Columbus Porter

Interlude 28 – Scout

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There was a mini-interlude focusing on Joselyn posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks! 

“I knew this would happen. I knew it, but you told me they’d be safe. You told me she’d be safe!”

The voice of Liam Mason was audible even through the closed door that led into the room that Headmistress Sinclaire had pulled the man into as soon as he’d started up when she’d arrived. That was how Scout knew that her father was completely beside himself and had lost all control. He didn’t even bother to put up a privacy screen to keep her from hearing his ranting. Why Gaia hadn’t either, she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe the woman was distracted by Avalon’s reaction.

It had been hours since… since… that had happened, since Sands and the others had disappeared. Since they had been taken to Seosten space. Scout had sat through several interrogations, some with Gaia present, some with her father present, and some with neither. The whole time, she gave them almost nothing, limiting herself to head motions and one word answers. The others, mainly Shiori, Sean, and Columbus, had told their interrogators the most about what had happened. Or at least, the most about what they were all willing to say.

As far as the officials were concerned, a powerful Stranger had secretly possessed Columbus as a way of infiltrating Crossroads. Scout and the other members of their team had found out about it and moved to confront him themselves. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that the other team, Jazz’s team, had been infiltrated as well. During the course of Scout’s teams attempt to get answers out of the false Columbus, the false Paul had intervened. That had prompted a massive brawl. And at the end of it, the fake Paul was dead (killed by Avalon in a blind rage after Flick and the others had disappeared), the thing that had been possessing Columbus was dead (killed by Flick), and half of the people who had been there had disappeared with absolutely no answers whatsoever about what had happened to them.

Or at least, that was the collective story that the Heretic interrogators were being given.

Now, Scout was sitting in this room, half-listening to her father rant at the headmistress. Mostly, she was simply sitting there, watching the opposite wall while barely blinking. The girl might as well have been a statue for all the movement that she made. She simply sat, silent and motionless, staring almost unblinkingly at that wall. Her mind was a million light years away.

That was the position that her father found her in when he finally opened the door and stepped out. Blinking at the sight of his daughter sitting like that, the man cringed before moving to kneel by her. “Scout? Honey, are you alr–” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, her father put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing briefly before using his other hand to gently turn her chin so that she would look at him. “Scout, we’ll get her back, okay? I promise. I promise, we’ll find Sands.”

“I know.” The words were quiet, barely audible. But they came easily. She said them before standing up. She stood in front of her father, waiting for him to rise before she put her arms around him. She hugged him, because he needed it. Because he needed her to be there.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” He lifted her off the floor, clutching the girl to his chest while murmuring, “I’m so, so sorry. You shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been safe. I’ll fix it. I will fix it.”

Scout let him talk, let him murmur to himself. She let her father make himself feel better with his words, allowing them to wash over her. Words didn’t matter. They never did.  Actions mattered. But in that moment, her dad needed to say the words. He needed to make the promises, the apologies, swear the oaths. And she let him. Because it didn’t affect her. It didn’t really matter.

He took her home then. Not to her dorm, but to their family’s apartment in the faculty building. Scout ate dinner at her own spot at their dining room table. Her father barely touched his food, but she ate everything that was put in front of her. She barely tasted it, but she did eat it. Food. Fuel. Sustenance. Her body needed it so that she could go on. So she could continue.

Once dinner was over, her father picked up the dishes, setting them aside before turning back to her. “Okay, kiddo,” he started in a dull voice, “I’ll get some blankets for your room, and then we-”

Scout stood from the table and interrupted before he could continue. “I’m going to my room.” Belatedly, she amended, “My room in the school. My dorm.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. She usually said more to her father than she said to others. Not as much as she said to Sands, but he at least tended to get more than the one or two-word answers that she gave most people.

“What?” Her father blinked before shaking his head. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Scout, you can stay here. Trust me, the headmistress will understand. No one’s going to fault you for needing to stay here for now, while your sister… until we get her back. You don’t have to go back there tonight.”

Smiling faintly, Scout left the table. She walked over to where her father was standing and embraced the man tightly, simply hugging him for a few seconds before speaking. Her voice was even softer than usual, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear her. “You’ll find Sands?”

When her father gave an emphatic nod, she stepped back. “Then I’m going where I belong.”  

