Columbus Porter

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Tis The Season 19-07

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Explaining to my dad why I’d run out like that had been easier than I’d thought. And, at the same time, harder. I was tired of lying to him, tired of… all that. So, when I got back to the house, I was as honest as I could possibly be. I told him that there was something bothering me, but that I had to work it out on my own. I promised that if there was anything he could do to help, I’d tell him. And that when I could tell him about it, I would. All of that was true. If there was the slightest chance of my father remembering the things that I told him, I’d bring him in on things in a heartbeat, without hesitation.

I could tell that Dad wanted to talk more about it, especially about why the whole Scott thing made me run out like that. But he let it go. At least, on the surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started looking into everyone named Scott who ever went to my old school, had any interaction with me, or even went to Crossroads. Gaia getting a call from him asking about any Scotts there wouldn’t surprise me at all.

So Shiori, Columbus, and I spent most of the day trying to relax while talking about serious subjects whenever my father was out of the room. We tried to play some board games, and actually managed to get through a little bit here and there. I couldn’t ever quite forget about what Fossor and Ammon had done (or tried to do), but the other two gave it their best shot. And they even made me smile a little bit.

Eventually, it got late enough for Asenath to join us. Which meant it was time to exchange gifts. Dad and I had done ours, of course. But the three of us had been waiting for Senny to get up (apparently she and Dare had spent the rest of the previous night at a bar drinking the locals under the table while hustling them at pool so bad there might not have been an actual table left for them to be drunk under).

“Great,” I announced as Shiori and Columbus exchanged hugs with her. “You’re up. We thought we’d go for a walk and, you know… talk while we deal with the presents thing. Just missing one more.”

“Need one more?” Senny echoed while raising an eyebrow at me curiously. “One more person?”

Winking, I nodded upstairs while heading out of the room. “Don’t worry, they’ll fill you in.”

Columbus and Shiori told her what was going on while I poked my head in the kitchen to let Dad know that we were going out for a few minutes. Then I jogged upstairs, ostensibly to grab my coat. On the way, I poked my head in my room. “Twist,” I whispered in the direction of my bed, “You still awake?”

There was a brief pause before a dark-furred fox emerged from beneath the bed. She yawned before hopping up onto the mattress, transforming into the girl once more. “Whatsamatter?” she drawled lazily. “Your pops going out again? Need someone to tail him that isn’t spending quality sister time?”

My head shook at that. “Nope. Dad’s fine. I don’t think he’s going anywhere tonight. But you are.”

Her eyebrows raised, even as those cute fuzzy ears pricked with curiosity. “I am? And where’s that?”

“Out with us,” I informed her easily, gesturing. “It’s still Christmas, after all. And Christmas means presents. So c’mon, let’s go. I’ve never kept a vampire waiting for presents before, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea. Do you wanna deal with a cranky, present-less vampire princess? Because I sure don’t.”

For a moment, the Pooka just sat there and looked at me. “You just want me to… exchange presents?”

Breathing out, I met her gaze. “I was thinking about what you said earlier, about Scott. I spent all day thinking about how unfair it was that all of Scott’s family and friends forget him, about how… about how much it must hurt him. But you’re a Pooka too. You’ve been through it. You even said that’s why you don’t interact with humans very much anymore, because they always forget you when you die.”

When Twister nodded silently, I coughed. “So, I mean… I know it’s not much. And maybe you think it’s dumb. But Asenath’s a vampire, and the rest of us are Heretics. The Bystander Effect doesn’t work on us. Which means we’re not gonna forget you. So come on.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Presents.”

Holding my hand out to make it clear that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I waited until Twister transformed into a mouse and scurried up my leg to hide in my pocket for the trip back downstairs.

So we joined the others. Twister went back into her human form and pretty much immediately latched onto poor Columbus. “Why in the dozen hells did you bother wasting so much breath talking me into coming along with this when you could’ve just told me this tall slice of chocolate cake was going?”

“Uhhh…” The boy himself coughed, squirming a little with an obviously flushed face. “Hey, Twister.”

“Hey yourself, big guy,” Twister all but purred at him. I was half-afraid she actually would turn into a cat in order to do just that. And between her and Shiori, the puns if she did might have just killed me.

Eventually, my poor teammate managed to extricate himself and we all walked down the street together. Columbus and Shiori had already grabbed the bag they’d brought with them, and I stopped long enough to get the one that I had set up earlier while we were waiting for night to fall. It was dark and cold by that point (beyond cold, considering what I was used to), but I didn’t really care. I was with my friends. The only thing that could have made it better was if Avalon was there. And that was a thought that made me glance sidelong toward Shiori as a somewhat guilty feeling bubbled up in me.

