, I looked toward Roxa before swallowing, my expression falling a bit. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get Sean out.”

She glanced away briefly before turning back to me with a nod. “Yeah, I know you tried. They all tried. He… we’ll find him. Whatever hole they try to bury him in, we’ll get him out.”

“We will,” I agreed. “We’ll get them all out of there. Him, Gaia, and everyone else they try to lock up.”

We talked a little bit more then. Tabbris and Theia were deep in some conversation when I glanced over and saw Deveron, Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt a short distance off. Looking back to Seller and the others, I excused myself before starting that way.

“Felicity, you…” Abigail started before just taking a few steps over. Her arms were suddenly around me, squeezing tight. “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t–you really just… you…”

“Pretty much ruined Ruthers’ reputation, for one,” Koren put in, grinning. “That was awesome.”

“I didn’t include anything about who you guys are now,” I quickly pointed out toward my siblings, even though they definitely would already know that. “I didn’t think it would be right to expose you like that, not without you getting a say.”

Deveron took his turn for a hug then, squeezing me tight as he whispered, “Joselyn is proud of you. She knows everything you did too, you know.”

I swallowed at that, glancing away before turning back to meet his gaze. “They erased everything she did, everything she stood for. I couldn’t let that stand.”

Wyatt actually grinned at that, a goofy, buck-toothed smile that was still so endearing. “No one saw it coming. It was a fantastic sneak attack, right where they didn’t expect it.” He sobered then, straightening. “Now they know. They know about what that man did to end the war.”

“They know,” I agreed, reaching out to take his hand before squeezing it. My other hand found Abigail’s. “They know he burned down a nursery just to cause a distraction so he could abduct infants and use them as hostages. And we are not going to let them forget how far he went. How far they let him go. They’re going to deal with the truth, even if we have to beat them unconscious with it and then shove it down their throats until they choke.”

Koren piped up, “You know, that’s like the best newspaper slogan.”

*****

My team was standing on the edge of the lake, feet in the water. They were all there as I made my way to them a few minutes later. Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Columbus watched me approach. All of them, of course, aside from Sean. Seeing that made me sigh, and I walked that way before rubbing Vulcan’s head when he trotted up to meet me.

“Shouldn’t you guys go back to bed by now?” I teased despite myself. “I mean, you didn’t kill an Amarok on our first hunt and end up almost never needing to sleep.”

“And you’ve been using your extra hours to get into about five times as much trouble as you should,” Avalon retorted.

Doug coughed at that, shaking his head. “You know a lot of things are about to change now. Once they put the immediate fires out and everyone has a chance to breathe.”

“They should change,” I replied easily. “The longer we just let bad things happen because it’s easier than challenging the status quo, the more innocent people die. We needed this. They needed this. Gaia knows that. It’s why she wanted to undo the spell.”

“You’re right,” the boy replied. “They uhh, they’re already talking about what to do about the families of Bystander-kin who came with us and don’t know what’s going on. It’s pretty chaotic though.”

“It will be for a long time,” Sands pointed out before looking to me. “You did good, Flickster.”

Beside her, Scout nodded in agreement, grinning my way. “You destroyed the memory spell!”

“Gaia did, mostly,” I pointed out. “I was pretty much just the right tool to do it.” Glancing toward Columbus, I added, “You know Sean would’ve jumped on that tool comment if he was here.”

“I’ll tell him about it as soon as we get him out of there,” he informed me, managing a tiny smile. “I mean, if you can help destroy the entire revolution eraser and bring back the Heretic Civil War, freeing Sean should be no big deal.”

“Damn it, why’d you have to say that?” I demanded. “Now it’s going to take most of the next year and like…thirteen and a half time-travel or alternate dimension trips. We may even end up in a reality where we’re all cartoons.”

“Pfffft,” Columbus retorted. “If it’s anything like this year… bring it on.”

Before anyone else could speak up, Asenath and Shiori approached. The former walked right up to embrace me tightly. “I had no idea we were getting the spell stuff for you.”

Flushing, I returned the hug. “Trust me, I didn’t know either, for most of it. But you pulled it off. All that stuff Gaia said she needed and you found it. That’s insane, Senny.”

“Hey,” she retorted, “when I take a job, I finish it. I…” She winced then, glancing away. I knew she was thinking about Seth, even if she didn’t say anything about him. Instead, she cleared her throat before looking back at me. “Twister wants to take you out to a dinner, by the way. A big dinner. And by take you out, I mean to her house so she can cook for you.”

Trying not to drool, I managed a weak, “We’ll have to do that sometime.”

Gradually, Asenath, Doug, the twins, and Columbus wandered away. I could tell it was a deliberate thing, but kept quiet until I was left alone with Shiori and Avalon.

“I think we’ve been abandoned,” I finally pointed out quietly before turning to face the lake. The sun was just starting to come up over the distant mountains, its light cutting through the shadows surrounding the camp.  

Shiori moved to one side of me, her hand taking mine to squeeze lightly. “That’s okay, I could stand to be abandoned with you for awhile.”

Nodding in agreement, Avalon took my other hand. Together, we stood there, letting the water reach our ankles. When she finally spoke, Valley’s voice cracked just a little. “It’s been a long year.”

God, had it ever. I thought about that for a minute. Everything I’d learned over the course of the past school year, everything I’d been a part of. I thought of Professor Pericles, of Seth, of… of poor Rudolph. I thought of Ammon, of Professor Katarin, of all the people I’d met, all the people I’d hurt, and all the people I wanted to hurt. I thought of all the people that had been lost over the past year, and those who had been helped.

I’d helped bring a lot of people together again, had put together families. Like my own. Or the Moons. Even Sands and Scout had their mother back. Families had been put together and healed.

But families had also been torn apart, just this very night. The civil war was back. Siblings, lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives, they were dealing with that right now. Dealing with those new memories, that new understanding of just what was going on, of what had happened to them. And a lot of them, I knew, wouldn’t take it well, hadn’t taken it well.

I’d helped put a few families back together, sure. But I’d also helped rip a lot more apart with my last actions at Crossroads. I still believed it was worth it, but I didn’t think it was easy. And it was going to get harder. Now Ruthers and the Committee were definitely our enemies. They wouldn’t be playing nice anymore, even if I did have a few allies in their group. A couple they didn’t even know about.

Yeah, things were definitely going to get even more interesting very soon. The fires were just getting started. And they were going to burn long and hot.

Glancing over at me, Shiori asked, “So what’s next on the agenda, Miss Chambers?”

I thought about it, staring at the water, at the light from the rising sun reflected off of it.

“You know… for now, ‘next’ is this, right here. It’s taking a little break with you guys, and the others. After everything that just happened, after the whole Seosten thing and getting that spell, after… the whole damn year, I need some time to process. And have a little fun. It’s time for a vacation. But after that…well, people keep saying this world isn’t what I want it to be, that I’m naive and it’s full of evil that I’ll never understand. So let’s make it better. Let’s change it.

“Let’s change the world.”

End of book one. Stay tuned for Summer Epilogues.

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Convalescence 38-02

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My knees hit the floor before I knew what was happening. My head went down, and I threw up right there on the floor. My stomach was rolling violently, even as indescribable shame overtook me.

Deveron was there first, dropping beside me to offer a cup of water that he had summoned before doing something that took the… mess from the floor. Neither of us spoke. I was too ashamed to for that moment, and he clearly wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

Actually, of all people, it was Percival who found his voice first. “Well,” the man announced into the silence that had taken over the room, “this is an interesting development, I’ve gotta say.”

“Interesting?!” Doug’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal before he got it under control. “You think it’s interesting that my dead teammate is standing right here because Flick accidentally summoned him? Are you fucking cra–” He stopped there, seeming to realize only at that point who he was actually talking to, and I saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen.

“Fucking crazy?” Percival finished for him. He didn’t look offended. Actually, he didn’t look much like a super-powerful member of the Committee either. He was wearing dark jeans with random holes over them, and a black shirt advertising Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” He also had a metal-studded wristband, and I caught sight of a tattoo of a bloody sword on his opposite arm. That last one could have been decorative or a spell, I wasn’t sure.

“Lots of people ask me that,” the man continued before Doug could stammer any explanation or excuse. “You’re not even the first one today. Or the first one from your family.”

Dare moved to me then, her eyes flicking toward the still motionless Rudolph. I saw a lot of emotions pass through her face as she looked to the boy before focusing on me once more. “Felicity,” she started softly, “it’s okay. You can… you can let him down now.”

“Let him down?!” I gave her a brief look before my head shook rapidly, still on my knees. “I don’t even know how I’m keeping him up. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear. I didn’t call him down here on purpose, or, or… or do any of this on purpose. It just happened. I mean, I think I maybe felt something back when I first did it, and maybe I feel something now like… at the back of my head, but I don’t know how to actually control it, or–or–I don’t know anything about it, anything!”

Okay, it was just maybe a tiny bit possible that after everything that had happened that night, I was kind of losing it just a little bit. But really, was that hard to understand?

It was Deveron who spoke up then, his hand resting on my shoulder while his other one touched my wrist. “I’ve seen a lot of necromancy, and if his is anything like that, he’ll follow your subconscious commands and the conscious ones. Verbal or silent, he’s connected to you. That’s probably why it was so easy this time. You know Rudolph pretty well and you really wanted him–” He hesitated, grimacing a little while coughing out the next couple words. “You really wanted him back. So the first thing you do is let him down. Think about him laying down.”

Trying to ignore the fact that I could feel and see everyone else staring at me, I swallowed hard before focusing on Rudolph–no, Rudolph’s body. Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was already dead. I wasn’t killing him again, because this wasn’t really him. It was some… some magic animating his body. That’s it. I had to remember that.

Keeping that thought in my mind, I willed Rudolph to lay down. Aloud, I quietly said, “It’s okay. You–” My voice cracked, and I tightened my hands into fists. “You can go back to sleep.”

It took a minute, probably because a good part of me didn’t want Rudolph to go away. As much as I told myself that it wasn’t really him, there was still a little bit that clung to the fact that he was standing right in front of me, and this did kind of feel like killing him again. It hurt. It really hurt.

But eventually, I managed it. Rudolph’s body slowly laid down there on the floor and went still. As it did, Deveron quietly talked me through pulling my power out of him. His voice was gentle. “Picture a line of power running from yourself to Rudolph, just a single tendril. Imagine he’s completely deaf, and that line is how you communicate with him. Like a cord between a computer and a keyboard. Focus on that line. It’s your power. It’s how you reach him, how you control him. Everything between you and Rudolph is in that line, okay? Now I want you to carefully pull that line out. Take the line out of him. Pull your power back and let him go.”