As she turned to walk to the door, her father spoke weakly. “I just need to know that you’re safe.”

Scout paused there, turning to look back at him. Her response was simple. “So do I.”

She walked out the door. Closing it behind her, Scout hurried out of the faculty building. As she stepped out onto the grounds, the girl caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, finding a familiar woman standing near the corner of the building, staring at the sky.

Biting her lip, she stepped closer, her voice even more tentative than usual. “Professor Dare?”

“Hello, Scout,” Dare answered without looking away from the expansive starfield that filled the night sky. She seemed almost entranced by it. “Does your father know that you’re out here?”

Nodding, Scout moved closer to the woman. She watched her for a moment, then turned her head to look at the sky, taking in the same sight. The girl stood like beside her professor for a couple of minutes. Neither spoke. They simply stood there, watching the stars in utter silence.

Eventually, Dare spoke, voice contemplative. “Do you remember the start of the year, when I tried to call you by your given name instead of Scout?” When the girl nodded, she continued. “Did you ever wonder why I would do that, when I’ve known you since the day you were born?”

Scout paused, thinking about that for a moment before giving the woman another slow nod.

“I wasn’t your pseudo-aunt then,” Dare explained. “I was trying to create a boundary between us, a… professional separation. Maybe I was overcompensating. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you two to think that you could walk all over me just because of how close we’ve been. But now… now I think there was more to it. Before, I didn’t mind being close to you that way, because you were just children. You were kids. But at that point, at that point you became students. You were Heretics. And Heretics get into trouble.” Her voice was flat. “Heretics die.”

The silence returned for almost a full minute then before Professor Dare spoke again. “I’ve lost people, Scout. I’ve lost more people in my life than…” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “My parents, my entire colony was wiped out. Everyone I ever knew, it was…” Again, she went silent as her voice cracked on the last few words. Scout saw the shudder run through the woman before she found her voice once more. “I thought that maintaining a separation once you became Heretics, once you were in actual danger… I thought it would help if anything ever…”

Swallowing hard, Dare looked to her. “I’m sorry, Scout. If I had been a little bit faster, just a little bit, I could have stopped it. I could have paused time and taken those transport orbs away from your sister and–and the others. I could have stopped them from disappearing.”

Scout met the woman’s gaze as she whispered the one thing that she had told herself when her mind had been filled with all that speculation. “Live in what can happen, not what could have.”

Repeating that under her breath, Professor Dare chuckled softly, seemingly surprising herself with it. Her head shook, and she reached out to gently brush a hand through Scout’s hair. “You’re so much stronger than your father thinks you are,” she murmured quietly. “You all are.”

Something about what she had said just then made Scout remember something else very important. Blinking up at the woman, she asked tentatively, “Flick’s dad?”

Wincing, Dare nodded with a long sigh. “I spoke to him for a little bit. Gaia was going to, but she had a… situation to attend to with Avalon.” The woman frowned to herself, making it clear to Scout that there was a lot more to that particular story than she was going to tell her.

“So yes, I went to visit Lincoln. It… didn’t go that well. But he knows what’s going on. I promised that we’d let him know as soon as we find out anything else. And Gabriel is working on something. Between him and Gaia, they’ll work something out.” Again, she brushed her hand through Scout’s hair tenderly. “We just have to trust that your sister and… and the others can take care of themselves until we find a way to bring them back. Right?” She smiled down at her.

Scout nodded, returning the woman’s smile despite herself. She remembered growing up on these grounds. She remembered Aunt Ginny being there for her after her mother was… after that day. She remembered being rocked back and forth by the blonde woman when her father had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Without her mother around, Aunt Ginny had been the closest thing she and Sands had to that kind of figure, since the headmistress was so busy.  

Eventually, Professor Dare walked her across the grounds, back to the dorm. On the way, Scout thought for a moment before looking over at her teacher. “Waiting,” she spoke simply, with a significant look back the way they had come, back to where the woman had been standing.

Dare gave a soft smile, nodding her understanding. “Yes,” she replied, “I was waiting for you to come out. I didn’t know whether you’d tell your father or not, but I knew you wouldn’t stay there.”

They reached the dorm, and Dare gave her a brief hug. “She’ll be okay. We’ll bring them back.”   

Scout returned the hug tightly, giving her professor a soft smile before nodding. Then she stepped into her room,  the room she shared with Sands, and closed the door behind herself.

For a moment, the girl just stood there, motionless and silent. Her eyes slid across the room, landing first on her own bed, then on the one that belonged to Sands. A hard lump formed in her throat as she stared for several long seconds before slowly taking a few steps that way.

She ran her hand over the bed, letting a shudder run through herself before sitting down on the edge of it. Closing her eyes, Scout laid down there, in the exact spot where her sister always slept. Her head found the pillow, the same pillow that Sands’ head always rested on. She inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in the lingering scent of her sister.

The dam broke, shattering apart. And by morning, the pillow was soaked through with her tears.

******

“I know you all want to find your missing teammates and friends,” Gaia announced the next morning. “And we’re working on that, I promise you. For the time being, however, this is the most obvious solution to the fact that both of your teams are at half strength.”

Both of their teams. Scout, Sean, Columbus, and Avalon stood there on one side of the room. On the other side stood Douglas and Rudolph. The two boys were openly staring at Scout and the others for a few seconds before Douglas spoke up. “Half strength? Headmistress, three of our friends completely disappeared, and the other one… the other one was dead for God only knows how long while an imposter waltzed around in his skin. I think you’re understating it.”

Gaia gave a slight nod. “You are correct, Mr. Frey. This situation is…” She paused then, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “This situation is difficult. Mr. Calburn was…” For a moment, Gaia’s eyes closed before opening again. “Mr. Calburn was a wonderful boy. What happened to him was…. At a certain point, you would think that I would have found the perfect words to say in a situation like this. But those words don’t exist. I am very sorry about Paul. The others… we will find them, but Paul…” She took in a long breath, letting it out before continuing. “His family will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow evening. Any of you, or any student, who would like to attend are welcome. Come to me and I will ensure that you make it there. And you will not be expected to attend regular classes until you are ready to do so.

“But this,” the woman continued, lifting a hand to indicate them all, “this is your team. For as long as it takes to find the others and bring them back here where they belong, this will be your team. What you do with that is up to all of you. Personally, I strongly suggest you talk to one another. The rest of the members of both of your teams are out there. They will be learning to work with one another, learning to trust each other. I believe that you can do the same.”

Scout saw the woman’s gaze move briefly toward Avalon then. Gaia looked like she wanted to say something else, something directly to her adopted daughter. But she visibly stopped herself.

As for Avalon, the girl looked tired. Her usually perfect hair was done in a simple ponytail, and it was obvious that she had barely bothered to shower. She was still beautiful, there was no question about it. Even Scout recognized that fact. But there was no effort there, not today. She just stood near the wall behind the others, shoulders hunched as she stared at the floor in silence while Gaia finished explaining their situation and what they were supposed to be doing.

Finished, the woman looked toward Columbus. “For now, Mr. Porter, I believe you have an appointment with Mr. Roe?”

If anything, Columbus looked even worse than Avalon did. If he’d gotten any sleep at all the night before, Scout would be surprised. The boy said nothing at first. He just stood there, listlessly staring. Then he gave a sudden start, as if he’d briefly forgotten that he was the one in charge of his own body again. “I–” He swallowed visibly, giving a slight nod. “Right. Appointment, I can–” Stopping, Columbus looked toward Avalon. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, but no words came out. He just stood there like that for several long seconds before closing his mouth. Then he turned and started toward the door, head down.

“Wait.” The words came from Avalon. She straightened, and Scout saw the girl mouth something inaudible to herself before moving over to where Columbus was. Slowly, Avalon reached up to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Porter,” she started slowly, her voice cracking once before she got it under control. “Porter, everyone here besides Gaia is only alive and safe because of you. You can be as hard as you want on yourself if it makes you better. But remember that. As much as that bitch took from you, don’t forget it. You could have surrendered. You could have given up, curled into a ball, and let everything happen. But you didn’t. You fought. She let her guard down because she thought you were broken. She ignored you because she thought she had already beaten you. But she didn’t win. You did. No matter what happens, no matter what that cunt said to you, remember that.

“You won.”

Columbus looked choked up for a second. He met the girl’s gaze, and Scout saw him swallow hard before managing a weak, “Thanks… thanks, Avalon.”