I did. Slowly and haltingly, I managed to extract the power from Rudolph’s body. Picturing it the way that Deveron described, I could feel the way the dead boy was connected to me, the way that the power I had taken from Manakel had extended itself into him.

Him. It. I kept flipping back and forth about what to refer to Rudolph as in my head. Both felt wrong. I was trying to remind myself that the dead body wasn’t really Rudolph anymore. But calling him ‘it’ even in my head also felt wrong. I just… I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Once it was done, and I felt like the power was completely out of the body, I straightened up, moving back away from the body as quickly as I could. I couldn’t look at it, at him. I didn’t want to see Rudolph like… like that. Even more bile rose in my throat at the thought of it, at the thought of what I had done with my power, puppeting him around like that. I almost threw up again.

It wasn’t right.

Everyone seemed to know exactly how I felt. Hisao moved closer, taking a knee beside the body. “I’ll take him back,” the man announced in a soft, respectful voice. I thought he had a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder, or maybe his stomach. I was really trying not to look.

A moment later, Hisao was gone, teleporting away with the body and leaving that spot of floor empty. And that was when I found myself staring at it, at the bit of floor where the body had been, where I had commanded Rudolph to move. My voice shook a little bit. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I–”

“We know you didn’t.” That was Dare. “We know you didn’t mean to.”

“It is, however,” Percival announced, “something else to explain. And unfortunately, keeping it secret isn’t in the cards. Rudolph wasn’t that subtle coming down here, and plenty of people saw him. Which means the rest of the Committee already knows. And, well, there’s some that tend to frown on necromancy. It has something of a negative reputation.”

Yeah, I could believe that. Not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what Fossor had done. “Let me guess,” I started, “Ruthers is one of the ones who ‘tends to frown on it.’”

The man gave me a wry smile then. “You could say that. The man does have something of a shit history with necromancers.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “given the necromancer in question has my mom, we should be on the same side.”

“Ah,” Percival replied with a quick grin, “so you do know more about the Fossor situation than you’ve told the Committee.”

That made me do a double take, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before my hand found my forehead. “Shit. I knew that was going to trip me up eventually.” It had been an incredibly long night, after an incredibly long couple of days, after an incredibly long couple of months. I knew from Gaia that Percival could be trusted with that, but still, I should be more careful.

The man shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, most of us already know that you know more than you’re sharing. But it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of arguments about it. As long as you don’t let something like that slip in front of the others, they shouldn’t push you too hard about it. They’re afraid that if you don’t know much, asking you directly could create problems. Memory spells are tricky that way.”

“Wait,” Columbus started then, stepping closer. “How much do you know about what’s going on? No tricks or doubletalk. How much do you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t know if the man would answer. He looked at Columbus in silence briefly before turning back to glance toward Professor Dare and Hisao. Then he let out a breath and nodded as if coming to a decision. “Cards on the table, I know more than most on the Committee. Not all of it, but a lot. I also know that one of my fellow Counselors is definitely possessed. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s one of them. I’ve been trying to work that out. I know that Calafia, Teach, and Sophronia can be trusted so far as the Seosten situation is concerned, and I’m moderately confident that none of them are possessed. Particularly Calafia.”

“You know that they’ve been behind this whole organization,” I put in quietly. “You know that they were behind creating Crossroads, and the Bystander Effect.”

“Not originally,” the man replied. “I mean, I didn’t know they were the ones behind it. I knew who the Seosten were, just not that they were behind Crossroads. Not until more recently. But yeah, it fits with what I already knew before.  

“And I know that Joselyn disappeared because Fossor took her. I’m guessing the kid who showed up with mind-control powers was their son, and that he was visiting his big sister on her first trip back home after becoming a Heretic. Fossor objected and came to collect him, then let you know that he had your mother and that he’d be coming for you on some future date. Probably your eighteenth birthday.”

Well, I was definitely staring by that point. Around me, everyone else was doing pretty much the same. My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “You are good.”

He winked at me. “We can talk about it some more later. I’m sure you’ve got questions. But right now, the rest of the Committee is gonna want to talk to you–to all of you, but especially Flick here. And they’re gonna want to talk about this necromancy thing.”

Making a face, I sighed while slumping back a bit. “What am I supposed to tell them… you… them? You’ll be there, but something tells me you’re gonna play dumb about most of this.”

Dare was the one who answered. “Just tell them the truth, Felicity. Well, part of it. The man who did all of this was a necromancer. You killed him and inherited his power, and you’re not sure how to control it yet. Be honest about that part. Ruthers may have a problem with it, but not everyone does. Especially when it’s an inherited power rather than magic that you’ve deliberately worked at.”

Percival was nodding. “She’s right. There’s no need to hold back on that point. It explains how the zombies got into Crossroads a few months back. Just…” He paused then, clearly thinking about what he was about to say before continuing with, “… answer the questions as well as you can. I know you’ve got a way to lie to us, probably thanks to Gaia. Keep your answers as honest as you can without giving too much away. It’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said then.”

“Right,” I replied, “so just like we said before. There’s a race of body snatchers that took us. The necromancer was one of them. They’re the ones who have been trying to kill Avalon, and they took advantage of us escaping… or possibly let us escape, as a distraction to grab her. They brought her here to the hospital that they took over and we accidentally found her, so they unleashed everything to stop us from escaping. During the fighting, the necromancer in charge k-killed Rudolph and then ran away from Gaia. I possessed him and made him kill himself.”

“And now you have his power,” Percival finished for me, nodding. “Exactly. They’ll probably push you on how much you know about these people and if you’ve been keeping things back. Which you are, but like I said, they probably won’t openly ask you directly about things like your mother because they’re afraid of weakening the memory spell, or leading you toward things that could weaken it. Even with something like this, they’ll beat around the bush a bit. Unless, of course, you give them reason to be more direct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before asking, “Is there anything else you can tell us about what’s going on in there? Anything we should know?”

Percival paused. I could tell there was indeed something he wanted to tell me. Instead, however, he shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s some pretty unbelievable shit going on. But trust me, it’s better for everyone involved if you’re surprised by it. Your first reaction needs to be genuine. Otherwise the hardcore guys will… well, they don’t need any more ammunition.”

And now I was really curious. But I couldn’t very well argue with him. Instead, I managed a weak, “Let me guess, they’re ready for us?”

Dare nodded. “Ready for you. They’ll talk to the others afterward. We thought you might want to get done first so that you could see Avalon and…” She paused, looking toward Percival.

“And my dad,” I finished for her. “Since they’re both at the Atherby camp.”

If he was surprised at all by that, Percival didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny smile, nodding once. “That’s a good place for them. Calafia told me that she helped your father.”

“Right,” I muttered, “people communicate with each other even when they’re not talking to me. I have got to remember that.”

Chuckling, Percival gestured. “I’ve gotta get back. Oh, but first, before I forget…” He paused, then looked up toward Shiori, who had ushered Choo back into his bag the moment company had arrived. “Here,” he continued, tossing something that way. “A present for your little friend. Gaia thought you could use it.”

Shiori, looking surprised, caught the thing and looked at it. As did the rest of us. It was a collar. A really pretty purple collar, with intricate golden designs that were clearly spells. “Err… um. What–um… what frie–”

“Please don’t,” Percival looked slightly pained. “We have enough to deal with without playing the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game. Use the collar. It’ll help keep him secret and safe, I promise. Virginia can show you how it works. Calafia and I put it together in our spare time. Consider it a little gift to make up for all the shit you’ve been through this year, and the shit you’ll no doubt go through in the future.”

There was clearly a lot that Shiori wanted to say to that, but the man had already moved on, as if handing her a way (handmade by no less than two Crossroads Committee members) to protect her pet from being horrifically murdered was no big deal.

Percival, in turn, had already turned his attention to Dare, adding, “You bring her up for our little Q&A. The others and I will do our best to make it as short as possible.”

He turned then, before pausing. When the man looked back, his eyes moved not to me, but to the silent, somewhat listless Doug. “I’ll let your great-great-grandfather know you’re okay.”

As Doug (and, to be honest, the rest of us) blinked at that, Percival continued. “Sulan’s gonna be glad you made it through all that. And he’ll want to talk to you about it, soon as possible.”

“You… you know my Grandpa Sulan?” Doug stared at him for a second. “How? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question because he came through Crossroads too, but he wasn’t–I mean you were never–”

“It’s a long story,” Percival carefully replied. “Come see me another time, when everything isn’t so crazy, and maybe I can tell you. But make sure you ask Sulan how many eggs he has. He’ll get it.” He reached out, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder then. “He’ll want to come for the funeral too. If you’d be okay with him showing up.”

“I–” Doug looked choked up, his face contorting with emotion before he nodded quickly. “I-if he can come. He was… he was banished.”

“Banished from your colony world,” Percival corrected, “not from Earth. Though he tends to keep his distance to avoid making any of the people around here who don’t like him very much look too hard at you. But he’ll be here for this, if you want him.”

Sounding like there was a thick lump in his throat, Doug slowly nodded. “Ye-yes. I–I’d like him to come.”

“Then he’ll be here.” Percival sounded absolutely certain, which made me wonder just how well he knew this Sulan guy. “I’ll be sure he makes it. You have my word, Douglas. And… and I’m sorry about your friend.”

With that, he was gone, leaving the rest of us there with just Deveron and Dare. The latter of which looked to me apologetically. “You have no idea how much I would like to tell the Committee to shove it and take you out of here. All of you. You’ve been through too much. An interrogation right now is asinine.”  

“You’re not the only one,” Deveron assured her. “Believe me, there’s more than one guy on that Committee I’m real close to popping in the face.”

Of all people, it was Sean who replied to that. “Something tells me that’ll just make things worse.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, and I did a brief double-take upon the realization that he had clearly been silently crying.

Guilt, I realized. Sean felt guilty. Of course he did. He and Rudolph had both been down there, and he had been the one that was spared. How must that make him feel?  Did he have any idea why Manakel had chosen him instead of Rudolph to live?

Because I was pretty sure he’d done it because Manakel assumed I’d be less likely to risk killing Sean than Rudolph, since we knew each other better. And the guilt about that was already killing me. I couldn’t even imagine how Sean was doing.

Yeah, Manakel being dead right now was a good thing. A very fucking good thing.