“No.” The girl shook her head pointedly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving our lives.”

******

“Scout?” Vanessa Moon’s voice came in a stage-whisper as the blonde girl pulled herself up onto the roof of the girl’s dorm much later, after the sun had gone down. “Are you–” She visibly stopped herself from asking if Scout was okay. “How are you doing?”

Tristan, pulling himself up behind his sister, nodded. “Yeah, what–what’s going on?” 

Scout had left notes asking both of them to meet her up here once they were done with everything else that they needed to do. Then she had come up to wait, throwing her baseball around while she waited.

Now, she stood up, holding the ball in one hand while turning to face the twins. With her other hand, she activated a privacy coin before speaking. “We have to help the others.”

Both Tristan and Vanessa looked surprised, probably because they weren’t accustomed to her saying more than a couple words at a time. But this wasn’t time for that. Scout needed to communicate. Her sister wasn’t here to translate for her. As hard as it was, as uncomfortable as it made her, she had to talk.

“Um, we want to help them, sure. I mean, stuck on the other side of space because of a banishment orb… Trust me, we’re there.” Vanessa was nodding. “But how do we–”

“They need help,” Scout interrupted. And boy did that feel strange. “We… we can’t help them. But your father can. And my mother. We… we have to tell them.”

“Tell them?” Tristan shook his head. “Scout, how can we–”

It was Vanessa’s turn to interrupt. “She’s talking about the–the visions I’ve been having, right? When I saw through Dad’s eyes. But, Scout, I can’t communicate that way. I can’t even do it on purpose. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to do it.”

Scout nodded at that. “You need training.”

“Training?” Vanessa echoed, clearly confused. “How am I supposed to get training? It’s not like there’s any Seosten around who can tell me what I’m doing or how to get better at it.”

Smiling slowly, Scout replied, “Next best thing. Seosten-Heretic.”

“Seosten-Heretic?” Vanessa abruptly started a bit. “You mean Enguerrand, the guy at Gabriel Prosser’s camp?”

Once again, Scout nodded. “Gaia said he could teach you. If you want. We can visit the camp.”

Vanessa’s head jerked into an immediate nod. “Wh–yes, yes, of course. I want to help.”

“She’s right,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, I can’t even do what Nessa can yet, but still. Anything we can do. We’re there. After everything Flick–” He coughed. “We’ll help, whatever it takes.”

The answer made Scout smile. “Good.

“Then let’s go.”

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Interlude 27B – Shiori and Columbus

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter focusing on Dare posted yesterday. If you missed it (congratulations, you get to read the actual edited version without a million typos), you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The room should have been cozy. Small, with a nice leather couch, plush carpeting, and pleasant pictures on the wall along with a wide screen television on the wall (the remote sat on the arm of the couch, waiting to be used), it should have been a perfectly place to sit and wait.

For Shiori Porter, it felt like a prison. The walls felt like they were closing in on her, getting closer with each slowly passing minute. The slightly cool air was somehow stifling, and she could have sworn that there were cameras in the room watching absolutely every move that she made.

She had been sitting there for the past… what felt like forever, but according to her phone, was more like six hours. Not constantly, no. Every once in awhile, those Committee guys, October and Patrick, would pull her into another room to run through the same line of questioning for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time. Did she notice anything off about Columbus, when did she think he’d been possessed by the Stranger who had somehow bypassed all the school’s defenses, did she think there were more of them, and so on and so on and so on. It would end, they would put her back in this room to wait, and then twenty, thirty, or fifty minutes later they’d pull her out again to go through the exact same thing. No matter what she told them, they just wanted to hear more.

Not that she was telling the exact truth. Before they’d pulled her into this interrogation, the headmistress had given her a neat little watch that let her bypass their lie-detecting powers. But Shiori was pretty sure that the Committee goons still didn’t believe what she was telling them.

It was as close to the truth as she could possibly get without ruining… everything. She told them that she didn’t know what the species that had possessed her brother was, only that he had been acting ‘off’ recently and she’d gotten his team to help her investigate. Somehow, the Stranger that was possessing Columbus had found out that they knew, and had launched an ambush that eventually resulted in Columbus being freed of the Stranger’s influence, even as several other students, including a couple of his teammates, were abducted.

That was pretty close. All they really left out was the specific stuff about the Seosten. As far as October and Patrick were concerned, this was some random, unknown Stranger with a possession power. The fact that it had gotten that far, taking over a student and posing as him for months, had obviously sent up a lot of alarm bells.

The trouble was, Shiori wasn’t sure how many of those alarms were because of free Heretics being horrified that one of their own students had been taken over, and how many were Seosten being annoyed that one of them had actually been discovered and exposed. And, well, killed.  

Six hours. She had been sitting here, in and out of interrogations, for six hours. No one would tell her anything except that Flick and several of the others had been… had been… taken. Flick.

Sitting forward suddenly, Shiori caught her hands against her mouth as bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t cry anymore. The fear, the terror of what was happening to Flick, Sands, and the others right then had left her a quivering ball in the corner of the room for the first hour of her time there. She hadn’t even been able to move or answer any questions until Professor Dare stopped in to talk to her for a minute. She’d told her that Flick hadn’t been knocked out or anything. She’d just killed that Charmeine bitch when she and Roxa were taken by one of those orbs. So there was a good chance that they and the others had been ready for a fight when they had arrived. Flick especially, considering she had just taken the power from one of the Seosten.

Which kind of helped, but… not really. It staved off the worst of the panic for a little while. But the thought of even a combat-ready Flick being stuck out there in Seosten space, it… it…

No. She wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to be a baby about it. Flick and the others, they’d… they’d be okay. They had to be okay. It wasn’t the first time that Flick had been off on an alien planet with a bunch of things that wanted to kill her. And this time, she had a lot more help. Sands was there, and so was Roxa. Roxa, the werewolf who had killed Lemuel.

Plus, there were several members of Roxa’s old team there. Shiori wasn’t sure how much they could be trusted, but surely they would all stick by Flick at least until everyone got back home.

And they would be coming home. Banishment be damned, Shiori believed that between Gaia, Wyatt, Professor Dare, and even that Gabriel Prosser guy, they would find a way to bring Flick and the others back. It was just a matter of time, just a matter of trusting them to get it done.

Or so she kept telling herself. It was the only way she could resist the urge to scream about Seosten in October and Patrick’s faces. And that… well, that would’ve made things even worse.

As worried as she was about Flick and the others, Shiori was even more worried about Columbus. All Dare had been able to tell her in the short time they’d had was that he wasn’t possessed anymore. But she didn’t know what condition he was in, if they were going to let him go, or anything. She’d been here the whole time, desperately hoping that her brother was okay.

Finally, the door opened yet again. But this time, instead of seeing either of the Committee’s stooges, or anyone else that would’ve made her want to scream, it was Gaia who stepped inside. The woman looked worn and ragged, dark circles having formed under her eyes. Honestly, it was that sight that terrified Shiori the most, out of everything she’d heard that day.

“H-headmistress?” she blurted while hurriedly jumping off the couch to her feet, eyes widening.

“I’m sorry, Shiori,” the woman spoke quietly. Her voice was a little strained. “I owe you every apology. I was… occupied with trying to help Avalon and handling several other situations, and I allowed you to sit here, being interrogated over and over again. I am truly sorry. But you’ve been through enough now. Come, that’s enough of all this. It’s time to meet with your brother.”

“It’s… it’s okay,” Shiori mumbled, feeling awkward as she took a quick step that way. Her gaze snapped up at the mention of Columbus. “He.. he’s okay then? Columbus is alright?”

The question actually made Gaia give a slight, soft smile. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “The short answer is that Columbus is no longer possessed and seems to be well, at least physically. Mentally… that may take some time. He will need help, and… you. He will need his sister and friends to help him understand and accept that what happened was not his fault. Be patient.”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly at that. “Y-yeah, of course. And… and umm…” Biting her lip, she hesitated before asking in a worried, soft voice, “What about the others? What about Flick, and Sands, and… and the rest? What–do you know anything else? Please. Please?”