After taking a moment to embrace Shiori tightly (and slightly longer than strictly necessary given how much I would have preferred to stay with her than go be interrogated by the Committee some more), I nodded to the others. “Okay guys, see you in a few minutes, I guess.”

“Good luck,” Koren spoke up, echoed by everyone else.

“Thanks,” I replied, “and thanks for the message. That’s pretty much what tied it all together.”

Wincing, the other girl shook her head. “I just wish I didn’t fuck up that one word. I was trying to fix it, but–”

“Yeah.” Swallowing, I nodded to her. “It’s okay. I got the point in time. Trust me, I’m just glad you’re okay, and that he didn’t–” Stopping myself, I blanched.

I didn’t have to continue that thought. Koren just met my gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed softly, “me too.”

There was so much else that I wanted to say, so much more I needed and wanted to do with the people I actually cared about. After everything that we had been through, the last fucking thing I wanted to do was sit through another ‘discussion’ with the Committee, even if a few of them were on my side.

But I had to. They were the authorities and they were too powerful to ignore (in every sense of the word). I had to go through this.

So, with a sigh, I turned back and nodded toward Professor Dare. “Okay. Let’s go, I guess. Now I’ve got literal necromancer powers and Ruthers, who is already suspicious about me and hates my mom to the point of blinding rage, also happens to utterly loathe necromancers, probably even more than he hates her. Oh, and to top it all off, he probably knows I’m lying to him about some things.

“So, you know… this oughta be fun.”

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Convalescence 38-01

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To say that things moved quickly after Manakel’s death would have been a drastic understatement. Everything was a total whirlwind that I barely had time to comprehend.

What I did know was that a bunch more Heretic reinforcements had shown up, just in time for what was left of the living Seosten forces to disappear, while the zombies that Manakel had brought back to life dropped dead once more. Or whatever it was when undead things stopped moving around. The point was, there were suddenly a lot of very amped up Heretics with nothing to fight.

Sariel took the cure for the poison from the necromancer’s body, before she and Gaia gave it to Avalon. I didn’t see an immediate effect, but Sariel assured us that the girl would be okay. She just needed time to recover. Time that she would definitely get, as Gaia had Gabriel Prosser take Avalon back to his camp to make sure that there was no chance of any last-second, unknown assassins taking one last shot at her while she was still weak.

Sariel had gone as well to make sure Avalon got all the help she needed, taking Tabbris with her for the time being. Which I couldn’t really object to given everything that was going on, no matter how much more comfortable I felt with my partner. I’d just given her a brief hug and promised to see her as soon as possible. She would tell Dad what happened, and that I was okay, since my leaving right then absolutely wasn’t in the cards.

Meanwhile, Gaia, Dare, and Nevada were dealing with the Committee and their representatives, who had finally all showing up to find out what the hell was going on. They were in the hospital director’s office where everything had gone down. Kohaku was still in there with them, along with Rudolph’s body.

Which left me sitting in another room in the hospital along with Doug, Shiori, Columbus, Scout, Sean, Vulcan, Choo, Koren, and Deveron. Those last two had woken up around the time that Manakel and I had had our final… conversation, while Sean had been a bit later. We were waiting for our turn to talk to the Committee, after they were done with Gaia and the other adults. That and I was pretty sure there were some pretty intense discussions going on as far as I was concerned, which had to be ironed out before Gaia would let them anywhere near me.

That was okay. I really appreciated the chance to breathe for a few seconds before having to deal with… well, all of that. Time to breathe, in this case, translating to time to explain everything that had happened to the others and finally put everyone (mostly) on the same page.

“So… so he’s dead.” That was Koren, staring at me. “Y-you… you killed Manakel.”

My head shook at that. “Not me. Well, technically. But it was Sariel. She killed him. It’s just that she used my body to do it. I’m more like the knife than the stabber, in this situation.”

The room we were in was some kind of conference place, with a long wooden table taking up most of it, and several of those screen-windows that showed views of various exotic locations, like a waterfall in a rainforest, and a long expanse of empty desert with sand blowing heavily.

Deveron was standing by the desert window, staring through it for a moment before he turned back to where I was sitting at the table with most of the others aside from him and Douglas (who was sitting on the floor against the far wall) around me. “I can’t believe he was possessing Risa and I didn’t know about it. I–” A pained look crossed his face then before he let out a long, low sigh and moved to sit across from me. “I’m sorry. To all of you. I should have been… I should have done more. Everything you’ve been through this year and it was all because we didn’t figure out that the head of security was possessed.”

My head shook at that. “It’s not your fault. It’s… we all missed it. I dismissed her because of the choker. I never really thought it could be anyone that close to Gaia. I didn’t–” Flinching then, I dropped my gaze to the table. “God, how bad must Gaia feel about it? She was–” Cutting myself off then, I just bit my lip hard. If we felt this guilty about Kohaku, if I felt this guilty, Gaia must feel even worse. To say nothing of the idea that the woman she obviously cared about had been enslaved for… for… God only knew how long.

How long had Kohaku been possessed? Clearly at least since the beginning of the year. She had been the one who killed Pericles. Well, Manakel had, while possessing her. That’s how he managed to get so close to the man, and why Security had never been able to figure it out: because their leader was the one whose body had done it. Through Kohaku, Manakel had been able to control most of the investigation. And even the parts he couldn’t control directly, like Tribald Kine, were still confided in her. Because she was the head of Security. So Manakel had always known exactly how to push the investigation any way he wanted.

Doug spoke up. “There’s no point to playing the shoulda, coulda, woulda game. The point is, that fucking… fucking piece of shit is dead. He’s dead. That’s what matters. Whoever did it, congratulations. I just wish you’d pulled it off before he–” In mid-sentence, the boy suddenly stopped, clearly choking on his own words.

Before he’d killed Rudolph. That was what he’d been about to say, I knew. I felt the same way. If we’d figured it out sooner, if–well, there were a lot of if’s. But it was like Doug said, they didn’t matter. There may have been a lot of powers floating around, but we couldn’t just change the past like that.

Picking myself up from the table, I moved over to kneel next to the boy. My own voice was soft, cracking a little. “I’m sorry about Rudolph,” I whispered. “He didn’t–he shouldn’t have been involved in any of this. He was just–” Cutting myself off as tears filled my eyes, I looked away. “He wasn’t a threat to Manakel. He wasn’t… anything to Manakel. That asshole just–” I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what I’d been trying to say in the first place. It just felt better if I was talking, like I was actually accomplishing something. But that was just stupid.

Doug’s voice was hollow. “Rudolph was my friend. Paul died. Jazz and Gordon are still gone. Isaac’s an evil piece of shit. Roxa disappeared and then ended up out in space. Rudolph… Rudolph was there. Maybe he joined our team late, but he was there. He did his best, he tried to help anyone he could. He listened when I needed to talk. He was there, and now he’s–he’s–”

His head fell then, arms wrapping around himself as he cried. It made me want to touch him, even hug him, but I didn’t know how he’d take it. I didn’t want to make things worse.

In the end, it was Sean who moved first. The other boy moved past me, sitting next to Doug before putting one arm around his shoulders. Vulcan sat on the other side of him, the metal dog leaning in to rub against Doug’s arm until the boy listlessly lifted it to pat him.

“He’s dead.” The flat announcement came from Scout, who seemed to be trying the words out for size, trying to understand them. “Manakel’s dead.” She sounded just as stunned as I felt. I knew why she was saying it, because saying it made it feel a little more real. And this… well, this didn’t feel all that real yet.

Shiori, shifting a bit in her seat to look over to me, asked, “Avalon’s going to be okay, right?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Between Gabriel and Sariel, yeah, she’ll be okay. Gaia wouldn’t have left her side if she had any doubt, no matter what the Committee said. So yeah, she just needs time.”

“It’s still not over though, is it?” Koren was the one speaking again. She had picked herself up from the table and now stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. “I mean, the Seosten aren’t just going to give up because Manakel’s dead. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh well, fair shot, chaps. Jolly good, catch you all next time, what what.’”

My mouth opened, but before I could speak, Columbus interrupted. “Did you just give your hypothetical Seosten a really terrible British accent for some reason?”

Flushing noticeably, the girl shrugged while mumbling, “Maybe. Lots of evil space empires sound British in the movies.” Clearing her throat then pointedly, she looked back to me. “But the point is, they won’t just give up.”

“Nope,” I agreed. “They won’t. They lost their leader on-planet, so it’ll take them some time to figure out how to deal with that and bring in a replacement. But until they do that, we have a break. And we can use it.”

“To get to the vault,” Columbus finished for me. He held his goggles in one hand, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to get to the vault with Avalon and open it before the Seosten recover from losing Manakel.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up just yet since everything just happened,” I replied, “but pretty much. Avalon needs time to recover from everything. And so do we. I mean, I doubt whatever Seosten are left will just let us walk in there. So we’ll need time to plan, time to rest, and time to… well, deal with everything. But eventually, that’s what we have to do. Look at how open they were about this whole hospital thing. They’ve gone completely insane. They’re not even trying to be subtle anymore. Not really. So yeah, our best next move is to get to the vault, open it, and figure out how to safely use whatever’s in it. If it’s over and done with, the Seosten might be pissed, but going after Avalon will be pointless from a… you know, objective standpoint.”

Deveron gave me a small smile. “You mean you hope that whatever Liesje’s spell does will make the Seosten too busy dealing with that to worry about going after Avalon anymore.”

“Make them too busy chasing the horses to worry about the barn they ran out of, yeah.” I nodded with a helpless shrug. “It’s the best I can think of. It’s a whole Empire we’re talking about here. Losing Manakel was big for them. Really big. But it’s not the end of it.”

“Avalon won’t be ready to do that for awhile,” Shiori put in.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “None of us are ready for that. And even when we are, like I said, we can’t just use the spell immediately. They’ll have to work out what it does, exactly. And try to fix it so that… so that Seosten and humans who agree to possession can still do it.”

Columbus squinted at me, holding his goggles tightly in one hand by his side. “You mean like you and…  and the girl.”

“And Tabbris,” I confirmed, staring right back at him. “She saved all of us, more than once. And her mother, Sariel, she did too. Manakel would’ve gotten away if it wasn’t for her. He would have gotten away if Sariel hadn’t been able to possess me. After everything that happened, he still would’ve gotten away. So yeah, I think we should fix the spell so that possession can be voluntary. Maybe when the others get back here, Dries can… can fix it, with Wyatt and Sariel’s help. And anyone else. But first, we just need to get into the vault. When we’re ready. When Avalon’s ready.”

It was Doug who spoke next, first mumbling into his arms as his face was buried in them, before raising his head to speak more clearly. “I’m surprised you can think at all. Rudolph’s dead. How can you even… how can you even think about anything else?” His tone sounded more… sad and lost than accusatory, though there was a tiny bit of that too, which I couldn’t blame him for.

My voice was soft as I hesitantly reached out to touch the boy’s arm. “Doug, believe me, I wish Rudolph was alive. I do. I’d do anything to have him standing right here in the room with us now. If it would help, if there was anything we could do, I just…” Taking a deep, slightly shuddering breath, I forced myself to continue. “I just can’t do anything. That stupid, psycho piece of shit k-killed him. And we can’t fix that. I want to fix it, but we can’t. So… so I’m trying to focus on other things. It doesn’t really help, because I keep seeing Rudolph. And Paul. And Professor Katarin. Even Professor Pericles and I only knew him for like a day.”

“They’re responsible for killing a lot of people,” Columbus put in, his own voice hard.

“Too many,” Sean agreed, still sitting there beside Douglas with one arm around him. “But now, at least Manakel is dead. He paid for it.”

Doug shook his head emphatically, his voice dark while he tightened both of his hands into fists. “He didn’t pay enough.” He spat the words “All the people he killed, all that… all the shit he was responsible for? He didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Before I could respond to that, Deveron spoke. He’d moved over to stand in front of us. “Sometimes you can’t focus on that. You can’t dwell on how much punishment you can give to the people who deserve it. You don’t focus on how much pain they’ve already inflicted on people in the past. You have to focus on how much pain you’re saving future people from.”

He took a knee then, meeting Doug’s gaze. “If you fall into the hole of obsessing over how much pain these people, and people like them, have inflicted on innocents before they were stopped, nothing will ever be enough. Nothing. That is a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.”

It took Doug a few seconds to respond to that. And when he did, his voice cracked a little. “S-so focus on the fact that they won’t be able to hurt anyone else like that? Focus on the fact that Manakel can’t torture or kill any other people like–like Rudolph?”

Deveron nodded once. “Exactly. That’s all you can do. Anything else is just… it’s just too much.”

Rather than respond to that immediately, Doug lowered his gaze to stare at his feet for a few seconds as he sat there. “I… I don’t know if I can do that. Rudolph was my friend. He… he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t–” Stopping himself, he just shook his head.

I knew how he felt. He wanted his friend back. Manakel dying was good and all, but Rudolph still deserved to be alive. He deserved to be here with us. Instead, he was dead. Dead because we hadn’t been able to protect him, because we had failed to-

Before I could continue that thought, there was a sudden commotion at the door. My eyes snapped that way, hand grabbing reflexively for my staff. After everything that had happened, it would just figure that another problem would present itself. But when the door opened, all thoughts of defense or attack left my head. Actually, all thoughts left my head, completely.

Because it was Rudolph who walked through the door. There were others with him. Professor Dare, that Percival guy from the Committee, and Hisao. They were right on his heels, as the boy entered the room.

“Rudolph!” Doug was the first to react, scrambling to his feet. He took two steps that way before suddenly stopping, his movement turning into a brief stumble. “Wh-what–no. No, no, what?”

Because while Rudolph was upright and moving… he was still dead. His eyes were empty, his movements listless. He was very, very clearly not alive.

There was a whole lot of cursing and scrambling then, while the dead Rudolph simply entered the room and stood there.

“He just got up and started moving,” Dare announced in a low voice, her sword drawn as she squinted at Rudolph, having put herself between the body and us. “We wanted to see where he was going.”

Percival and Hisao stood near the door, the former speaking up. “He came straight here. No detours, no hesitation.”

“H-he’s fucking with us.” That was Columbus, standing by his sister and partway in front of her. “Manakel, he found a way to… to give the body orders ahead of time or something.”

“No,” Deveron replied, his own voice soft as he shook his head. “Manakel isn’t the one controlling him, posthumously or otherwise.”

“Then wha–” I started to look that way, only to stop as I found Deveron staring at me. Confusion filled me for another second, before just as quickly fading. “Why a–oh.”

“Oh?” Shiori looked back and forth between us. “What do you mean, oh? What–oh.”

Yeah. Oh. A minute earlier, when talking to Doug, I had said that I would do anything for Rudolph to be right there with us.

And now… he was right there with us. Or his body was, at least. It was here because I asked it to be, because I wished for it.

Because I made it.

Sariel may have killed Manakel. But she used my body to do it. And my body had absorbed his power. Specifically, his unique Olympian power to raise and control the dead. The power that was now… now mine.

I was a necromancer.

Just like Fossor.  

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Interlude 31B – Avalon

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Tink, tink, tink.

The repeated sound of something tapping against glass drew Avalon’s attention from the textbook she had been studying to the corner of her dorm room, where a small pig-like animal sat next to the window. Even as she looked that way, he leaned forward to tap his nose against the glass once more.

“Choo.” Speaking the small Jekern’s name flatly, Avalon stood up, abandoning her book as she took a step that way to look down at him. “Let me guess, you want to go outside.”

Choo’s response was to hop down from the windowsill and sit on his haunches, looking hopefully up at her as he wagged his hind end back-and-forth a little. The animal was no longer as tiny as he had been, having reached the size of a small dog. But he was still nowhere near as big as he would eventually become.

He was also capable of being here in the room without setting off the Stranger alarm, thanks to Gaia. Avalon‘s adopted mother had created shields on both this room and Shiori’s, which prevented the alarm spells from noticing him. Plus, there was a second enchantment which made him invisible to anyone looking into the room from beyond (either with some kind of vision power/spell or through the window). Again, thanks to Gaia. That kind of spell was far beyond anything that Avalon or anyone else in her age group were capable of.

With all that done, they still had to carry Choo around the grounds in the extradimensional pouch that had been made for him, but at least he could wander around the rooms safely. It was a lot better than leaving him all by himself out in the jungle. Between all the other predators out there, and the Heretic students, who knew what might have happened?

He spent most of his time in this room, rather than Shiori’s, since the girl’s roommate wasn’t exactly in on things. It was too dangerous. The only time he spent over there with Shiori was when they knew that Rebecca wouldn’t be around for a while.

Nodding in response to the animal’s hopeful look, Avalon reached out to pick up what looked like a simple leather pouch that was sitting on the nearby dresser. Opening it up, she held it down in front of the animal, ordering, “Well, get in.”

Choo huffed a little bit at having to go into the bag, but obediently trotted inside. Once he was in, Avalon closed the bag, making it small enough to fit in her pocket. Choo himself was in a tiny pocket dimension that was about the same size as this room. There was grass and dirt, and a small tree in there for him. When he was bigger, they would have to upgrade his area, but right now, that was enough. He had a nest of blankets in there, along with a big bowl of food and one for water. Both of them technically hold enough for a month, but were enchanted to only release a little bit each day. He could stay in there for quite a while if he needed to. But the little guy liked being out around people too much. He loved company, and attention. Honestly, he was too damn trusting and friendly for his own good. All he wanted to do was snuggle everyone he met.

Shoving the bag into her pocket, Avalon stepped out of the room, closing the door after her as she headed for the exit. Her footsteps echoed through the hallway, and a couple girls who were standing in front of another room glanced up at her approach. Summer, a dark-skinned girl was in the Investigation track, was standing near Freya, a distractingly beautiful red-haired girl who was taller than Avalon. Both of them glanced over while Summer continued, “It’s for Christmas! Come on, it’s funny, you’ve just gotta stop being so squeamish. So the talking poo is like–”

“Please, stop,” Freya begged before looking to Avalon. “She’s trying to explain Bystander humor to me. Which is weird,” she added pointedly, “since she’s not a Bystander either. Plus, I don’t think I want to understand. And I definitely don’t want to hear any more about this North Park.”

“It’s–oh never mind.” Waving that off, Summer turned back to Avalon as well. “Did Douglas ever find you?” she asked before adding, “He was looking for you about an hour ago. Even got us to go knock on your door for him so the statues wouldn’t dropkick him for coming into the dorm.”

“We did, but you weren’t there,” Freya added. “So he wandered off again. Seemed like it might be important, though. Something about needing to find you for his answer or something.”

For his–oh, great. Apparently Douglas had asked his oracle-power a question, and its answer had been to point him to Avalon. And she had no idea what he’d asked. Sometimes her temporary new teammate’s little vague question-and-answer gift could be very… unhelpful.

Betraying none of that to the two girls, she just shrugged once while replying flatly, “Haven’t seen him.” Without another word, she started to pass them, heading for the door once more.

“Hey, wait.” Summer called, raising a hand. When Avalon looked back, the other girl started with, “Sorry about, um, Flick and the others. I hope they find them soon. And that, you know.”

Her first impulse was to snap at the girl, but Avalon restrained herself. Growing up in Eden’s Garden, there was a good chance that anyone who said that would have been fishing for some kind of weakness. It wasn’t that every peer there was a rival or threat. That would have made things too easy. It was that there was no way of knowing who would be a threat, and a lot of Garden students weren’t exactly discouraged from stabbing each other in the back. Especially if the other person was from a different tribe. It was a way of getting ahead, of proving yourself stronger. There were plenty of students there who would’ve jumped on the opportunity to push themselves ahead of Avalon in the only vaguely secret (in that the staff didn’t openly acknowledge them) class ranking by messing with her head or making her focus on Flick.

Crossroads was different. It had its own problems, to be sure. But at least it didn’t have that kind of environment for students. After giving herself a second to remind her impulses that they weren’t back there anymore, Avalon managed a slight, curt nod. “They will,” she replied simply before turning to walk once more. She would take Choo out to the jungle and let him out to walk and stretch his legs for a bit first, then go and see what Douglas actually wanted.

On the way, she heard Freya start to whisper something about the odds of Flick and the others being alive if they had been taken by Strangers, only for Summer to stop her with a hissed word about waiting. Waiting, obviously, for Avalon to be further away so that she didn’t overhear their theories about how Flick, Sands, Isaac, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz were probably already dead.

At least Avalon was as certain as she could be that that much wasn’t true. Vanessa hadn’t been able to contact her father again after the first time, but she had gotten the message through. And with both him and Scout’s mother out there helping them, Avalon had to believe that they were alive. Safe might be pushing it considering where they were, but alive at the very least.