The woman paused, seeming to take a moment to collect herself before shaking her head slowly. “I will be honest with you, Shiori, we don’t know much more. Wyatt has assured us that some of the spells he cast on Felicity are working, even across the vast distance they must cover. He can’t tell us exactly where they are, or communicate with them in any way. But he does know that she is in relatively healthy condition. That is basically all he knows for certain. She is alive, and she is healthy. Beyond that…” she trailed off for a moment, looking away before finishing with a simple, “we are looking for options right now. But I promise you,” the woman spoke more firmly while returning her gaze to Shiori’s, “we will bring them back here.”

Gaia led her out of the room then, walking with Shiori through the hallway of the main school building. As they walked, the girl hesitated before asking, “Um. Did Flick really… did she kill–”

Now the headmistress really did smile. There was obvious pride there. “Yes,” she answered with a slight nod. “The Seosten who possessed Columbus is dead, Shiori. From everything that I have managed to hear, your brother managed the initial blow, before Felicity… finished her.”

“Good.” Shiori looked at the floor for a moment, digesting that before repeating, “Good. It doesn’t make everything better, but… it’s something. I’m glad she’s dead. She–” Anything else that the girl might have said was choked off by the lump in her throat. Finally, she just shook her head, unable to find the words for how much she hated that creature for what she had done.

And yet, even in death, Charmeine still hadn’t fully lost. She’d managed to send Flick and the others off to Seosten space. Even if they were actually upright and ready for a fight, it was still… bad. Bad enough that the queasy, terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach wouldn’t go away.

“What about the… body?” she asked then, as the thought occurred to her. “The Seosten body, I mean. It would be… you know, proof. Proof of everything we know about them. Proof they exist. Proof of all of it. They–” She winced, realizing. “They took it, didn’t they? They took the body.”

Yet, Gaia simply smiled once more. “Well,” she replied casually, “sadly, it seems that whatever creature happened to possess Columbus had the foresight to include some sort of defensive measure to prevent their bodies from being recovered. It disintegrated shortly after Virginia reached it. There was nothing she could do to stop it in time. More’s the loss.”

For a moment, Shiori just stared, confused by the way Gaia’s smile conflicted with her words. Then she understood, her eyes widening at the realization. The body hadn’t actually disintegrated. Dare had made it disappear specifically so that the Seosten infiltrators couldn’t claim it. Now, they had the body and could examine it at their leisure. It might come in handy. It could be proof of everything they were saying later, at a better, more convenient time. Dare spiriting the body away first meant that the Seosten couldn’t make it disappear themselves. And they couldn’t exactly accuse Dare of lying about that, at least not openly. It would mean exposing themselves. Hell, that might have been another reason that the woman had done it, to try and coax any other Seosten infiltrators into giving themselves away by objecting too much.

In other words, the Seosten who were possessing those Crossroads Heretics knew that Gaia and Dare were lying. But they couldn’t exactly call them out on it without revealing themselves. Hell, the Seosten were probably ready and waiting for Gaia to try to call out their existence specifically so that they could discredit her. But the headmistress was too smart to take the bait.

Before they reached the room where Columbus was, Shiori bit her lip and looked toward the woman, starting hesitantly, “I… I’m sorry about what happened to Mr. Carfried. Is… is Professor Carfried okay? I mean, they were related and I don’t know how how close they were, but…”  

Flinching just a little bit (but the fact that it was noticeable at all spoke volumes), Gaia gave a slight head shake before answering. “It will take Benjii some time to cope with all of this. He and his great-great-grandfather were close enough that it was Josiah who recommended Benji to fill the position of first-year magic instructor this year.” She sighed then, lamenting, “I am afraid that the man somehow blames himself for not being there to help when Josiah needed him.”  

Shiori’s head shook quickly at that. “What? Why would he–” She frowned. “He couldn’t have stopped them, even if he was there. I mean, if Professor Dare was there and couldn’t stop it, then… then there’s no way that he could have. I mean, they were ready for almost everything. They took everyone by surprise. Professor Carfried couldn’t have stopped them.”

Gaia smiled faintly, giving a slight nod at that. “No,” she agreed, “he could not have.”

Shiori was just starting to get the suspicion that this wasn’t entirely about Professor Carfried when the headmistress stopped in front of a door. She gestured to it. “Take your time, Shiori. When you are both ready to come and face the world again, there will be time to sort everything else out. For now… go and see your brother. We will take care of the rest in time, I promise.”