Lost in thought (some might have called it brooding), she made her way across the grounds and down to the beach. However, before the girl could go much further than that, a loud bark caught her attention. Snapping her gaze up and to the side, she saw Vulcan galloping toward her. The big metal dog was accompanied by his owner, along with the other members of her team, both temporary and permanent. Sean, Scout, Columbus, Douglas, and Rudolph were approaching.

“Avalon!” Douglas called, as if she hadn’t seen him already. “Jeez, you are one hard girl to find sometimes, you know? We must’ve hiked all over the campus.”

“I must have just missed you at the dorm,” she replied, keeping her voice even. “What do you need, Frey? Banning and Sullivan just said you wanted to talk about something.” As she spoke, Avalon opened her hand to let Vulcan nuzzle up against it and sniff a little. The cyberform canine probably wanted to play with Choo, but they would have to send Douglas and Rudolph on their way first.

“I, uh–” Douglas paused, frowning a bit as he glanced around a little expectantly.

Tensing reflexively at that, Avalon belatedly realized that the boy wasn’t waiting to set off a trap or something. His power had obviously directed him toward Avalon as a means of answering whatever question he had asked, and now he was waiting to see what actually happened.

“You’re a stunning conversationalist as always,” she informed him dryly before looking to Scout. “You still want to train in the morning?”

The other girl gave a single, small nod at first. Then she seemed to gather herself, straightening a little before softly saying, “Yes.” Another slight pause then before, “I’ll be ready.”

That was it, there was only those four words. But even that was downright talkative for Scout, who had clearly been making an effort to speak up a bit more ever since her twin had disappeared.

“Good,” Avalon replied. “I’ll wait for you then.” With that, she looked back to Douglas, hoping that whatever he was waiting for would have had time to happen by that point. “Were you all just walking around together because you were lonely, or…”

Douglas’s mouth opened, before the boy paused briefly. He seemed to consider something before finally giving a little shrug. “I’ve been asking my power how we can help find Jazz and the others every day since… since that happened, but there’s been nothing. It wouldn’t tell me anything. Then, today, I asked how we could track down the guys who took them instead. Just a little different, but that time I got an actual answer. Sort of.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Avalon realized, “It directed you to me.”

The boy nodded, but it was Sean who replied, “He came to Columbus and me once he couldn’t find you. We looked for a bit, but couldn’t find you. Then Columbus had the bright idea to find Scout, since she’s got that magic tracking power.”

Right, Scout had the ability to mark any object and find it later. She’d obviously used it on all of her teammates. Avalon gave the quiet girl a brief nod before speaking to Columbus himself. “Uh, good idea.” It felt awkward and strange to compliment someone for something that simple. But the boy had been… very out of it and down on himself since being freed from Charmiene. The things that he had been forced to do while puppeted, the… threats that the Seosten woman had made about what she would make him do, had all obviously taken its toll. According to Sean, the boy was barely sleeping. And when he did sleep, he tended to wake up with nightmares. So she was trying to be better about encouraging him, as well as the others. It was what Flick would do if she was there.

The boy didn’t respond to her words at first, continuing to stare blankly for a few long seconds before he suddenly started as the realization that he could actually control his body clearly came. “I–”  Shifting a little, he flatly intoned, “Thanks. I just didn’t want to keep wandering around aimlessly.”

It was obviously meant as a joke of sorts, but his emotionless voice and the way that his face held no particular expression made it hard to tell until he belatedly gave a weak smile.

Columbus Porter was not in the best of shape, emotionally. But he needed to be out there, needed to be shown that he could keep helping and that he was in charge of his own body now. He was seeing the school therapist every afternoon, and Klassin Roe had made it clear that he would take Porter off the team the moment that he thought it was doing more harm than good. But for the time being, it was for the best that he be treated as normally as possible.

“Well,” Avalon informed them then. “I don’t want to say that you all wasted your time. But I assure you, if I knew anything about where to find the people responsible for taking Chambers and the others, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

Shaking his head, Douglas gave a long, low sigh. “Look, I know you’re keeping stuff from us. We know that. You know stuff you don’t wanna talk about and… ehh, I don’t wanna say that’s fine, cuz it’s not. But we get it. Rudolph and me, we get it. We’re not in your top secret club. Headmistress Sinclaire might call us part of the team, but we’re just slot-fillers for the moment. Whatever. But we do want to find our friends, okay? Whatever it takes. I can’t…” He swallowed hard, looking briefly haunted before his hand absently checked to make sure his hat was still there. “I can’t just sit around doing nothing.”  

Avalon studied the boy for a moment, considering her words before finally speaking. “If I knew anything that could find them, I would be doing it. I would tell you. Anything I know, it’s not useful right now.”

Rudolph, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke up. “Maybe it’s not something that you consciously know. Maybe it’s something that’s going to happ–”

That was as far as the boy got before, as if on cue, the phone in Avalon’s pocket rang. She blinked, giving him a brief look before taking the thing out to look at the screen. The call was from the number that Asenath had been using to contact them, so she clicked it on while taking a few steps away. “Yes?”

“Avalon,” the vampire started, “You’re still at Crossroads, right?”

Pausing, Avalon looked back to the group, who were all watching expectantly, before answering with that same single word as before. “Yes.”

“Good, uh, listen.” Pausing briefly, Asenath seemed to be considering her words. “Namythiet, our little pixie friend, she was contacted by another one of her species. It’s some kind of magic connection spell or something. I’m not sure about the details. But the point is, there’s a pixie out there in the jungle, the Crossroads jungle. And she’s um… hurt.”

“Hurt?” Avalon echoed, glancing toward the trees.

“Yeah. Apparently she’s exhausted. It was all she could do to send that message. But she’s in the jungle and she’s trapped there. But here’s the thing. Whatever happened, it has something to do with the Seosten. We don’t know what, but it sounds like she escaped from them or something. She’s been running for days, trying to contact anyone who would listen and try to get her out of there. She knows something important, and they’ve been chasing her. They’ve blocked every other exit, so she’s trapped on the island, and they’ve been hunting her. She’s got nothing left.”

That was enough to make Avalon start a bit. Eyes widening slightly, she tersely asked, “Where is she?”

“Hang on,” Asenath replied, “I’m texting you the map that Namythiet made. Can you get to her? She’s… she doesn’t have long, Avalon. From what Namy said, that last message took everything she had, just getting her location out. If she doesn’t die of exhaustion, the people hunting her will finish the job. We’re talking minutes, not hours and definitely not days. Minutes.”

“I’ll get to her,” Avalon assured her firmly. She took a moment to look at the map that came in. “I’m going now.”

She had just disconnected the call when the realization that the others were all still standing there struck her. As she looked up, Douglas demanded, “What? Who? Who were you talking to, who are you going to? Who’s hurt? What’s going on?”

For a few seconds that were entirely too long, Avalon was silent. A hundred different thoughts warred for prominence in her mind. Telling the boys was too dangerous. But they wouldn’t just leave. And every second that they wasted was another in which this mysterious pixie who had information about the Seosten might die. What could she say?

An idea started to form, but they had already been waiting too long. She couldn’t let that pixie die. Turning on her heel, Avalon started to jog while snapping, “If you want to save your friends, shut up and follow me.”

Scout was right behind her, followed immediately by Sean and Columbus, with Vulcan trotting alongside them. Further back, Rudolph and Douglas looked at one another for a moment before following suit.

As she ran, Avalon quickly sent a text to Gaia, letting her know what was going on and that she might have to erase an hour or so of the boys’ memories if this went wrong. Then she started to speak, even as they left the sand and started into the jungle itself.

“You know all those rumors about Eden’s Garden using Strangers instead of just killing them?”

“You mean the breeding experiments and that stuff?” Rudolph asked before ducking under a branch. “Yeah, my… my granddad, he said something about it.”

Avalon took another second, finding the right words. “Sometimes they use them the way that Bystander police use smaller, less important criminals.” She checked the map on her phone, considered where they were, then kept running. “You know, send them out to get information on the bigger targets. No point in expending effort on the little fish when the little fish can lead you to the big fish.”

There was another pause behind her as the boys seemed to absorb that, before Douglas asked, “We’re going after one of those little fish?”

“A little fish who knows how to get to the big fish,” Avalon confirmed. “But the big fish are trying to kill it before it can talk, so we have to get there first. Can you handle that?”

“We’re gonna have to hear a lot more about all this,” Douglas informed her, grunting as he slid down a slight incline before catching himself. “But if it can really help us find the others, then fuck it, let’s get this fish. I’m not gonna be the guy who fucks everything up because he demands to know everything when we should be moving. I’ll be that guy later.”

Right. That settled that, for the next few minutes anyway. Now the boys knew that they would be finding a Stranger, and wouldn’t immediately kill her. Eventually they’d either need to know more, or Gaia would just erase it from their memory. Either way, good enough for the moment.

Run, run. Get to the pixie. Get to that damn pixie before they lost this lead. If it meant a chance of finding Flick, Avalon would have run across the entire island a thousand times.

Finally, she stopped. Looking at the map, Avalon judged that they had run about to the right spot. She could see a couple landmarks included in the map that looked right, including a fairly massive rock in the vague shape of a dog’s head that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. But there was no pixie.

“She’s got to be around here,” the girl muttered under her breath, turning in a circle as she looked around desperately. “Pixie, we’re looking for a pixie.”

“A pixie?” Rudolph echoed, a bit of doubt in his voice as he too started to look around. “In a place like this? We could look for hours. They’re not exactly easy to spot if they’re not right in front of your face.”

“We don’t have hours,” Avalon snapped. “We have minutes, maybe. We have to find her. You wanna find your friends, we need the pixie. We don’t find the pixie, we don’t find the others.”

Douglas put both hands up to adjust his baseball cap while his head shook. “I don’t–if I still had my question for the day, I could just ask, but I don’t. I don’t know how else we’re supposed to find this… this pixie. These are the only directions you’ve got? It’s not here, so now what?”

“There.” The word came from Columbus. The boy had his goggles on, and was pointing off in a seemingly random direction. “Fifty feet that way, right in the hollow of the tree. She’s kind of covered by a log. I think she pulled it over to block the view.”

Avalon didn’t question it. Instead, she ran that way, muttering a quick thanks to the boy before dropping to her knees in front of the tree in question. Using one hand to pull the log away, the girl stared at the tiny figure nestled within the hollowed out portion of the trunk.

It was definitely the missing pixie. And she didn’t look good. Avalon had no idea what had happened to her or what she had been through, but the little thing was clearly utterly exhausted. She barely reacted to the log being moved, opening her eyes briefly before letting out a weak whimper of protest as they closed once more. Her wings were limp rather than vibrant. From all appearances, she was about an inch from death anyway.

And yet, Douglas still caught Avalon by the shoulder, pulling her back a bit. “Don’t get too close,” he warned her. “It could be faking.”

Turning that way, she almost snapped at him, almost bit his head off. But she caught herself at the last instant, instead retorting, “We need her alive. I don’t care how you feel about Strangers or their uses. If this one dies, we might never see Chambers or the others again. Do you understand? This one survives if you want to see your friends. It’s our only lead. Our only lead. You get it?”

Rudolph spoke up then. “We get it. The pixie lives. But what do we do with her?”

Sean had stepped up to join them. “Vulcan’s storage space for his ammo,” he announced. “We can put her in there until we get out of this jungle and back somewhere a little safer. After that… we’ll see what we can do.”

“Pixies heal themselves.” That was Scout, actually speaking up. When they all looked at her, the brunette shrugged. “Magic. She… she should be… healing herself. But she’s weak. Maybe if we… feed her magic, she’ll heal.”

“Right,” Avalon announced. “But we do it closer to the beach. Right now we need to get out of here, before–”

“Stay away from the school, they said,” a voice spoke up from the shadows of the trees that surrounded them. “Don’t even think about going there, they said. Don’t go near her, she’s surrounded and protected.”

A figure stepped into view, even as Avalon quickly stood up and turned that way. He was, at first glance, a fairly ordinary looking man, if somewhat tall at a few inches over six feet. Most of his head was bald, save for the back and along both sides, where a bit of brown hair could be found. He wore a simple flannel shirt and jeans, neither of which were anywhere near new. Though not exactly ‘fat’, he was somewhat hefty, particularly for his height. He looked like a man who would be most often be seen watching a football game with a beer in one hand and the remote in another, after getting home from his job in a factory or as some kind of middle management. Not particularly handsome, but not hideous. Not in the best of shape, but not obese. Average in almost every way, save possibly for the slightly unnatural paleness of his skin.

And when she saw him, Avalon took a reflexive step back, even as her Stranger sense alerted her to the entirely unnecessary revelation of his non-human status.

“But you know,” the man continued, “all I was doing was following orders. Find the pixie, they told me. Deal with it. That’s what I was doing. So I don’t see how they can blame me when, well, you sorta walk right into my lap, can you?”

The others started to speak, but Avalon didn’t hear them. Their words all blended together and fell away. Her attention was centered on the man, on the vampire in front of them. Her voice was soft, flat and emotionless.  

“Hello… Dad.”

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Mini-Interlude 39 – Avalon, Shiori, and Choo

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“You think it’s going okay out there?” Shiori asked Avalon as the two of them sat by the spot that had been set aside for Choo to live in. The little Jekern (who had grown enough over the past weeks to be about the size of a small puppy) was sniffing eagerly at the bowl that Shiori was holding. The bowl was a treat that the girl had retrieved it from its spot on the beach after she and Avalon left Flick to finish talking to Sands and Scout.

“I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Avalon answered. “Now what did you say you needed me for?”

“Oh, right.” Shiori’s head bobbed. “I need you to voice the big bad wolf.”

“… you need me to what?” Avalon’s voice was flat.

Setting the bowl down in front of the eager warthog-like creature, Shiori explained. “I promised Choo I’d tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs today. I need you to voice the wolf. Please?” She batted her eyelashes rapidly.

“You realize that only works on Chambers,” Avalon informed her. “And I have training to do, I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about–”

She was interrupted by a squeak. Looking down, Avalon found Choo nudging her foot, wide eyes blinking up at her imploringly before he made another pitiful, pleading noise.

“… fine,” she sighed, slumping a little. “One story. I’ll sit here for one story.”

“Yay!” Shiori cheered. “Great, now get comfortable, Choo. It’s time for your story.” She pushed the bowl closer to him, revealing the contents: fluffy popcorn, straight from the bag. Seeing the object of what he had been smelling, the little pig-Alter gave a loud squeak of joy before practically diving into it.

“Now,” Shiori started, “the story of the Three Little Pigs. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a big bad, nasty, evil, terrible, smelly, violent old wolf.”

Avalon sat back against the side of the tree, remarking, “I feel like you’re adlibbing a little there, Porter.”

Shiori remained focused on Choo, whose snout was shoved fully into the bowl of popcorn while he happily munched, his eyes riveted on her. “The wolf was looking for a book called the Necroinkmikon.”

“Wait, what?” Avalon blinked over that way, taken aback. “Porter,” she demanded, “did you just say Necroinkm–”

Shiori nodded quickly at her. “Uh huh, but hang on, it’s not time for the wolf yet.” To Choo, she continued. “The Necroinkmikon was a book of magic spells that could make the Big Bad Wolf unstoppable!”

At her words, Choo shrank back a bit, ears flattening as he made a slightly fearful noise. But he didn’t stop chewing, leaning forward after a second to sneak another mouthful of kernels.

“Now, the Big Bad Wolf was the biggest, baddest, most dangerous wolf in the whole group of Devils. And he found out that the Necroinkmikon was being protected by three pig brothers: The Pigs Of Destiny. The Big Bad Wolf knew that the pig brothers were living in this forest. So he went in to find them, kill them, and take the book for himself!”

As Choo made a noise of fear and shrank back even more, she reached out to give him a reassuring scratch. “Little did the Big Bad Wolf know, but these were no ordinary pigs. No, these pigs had been training their entire lives to protect the Necroinkmikon. The wolf was about to be very, very surprised.”

The reassurance convinced the little Jekern to go back to enjoying his popcorn, and Shiori smiled a little bit. “The wolf crept through the forest, searching and searching for the pigs. Eventually, he found one of their homes, a house… made of straw. The straw meant that the little house was hidden from surveillance satellites and passing drones. But the wolf found it. So he crept slowly up to the straw house. And when he saw the little pig cooking his breakfast inside, he said…” She nodded toward Avalon.

For a moment, the other girl remained silent and stiff. But as Choo turned an expectant gaze to her and made an eager noise, she relented. “Little pig…” Avalon started reluctantly, “… little pig, little pig, let me in.”

By contrast, when Shiori voiced the pig, her voice was high and a bit squeaky, her best approximation of a small but confident swine. “Hah! Vile wolf! Here to get the Necroinkmikon, huh?! You’ll find nothing but pain and misery here, you contemptible, cowardly canine crook. Come and take it!”

Blinking twice, Avalon paused before realizing that both Choo and Shiori were waiting for her. “Um, okay then. Uh, if you don’t let me in, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

“Filthy wolf, you’ll get nothing from me,” Shiori called in her pig-voice, “but pain and total misery!”

Again, attention returned to Avalon, who finally shrugged. “Okay then, I guess I’ll blow your house in.”

“And he did,” Shiori continued. “The wolf took out his AK-47–”

“He did what?!” Avalon blurted.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it’s old, but the 47 is totally still one of the best guns in the world,” Shiori informed her. “It’s super reliable. He knows what he’s doing. So the wolf took out his AK-47 and opened fire on the straw house, blowing it to smithereens!”

Choo had flattened himself against the ground by that point, and was watching with rapt attention as Shiori went on. “But when the smoke cleared and the wolf stepped into the remains of the straw house… he found… nothing! The little pig had disappeared, and there was no sign of the book of spells!”

Both sets of eyes turned to Avalon then, who worked her mouth a little bit awkwardly before coughing. “Err, uh, little… pig? Where are you, little pig? Show yourself!”

“And the pig did,” Shiori narrated, “but the wolf wasn’t going to be very happy about it… because the first little pig was a master survivalist. That’s why his house was made of straw, see? And he announced himself by nailing the wolf right in the back with an arrow! Of course, the Big Bad Wolf was too tough to go down to a single arrow, but it sure got his attention. He turned around, howling with pain, only to find the first little pig high up in a nearby tree! The little pig had his commando paint on, and the red bandana that he was given to commemorate his service in the military during the war.”

Military?!” Avalon blurted then. “Since when did the three little pigs serve in the military?”

Choosing to take that as the wolf speaking, Shiori countered in her little pig voice. “If you persist in this search, Mr. Big Bad, you’ll find only trouble, a myriad!” She adjusted her voice to be the narrator again. “And the little pig let loose with another arrow, and another! The wolf was under attack, and the survivalist pig had the high ground! So he had no choice but to flee deeper into the forest.”

“Ahem,” Avalon interrupted, lifting her chin. “A tactical withdrawal. Besides, if the pig had the book, the wolf would’ve seen it by then. Obviously, it wasn’t there. So there was no reason to waste time with Rambo Pig.”

Smiling broadly, Shiori continued. “The wolf looked deeper in the woods. He spent hours searching for any more pigs. Finally, he found a little log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. When he peered through the window, he found the second little pig, cooking his lunch on the stove. Seeing the little pig, the wolf took a breath, and called…”

“Little pig, little pig,” Avalon almost immediately started, “Let me in!”

“But when the wolf finished making his demand,” Shiori intoned with a little smile, “he found that the little pig, who had just been standing in plain sight… had disappeared! One blink, and the little pig was gone. The only sign that he had ever been there was the still simmering pot.”

Pawing at the dirt, Choo snorted, sending sparks of electricity in the air as he charged around the bowl in circles, making it clear that if he had been there, he’d give that wolf what it deserved.

“Well,” Avalon shrugged. “If you won’t let me in, I’ll…” She paused then, lifting her gaze to the sky to shake her head slowly before continuing, “… I’ll blow your little wood house away with my AK-47.”

“And he did!” Shiori informed their enraptured audience-of-one. “The wolf put so many bullets into that cute little wooden cabin, that there was almost nothing left. Because not only was the wolf a terrible person in general, he also had no appreciation for classic architecture.”

“The wolf,” Avalon sniffed, “was a little too busy looking for the book of ultimate power to worry about a few logs.”

“But he didn’t find his prize there either,” Shiori announced. “And when he stepped among the rubble, he found no sign of the pig… until a tiny little fist punched him square in the back, hitting the wolf in just the right spot to make his muscles seize up. When the wolf turned, he found himself facing the second little pig… in his black ninja uniform!”

“Ninja?!” Avalon demanded, “I thought the pigs were soldiers… with bows and arrows.”

Again, Shiori interpreted her words as coming from the wolf. “My brother served his country, foul fiend,” she squeaked the words, “but Asia is where my studies convened.”  Switching back to her narrator voice, she continued, “And the wolf soon found that his gun would be of no use here, as the black-clad pig ignited his laser-sword–”

“Oh, now that’s not even–” Avalon started.