Shiori didn’t need another invitation. She immediately moved to push the door open, stepping into what turned out to be a small, private library of some kind. There were several rows of bookshelves, a fireplace, and a leather chair next to a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the grounds. It looked like a place for a teacher, maybe Gaia herself, to relax and read in peace.

And standing with his back to her right there in the middle of the room, staring through that window with his goggles held loosely in one hand, was Columbus. He clearly heard the door open, but didn’t move. He was focused solely on that window, his gaze slightly bowed.

“Columbus!” Shiori blurted from where she stood. For a moment, her feet felt like they were caught in cement. She couldn’t move. Seeing the boy there, knowing that it was really him and not some stupid Seosten bitch looking out through his eyes, it was completely overwhelming.

Slowly, the boy turned around. He was looking at the floor before his gaze slowly raised to take her in. She saw him gulp, hand briefly tightening on the strap to his goggles before he dropped them entirely. “Shy-guy,” he breathed out, starting to take a step before stopping himself. He looked awkward, uncertain, even afraid of her response. He looked completely and totally lost.

He was frozen, so she forced her own feet to move. Crossing the short distance between them, Shiori immediately grabbed onto her brother, hugging him tightly. Her arms slipped around the boy and she clung to him with a weak little sob that blurted its way out of the girl. “Columbus.”

She felt the boy stiffen under her embrace before he relaxed just a bit. An unfamiliar noise escaped him, and he breathed out. Making no move to actually return the hug, he spoke in a hoarse, quiet voice. “Shiori,  you’re…” He trailed off, clearly unable to say what he wanted to.

Swallowing hard, the girl slowly raised her own gaze while leaning back to see his face. “Columbus, I–” Shiori flinched as the thought came. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I’m so, so sorry.”

The surprise on the boy’s face could not have been any more complete. His mouth literally fell open. “I–what?” he managed to croak out a bit weakly. “What are you–why are you… huh?”

She met his gaze earnestly, staring up at the boy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it wasn’t you until… until Flick told me. I had no idea. I should’ve. I should’ve known. I’m sorry, Columbus. I’m so, so sorry. You must’ve felt like–you must feel like I betrayed you, or… or like I didn’t know you.”

He stared down at her in flat astonishment at that. “Shy–you… you’re not…” His head shook then, and Columbus immediately caught onto her hands. “Shiori, I’m not mad at–you should be mad at me!” he blurted the words loudly. “I’m the one who couldn’t fight her, couldn’t stop her! She could have–she–she threatened to–and I couldn’t… I never… I could never–” His voice cut off, and the boy shook his head even more, snapping it back and forth violently. “I’m sorry.”

“You were possessed, you big idiot!” Shiori blurted, before snapping her hand against her own mouth with a horrified look. Blanching, she stammered muffledly through her own hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I–” Lowering her hand, she managed a weak, “you were possessed. It’s not your fault. It’s not even close to your fault. It was… it was her.” The last word came as a growl.

“She’s… she’s dead.” Columbus’s voice made it sound as though he was still trying to convince himself of the truth of that. “Charmeine. She’s dead now. Dead for good. Gone.” He kept repeating it, like he needed to hear the words over and over in order to make them real.

Shiori gave a single, firm nod. “She’s dead, Columbus. She’s gone. You and Flick, you made–” Her voice caught a bit, and she had to swallow hard before forcing out the words, “You made sure of that.”

For a moment, both siblings simply stood there, staring at each other. Both felt awkward, uncertain, and confused about what they were supposed to say, what they could say.

Finally, Shiori shook off her own confusion and uncertainty about the situation. She didn’t matter right then. Columbus mattered. He needed her. He needed reassurance. After everything he’d been through… everything that bitch had made him do…

“Columbus.” That time, her voice was firm. When he looked back to her eyes, Shiori spoke simply. “I love you. You’re my brother. You’re always gonna be my brother. None of what happened, none of it’s your fault, okay? None of it. You… you’re the best brother in the world. You accepted me when you found out the truth about my… about my mom. You accepted me immediately, you big dork. You’re…” She choked up a little then. Flick would’ve known what to say. Flick could’ve made him feel better. All Shiori could do was stammer and babble a little.

But at least she could say the most important thing. And she’d keep saying it for as long as it took.

“I love you, Columbus. I love you. You’re my brother. You’re my family.”