“–and cut the rifle into pieces with a single slash of his glowing energy-blade!” Shiori finished.

Coughing, Avalon gestured. “Well, uh, you said the book wasn’t here, so I think the wolf is leaving.”

“Of course, finding that the book wasn’t in the second pig’s house, he fle–err, tactically withdrew even deeper into the woods.” Shiori lowered her voice a bit then. “The wolf searched the forest for the rest of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of the two pig brothers while he searched desperately for the third house, where the book had to be.

“Eventually, he found it. As the moon rose up into the night sky, the wolf finally discovered the solid brick house, built right up against the base of the mountain, where it was protected on all but one side. The wolf had only one approach. And as he crept silently up to the house, he found that all the windows were closed and barred. There was no way to see inside.”

“Well,” Avalon sniffed. “In that case, I’ll just–err…” She paused. “The wolf doesn’t have a gun anymore.”

“That’s okay!” Shiori crowed, “he can just use his grenades!”

“The wolf has gren–” Avalon started before shaking it off. “Never mind, yes, the wolf uses his grenades.”

“And the house was blown to smithereens!” Shiori called, throwing her arms out to demonstrate while Choo made a squeaking noise of alarm. “But once again, as the smoke and debris cleared, the wolf found… nothing. In fact, the house seemed oddly empty. Because of course, it was a diversion, a trap!”

“A trap?” Avalon echoed. “A trap for what? Another ninja or a soldier?”

“Neither!” Shiori’s head shook. “The third little pig wasn’t a ninja or a soldier… he was a super-genius! The same super-genius who built his brother’s laser-sword–” Lowering her voice, she stage-whispered, “See, foreshadowing? Wasn’t that pretty–errr, I mean, he was a super-genius! And as the smoke cleared and the wolf found the empty house, the ground rumbled and shook beneath him.”

“If you say he made an earthquake machine, I swear…” Avalon started slowly.

“As the wolf turned around, grumbling about his terrible luck,” Shiori narrated, “he found himself facing not an earthquake machine, but the third pig’s newest invention: a twenty-foot tall mecha!

“You know,” Avalon intoned thoughtfully, “at this point, I really should’ve seen that coming.”

Shiori excitedly continued then, her voice rising into her pig-squeak. “Mr. Wolf, if you truly wish to find the book, face my steel chariot and take a look!” She narrated, “And as the pig finished speaking, a metal panel slid aside to show the wolf’s target: the Necroinkmikon was held in a bulletproof glass cage right in the mech’s chest, surrounded by a dozen guns, cannons, lasers, and flamethrowers!”

“Yeah, you know what?” Avalon muttered, “I don’t think the wolf needs the book that badly.”

“The wolf turned to flee,” Shiori announced. “Only to realize that he’d forgotten… the house was at the base of a mountain! He was trapped, facing the giant mecha ahead and the mountain behind. But even then, the wolf found that his luck had sunk even lower. To one side of the mech, a camo-suited pig, head adorned with his red bandana, appeared with his bow pulled taut. And to the other side, with a flash of smoke, the black-clad ninja pig appeared, his steadily humming laser sword held aloft!”

Switching back and forth between her squeaky pig-voice and her normal narrator voice, the Asian girl continued. “‘You think you’re still a threat–’ the first little pig called to the wolf, before his ninja brother finished, ‘we’ll put you down, no sweat!’ And as the wolf whimpered and backed up against the mountain, their genius brother announced, ‘Let’s go boys, and after we teach him an intricate lesson…’

“All three pigs finished together, their weapons bearing down on the wolf, ‘We’ll visit our delicatessen!’”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-05

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“I wonder if anyone in my life was actually normal.”

It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the first track classes. I was in one of the protective spell practice chambers with Sean and the twins (err, the ones on my team), each of us taking turns practicing a freeze-bomb spell that Carfried had given everyone for homework. Or dormwork. Whatever you called it when you actually lived in the same place as the school. So far, Scout had been the only one of us who actually managed to get the balls from the spell to freeze the target correctly.

As I finished speaking, Sands looked over at me with a frown from where she was carefully inscribing the spellform on her next metal ball, intent on getting it right that time. “What do you mean, normal?”

Shrugging, I worked on my own ball. “I mean Scott and Calvin both turned out to be Alters. Miranda was recruited by Eden’s Garden. My mom was—well, you know. I wonder who else was around while I was growing up that was actually spying on me for Crossroads, or for Prosser, or for anyone else.”

Vulcan made a noise that was half-whine, straightening up to move over so he could bump his nose against my leg. Smiling despite myself, I took a knee and rubbed his snout. “I know, buddy. Some of them were trying to help, or at least trying to make sure things didn’t get worse than they already were.”

Rearing back, Sean activated his ball and threw it to the other end of the small room. As it hit the wall, the ball exploded with a blue mist that seemed to get everything a bit chilly, but didn’t quite freeze.

“Well, shit then,” the boy muttered before reaching into the nearby box to take out another ball so he could start working on the spell again. “Really thought I had it that time.” Looking to me, he added, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of people you know that weren’t involved at all, Flick. It’s just that the only reason you have to interact with them anymore are when they get pulled into this stuff, or were connected to it from the start. The ones that aren’t connected at all, you just… won’t hear from.”

“That and I didn’t really get very close to anyone after my mom left,” I admitted. “There was Miranda, and she was my best friend. But I was pretty much focused on her. And when she had to move, it was just… I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Mostly I just… stayed in the background, I guess.”

Taking my turn, I triggered the spell and threw the ball. It was my third try, and I was pretty confident. Then again, Sean had been pretty confident too and all he’d actually managed was a brief cold mist. So when the ball hit the wall and promptly created a thick sheet of ice about two feet across, I was surprised enough to let out a gleeful squeal. “Hey, I got it that time! High five for the winners, Scout.”

“Hey, hey, no fives until I can five too.” Sands caught her sister’s wrist, sticking her tongue out at me. “Hold your horses, Flick. I’ve got it this time. Then we can all high five together. And laugh at Sean.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I gestured to the nearby wall. “Go for it. The more fives the merrier.”

Sean, for his part, said something obviously pointed in Spanish before addressing Vulcan. “You see what I put up with?” He then watched as the mechanical dog walked to Scout and sat down. “Traitor.”

Sure enough, Sands’ next throw covered more of the wall with ice. Jumping up with her arms raised, she cheered before doing a front handstand. Holding it for a moment, she winked at me from her upside down position before falling back to her feet. “See?” the girl crowed, “Told you I had it that time.”

Giving both girls high fives, I nodded easily. “When you’re right, you’re right. Now it’s Sean’s turn.”

While he was working on the ball (clearly taking extra time because he didn’t want to fail to get it that time), Sands shifted on her feet. “Any luck looking into Avalon’s mother? You know…” She trailed off, obviously trying not to look too giddy or fangirly about the situation. “Heironymus Bosch’s granddaughter or… great granddaughter or… whatever.”

My head shook. “I still think we’re gonna have to go see the place they used to live. I mean, it’s been a long time, but maybe somebody there remembers her mom. Plus there could be records, a paper trail. She was living with Bystanders long enough for Avalon’s dad to meet her and all that, so there should be something to track her. Hopefully it’ll lead somewhere. We just need to find a good time to go.”

After biting my lip thoughtfully for a second, I teased, “You’re still kinda freaking out about that, huh?”

“That my teammate is related to the guy who founded our entire society?” Sands gave me a wide-eyed look before nodding almost frantically. “Uh, yeah, I’m kinda freaking out about that. Just a little bit.”

Scout giggled a little, but she was nodding too. Clearly, both of them thought it was a pretty big deal.

“Maybe you should come too,” I offered. “When we go look into her past, I mean. After all, you guys are the ones who stayed in the Investigation track. You could see something we end up missing.”

Grinning, Sands quickly replied, “You don’t have to ask us twice. Just let us know when you’re going.”

I shrugged at that. “Of course, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious when we head out. Gotta get Gaia’s permission and all that so she can come up with an excuse about why we’re leaving the island.”

Scout leaned up then and whispered something quietly in her sister’s ear. Sands then promptly looked at me before giggling. “Yeah,” she replied with a nod. “If she ever actually talks to them about it.”

Doing a quick double-take, I blurted out loud, “Wait, huh? If who ever talks to who about what?”

Sands just scoffed at me while rolling her eyes. “Oh, I think you know,” she retorted pointedly.

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about.”

******

“You’ve got another meeting with Gaia tonight, right?” Shiori asked a few hours later as the two of us walked along the beach together. “For your special extra tutoring stuff, I mean.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back out to the water for a moment while feeling myself blush. Which was weird. We weren’t even talking about anything that sensitive, so why was I blushing like that? “But it’s different tonight. Vanessa and Tristan are supposed to be there so Gaia can try to transfer the anchor spell to her. You know, so he can be linked to his actual twin instead of some girl he barely knows.”

“He knows you better than most other students here,” Shiori pointed out before pausing. “He knows me better than most of them too. Which is fair, I guess, since we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”

Somehow, my hand found hers before I knew what it was doing. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “For all of you. Trust me. Trust Gaia. She knows how to keep this stuff secret. She’s been doing it for awhile.”

Shiori’s hand squeezed mine before she looked over to the water with a thoughtful murmur. “Speaking of boats, you went out to see your shark buddies, right? Cuz, you know, they probably missed you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded quickly. “Trust me, that’s one of the first things I did when we got back. I used the breathing spell and went as deep as I could with them. They had all kinds of stuff to show me.”

Giggling a little under her breath, Shiori looked up and down the beach, staring back the way we’d come. “Okay,” she announced after a second. “I think we’re far enough away now. You see anybody?”

Looking back that way as well, I shook my head after scanning the whole beach for a minute. “Nope. Looks clear to me. No sign of anyone, including my shadow. Which is a real treat, let me tell you.”

Shiori snickered audibly at that. “You know, you could just ask Doug why he’s so interested in you.”

“I know,” I replied easily. “I could just ask him, but I want to see what he does first. I mean, if he’s…” Pausing, I lowered my voice reflexively despite the fact that we already would’ve been pretty thoroughly screwed if anything we said was overheard. “If he’s possessed or something, I don’t want to tip my hand just like that. And if it’s something like he thinks I’m connected to Roxa’s disappearance-”

“He wouldn’t be wrong about that,” Shiori pointed out with a raised eyebrow. As she spoke, the girl was already taking the container from her hip. Popping the lid off, she set it down and let Choo crawl out. The little lightning-pig sniffed the sand curiously until she dropped a fun-size snickers bar for him.