For a moment, the boy said nothing. He just stared down at her, a series of tumultuous emotions playing across his face. Finally, he lowered his head, tears springing to his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to do any of that. I didn’t–I couldn’t–I… they’re dead. She made me kill them, kill him… she made me–she would have… I couldn’t–” Anything else that he might have said was cut off then as his throat closed up.

Shiori took him by the hands, squeezing tightly before guiding the boy over to sit on the oversized stuffed armchair. It was big enough for the two of them to squeeze in next to each other, which reminded her of all the Saturday mornings spent in the recliner at home when they were kids, first watching cartoons and then playing video games. Simpler times.

“We know,” she finally replied in a soft voice, still squeezing the boy’s hands. “We know, Columbus. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault.” She reached up then, tugging him down. And, despite their difference in size, Columbus fairly collapsed against her. His head fell against her shoulder, and Shiori hugged onto him. She held the boy against her, swallowing a little roughly. What did she say? What could she say that would magically make it better after everything that had happened? What words even existed that could help? Maybe… maybe two words.

“I’m here. I’m here, Columbus.”

It was almost ten minutes before either of them spoke again. Sitting there in that chair, thinking about easier times, younger times, it left them both silent until Columbus finally spoke. “… I did try. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to–I didn’t want to do any of it.”

“I know.” Shiori’s voice was soft. She leaned back, watching her brother for a moment. “Columbus, you were–how… how long?”

He flinched at the question, hesitating before giving a soft, weak answer. “Since the airport at Thanksgiving, while I was waiting for you guys.”

Shiori’s eyes widened, and she made a horrified sound in the back of her throat. “Th-that long? You–you–oh. Oh my God. Columbus, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Biting his lip, Columbus rubbed the back of his head. “Can… we just put a moratorium on apologies for now? Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in here all week.”

Flushing a little, Shiori gave a tiny nod before pausing. The thought of all that Columbus had ‘missed’, or rather, what Charmeine had been puppeting him through, it was… staggering.

“I… umm… I don’t suppose you know who the other Seosten are?”  she asked, trying to change the subject.

His head shook. “No. Trust me, that was the first thing Gaia and Dare asked me. Charmeine always either knocked me out or wiped my memory when she had to meet with anyone else. Her boss, that Manakel guy, he insisted on it, just in case.”

“Stupid competent evil jerk,” Shiori muttered darkly. Then she looked up to him again. “What about… Mr. Carfried? If Gaia and Professor Dare made the Seosten body disappear, are… are the Heretics gonna try to… to come after you for what happened to him?”

Columbus shook his head once more. “The headmistress said that they have eyewitness testimony from Scout, Rudolph, Douglas, Avalon, and Sean that I was possessed and that they saw the Stranger who was possessing me leave my body. They can’t prove ‘giant Seosten conspiracy from the very beginning of Crossroads’, but they can prove that there was one Stranger possessing me to make me… to make me do that….” He swallowed hard. “.. that stuff.”

Putting her hand on top of his, Shiori asked hesitantly, “Do… do you know anything about where they sent Flick and the others? Or… or…”

He finished for her. “How to get them back? I’m sorry, Shee. I don’t know. I wish I did. I…. Charmeine wasn’t much for technical explanations. She didn’t share that kind of stuff. She bragged a lot, threatened even more. But telling me details like that? She didn’t really go for that.”

Inwardly, the girl flinched. But she tried to hide it. Columbus already felt bad enough about everything. And he had been there for her, so damn it, she would be there for him.

“I know you’re probably tired of talking about… about all of that,” she noted quietly, “but would you mind answering one more question for me? Then, I promise, we can just sit here and not talk about it for as long as you want.”

“One question?” The boy blinked at that before nodding. “Sure… what is it?”

Shifting in the seat to be closer to her brother, Shiori straightened and looked straight at him before asking her question.

“How good did it feel to blast that fucking bitch straight out the window?”

The question made Columbus blink again. Then he gave a brief, almost choking laugh. It wasn’t a lot. But it was something. His arms wrapped around her, hugging his sister to him.

“I love you, Shiori.”

“I love you too, Columbus.”

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it’s all your fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

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

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

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

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

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just don’t.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I miss her too.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The better off I am,” I finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much more.”

 ******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…. No.”

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