As the jekern pounced on the candy, I nodded. “Right, he wouldn’t be wrong. But I also can’t answer his questions. It’s not like I can say, ‘hey, your teammate’s okay, but she got turned into a werewolf by a psychopath. Oh, and on a related note, werewolves and every other Stranger aren’t automatically evil.’”

The two of us started walking again, with Choo jogging to keep up. The little pig kept looking both ways, up and down the beach while happily trotting between us with sparks playing around his snout.

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed after a few seconds of walking. “You’re right, you can’t exactly tell him the truth. He probably wouldn’t—umm, you know, take it very well. You think it’s just him, or his whole team?”

Biting my lip, I thought about it for a second. “I dunno. I mean, he’s the really obvious one. But maybe they’re all involved. I can’t see him keeping it a secret if he thinks I know something. I wouldn’t, in his position. But he’s the one that’s always staring at me. And he obviously switched tracks to follow me.”

“He could just think you’re cute and be really weird and shy about actually talking about it,” she pointed out. Immediate after she finished speaking, the girl’s face turned pink and she coughed. “I mean, did he say anything while you guys were working on your—what was that thing again?”

“Identifying a mystery Stranger and working out how to kill it.” I shook my head then. “And no, I mean nothing that wasn’t about that. He said we should work on more of it Sunday–tomorrow. So maybe he’ll bring up Roxa then. Maybe he just wanted to wait until he can get his whole team there.”

“If he asks about Roxa,” Shiori started while looking sidelong at me. “What are you gonna tell him?”

Wincing, I made a confused flailing motion. “I dunno. That’s why I’m waiting to see what he does.”

By that point, we had reached the spot of the beach that led up into Choo’s little hidey-place. As the two of us approached, Avalon straightened up off the log she had been sitting on and turned to face us. She was silent, but Choo went running right up to nuzzle against her foot while making excited noises.

“See?” I announced with a little smile at that sight. “He likes you almost as much as Herbie does.”

Her eyes rolled, but Avalon still reached down to let the jekern clamber into her hands. Picking him up, she failed to totally contain her little smile at his soft cooing. “You asked me to meet you guys out here, Chambers,” the girl reminded me. “So what’s going on? Tell me something bad didn’t happen again.

“Nothing bad happened,” I quickly assured her. “I mean, that I know of. Sure, bad stuff happened somewhere. Bad stuff happens all the time. Especially now that we know about Strangers and all th–”

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted, eyebrow raised at me curiously. “You’re babbling. More than usual.”

Flushing, I closed my mouth for a second and took a breath to collect myself. I’d thought that this was a good idea. I knew it was something that needed to be done before someone ended up getting hurt. And yet, standing there like that with both of them watching me, I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious.

“Um. Okay, yeah.” My head bobbed up and down, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I wanted to get both of you out here so we could–” In mid-sentence, I stopped talking and looked up at the sky.

Shiori poked my arm lightly after a moment of that, her expression pensive. “Flick? What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly as my blush deepened. “Oh, um, nothing. I guess I just sort of expected something dramatic to drop out of the sky right then and interrupt me before I could finish talking.”

They both looked at each other, and I coughed before pushing on. “Okay. No more interruptions, no more excuses, no more… anything but dealing with this.” Biting my lip, I looked between them. Even then, despite what I’d said, there was the temptation to make an excuse and run away. I was… afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being abandoned again, of being left alone after putting myself out there.

Well screw that. I wasn’t going to let that fear define me. I knew why my mother was gone, and it had nothing to do with wanting to abandon me, or not caring. She had been taken away because she cared.

“I like you.” The words blurted their way out of my mouth almost of their own volition, but I kept going. “B-both of you, I mean. Shiori, Avalon, I like you. As friends, but… but more. I like you as more than friends. I like both of you. I know it’s stupid and weird and selfish, but I do. And I… I don’t want to hurt either of you. I think you’re both… hot and smart and funny in your own ways. I think you’re—I know you’re brilliant, you’re both… amazing. You’re the best, and I couldn’t get through any of this stuff without you. And I know it’s stupid. I know. You date one person. That’s the way it works. But every time I think about… about how happy I’d be dating one of you, I think about… hurting the other person. And I can’t—I can’t just… I’m selfish. I’m stupid and selfish and I can’t do it. I can’t hurt either of you. Which is even more stupid because I don’t even know for sure that you both even think about me like that. I mean I’m pretty sure since all that stuff happened, but maybe you don’t and I’m just babbling for no reason and making myself look even more stupid than I already did, which is saying something.”

Shivering a little, I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m not even—I couldn’t even swear that the words are coming out in the right order. The-umm, the point is, I just didn’t want—don’t want to hurt you guys. I don’t want—I don’t want to hug Shiori and make Valley sad if she sees it. I don’t want to kiss Valley and make Shiori… think that I don’t care about her like that. Because I do. I do. I care about both of you, and the last thing I want to do… the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

Shrugging weakly then, I managed to finish with, “But you guys really don’t feel that way. I just—I figured it should be out in the open before one of us—one of you got hurt. Now we can—we can just deal with it. So, you know, am I being stupid or…”

“You’re not being stupid,” Shiori said quietly. She gave a long sigh before looking at Avalon. “See? I told you she’d bring it up on her own.”

Blinking at that, I looked from Shiori to Avalon. “Wait—wait, you guys talked about this already?”

“Believe it or not,” Avalon started dryly, “we are capable of having a conversation without you, Chambers.”

I was still stammering at that, trying to find the right thing to say, when Shiori spoke up instead. “Avalon came to talk to me after… after you guys kissed.”

My head snapped that way, and I felt my cheeks turn pink. “She—she did?”

Nodding, Shiori spoke quietly. “At first I thought she was… umm… bragging. But she made me listen. She wasn’t bragging, she just… she didn’t want me to be hurt either. Like you. She wanted me to know what happened, and that she cared about you.”

Looking to Avalon then, I swallowed hard. “You… didn’t want Shiori to be hurt. You knew…”

“Of course I knew,” the other girl retorted before giving a little shrug with one shoulder. “And I knew how I’d feel. So I told her.”

“We talked about it,” Shiori put in then. “And we figured we’d wait and see what you wanted to do.”

“Up to a point,” Avalon cut in. “If you waited much longer, I was going to force the issue.”

Coughing, I ran my hands all the way back and down through my hair. “Oh. Um. Right. So… what do we do about it?”

The two of them looked at each other again. After a few seconds of silence, Shiori spoke up. “Well, um, maybe we should get it all out in the open.” She looked to me then. “I like you, Flick. I mean—I knew I liked girls for a long time. And I kinda had a crush on Roxa for awhile. But you—I like you. I think you’re—umm, great. I–” Her head bobbed up and down quickly as she blushed. “Really great.”

Clearing her throat, she looked to the other girl. “Um, your turn.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds. Silence, that was, save for the sound of Choo cheerfully snuffling against the girl’s hands.

Finally, Avalon breathed out and straightened up to meet my gaze. “Okay, fine. Chambers—Felicity… I… I like you, okay? There, I said it out loud.”

Unable to help myself, I teased, “Are you about to spontaneously combust?”

“You know what?” she half-snapped. “You can–” Stopping herself, she sighed and slumped down a bit. “I’m sorry. I just—this is supposed to be easy, but it’s not.”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Not even in the most normal of circumstances, and… well, let’s be honest, this isn’t.”

The three of us nodded silently to each other for a thoughtful moment before I continued. “So, I like you, and I like you.” I nodded to each of them in turn. “And—well, I guess you like me. And you like me. But you guys don’t…”

Shiori shook her head quickly. “No—I mean sure, she’s hot.” She glanced sidelong to Avalon. “Really hot. But I don’t think about her like that. I don’t mind being friends, and she’s really good with Choo, but… no, I don’t want to like—date her or anything.”

“And I don’t want to date her,” Avalon confirmed. “I’m barely okay with the idea of liking you, Chambers. I’m not adding something else on top of that.”

“Right, right.” I bit my lip. “So… what do we do now? I don’t think it’s—I know it’s not fair that I can’t decide—God, could I be any more selfish? I just—I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

“You’re not asking us to marry you, Chambers,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Look, I—it’s like I told Porter over there. Heretics aren’t exactly known for being strictly monogamous. They live such… varied and different life spans. Someone could live sixty years and their wife could live five hundred. The point is, they—they have more than one romantic relationship at the same time, all right? Not everyone, but enough that it’s nothing new.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I—you mean date both of you at the same time? How… how does that work?”

“That’s what I said,” Shiori put in, blushing just as much as I was pretty sure I was. “And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.”

Avalon sighed. “Chambers, I don’t know—I don’t know how good of a… of a date I’d be. I really don’t. I… freak out, I pull away, I… I do stupid things. You deserve to be with someone who can—who can be comfortable with all that stuff. But I’m selfish too. You say you’re selfish? So am I. So I don’t want to just let you go. I want to try. I want to… to try. But I want you to be able to do all that stuff that makes me uncomfortable too. So yeah, sometimes you and I can do stuff. And other times you and Porter can do stuff. Other than that… maybe it won’t work out. But at least we gave it a shot.”

“At least we gave it a shot,” I echoed, smiling just a little bit. “Have there ever been more romantic words?”

Her free hand snapped out, punching me in the shoulder, and I yelped in the midst of snickering. “Oww—sorry not sorry.”

Rubbing my shoulder, I smiled a little while looking back and forth at them. “I… guess we could see what happens. And if anyone gets too uncomfortable with it, we just… reevaluate. That’s all I want, is for everyone to… to talk to each other. So what do we call this whole… dating both of you thing?”

“Call it whatever you want,” Avalon answered. “I just—I just want you to be happy, Cha—Felicity. I want to… try. So if you want to, we can… try.”

“Trying sounds good,” I agreed, biting my lip. “I guess this whole thing makes me really lucky, no matter how it turns out. Just—both of you being interested in me, even if it doesn’t work out, it really… it really could do a number on my ego, you know?”

“Oooh, oooh!” Shiori perked up suddenly. “I–”

“Oh God, don’t say it,” Avalon interrupted, hanging her head. “Please don’t say it.”

She said it. Face bright, Shiori cheerfully announced, “I guess some people have amorous feelings, but you get a-more-us feelings.”

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