Yeah, we definitely needed to talk about that. Among every other situation that needed to be dealt with, at least that one I could actually affect. Coming clean with both of them about… about my feelings, it needed to happen before someone ended up getting their feelings hurt or there was a misunderstanding.

It didn’t take long to reach the nearest park. We went up to the pavilion and exchanged gifts there.

I gave Columbus a graphic novel collection and Senny a tan trenchcoat and deerstalker cap (so she could be a real detective). For Shiori, I had several Terry Pratchett books. They seemed right up her alley with her goofy sense of humor, and I’d made sure with Columbus that she didn’t have them.

Finally, it came time for Twister. Taking a breath, I focused on her. “I um, I called Professor Dare and asked for her help with this one, because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be anywhere near here. At least, nowhere close enough for me to get to and back without access to teleportation. Or, y’know, a car.”

With that said, I reached into my pocket and produced a necklace (well, mostly it was a leather cord with a pendant attached to it), holding it out for the other girl to take. The pendant itself was green, and looked a bit like an infinity symbol with a third loop above the second one, or like a rope that had been twisted a couple times. It was bigger on the bottom and smaller as it went up, twisting around itself.

“Lemme guess,” Twister remarked dryly while taking it. “You saw the Twists and just thought of me.”

“It’s called a Pikorua,” I replied. “Apparently it’s a Maori thing, from New Zealand. It’s um, supposed to represent the strength and… you know, endurance of good friendship. The twisting thing is the whole… winding paths of two friends who keep crossing paths and how they’ll always be connected.”

For a few seconds, the Pooka didn’t say anything. She closed her hand around the pendant before clearing her throat as she put it on. There was a slight strain in her voice as she tried to play it off. “Gods damn it, you are bound and determined to make me feel bad about not getting you anything.”

“Are you kidding?” I retorted while giving the smaller figure a little push. “You watch my dad every single day. You keep him safe. You’ve gotten me… pretty much everything. I’m just sorry I don’t have anything better for you. It was just—kind of a rush and… and it felt like something you should have.”

There was more that I wanted to say. But before I could, Senny abruptly turned. She was sniffing, and my hackles immediately went up. As my hand wandered reflexively toward my belt, however, she touched my arm while shaking her head. “It’s not a problem,” she announced quietly. “It’s our–”

A woman stepped into the light of the pavilion. I swore she hadn’t been anywhere near there a second earlier when my searching gaze had passed over it. Yet she didn’t look like she had been running. She was just… there, stepping quietly and gracefully into view with both hands in the pockets of her coat.

She was Asian, her long hair tied into a braid. Besides the long coat, the woman also wore black slacks and a white shirt with an elegant flower design going up one side, culminating around the left breast. Over a shoulder, she carried a plain-looking leather satchel with a strange symbol that I couldn’t make out from where I was standing. But I did know that according to the power that let me know every item in my vicinity, there was nothing in it. Which meant the satchel was either actually empty, or it was magic like the storage devices that Heretics kept their weapons in. I knew which way I was guessing.

When I’d met Gabriel Prosser, his power and overall aura had filled the room completely despite the man doing nothing to play it up. Being in the same room with that man, watching as he did something as ordinary as filling up a glass of water at the sink, had still somehow been an amazing experience.

By contrast, the woman in front of us looked like she could disappear within a second and leave all of us completely unsure of whether she had ever actually been there at all. Her movement was silent, and the shadows themselves almost seemed eager to swallow her up again, clinging to her almost lovingly.

She looked older than Senny, but not by that much. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties rather than a woman who could have given birth to the eighteen-year-old that Senny looked like. There was a sort of fragile china-doll type appearance to the woman everywhere but her eyes, which were a golden amber color that looked both unnatural and beautiful.

Oh, and naturally, my Heretic-sense was kindly screaming in my ear about the woman being an Alter. Thanks, Heretic-sense. Where would I be without you?

“Mother.” The word itself might have sounded stiff and formal. But in that moment, coming from Asenath as she took a single step that way before stopping herself, there was nothing standoffish about it. Her voice portrayed the unbelievable affection and connection she obviously had with the woman, a connection that had obviously lasted for centuries by that point. Their daily lives may have drifted apart so that they spent months or even years without crossing paths. But Senny obviously loved her mother. And from the brief look that I saw flash across the woman’s eyes, the sentiment was definitely mutual.

“Hello, Sunny,” Jiao spoke in a quiet voice that, like the rest of her, seemed to fade away immediately.

“Sunny?” Columbus put in, somehow finding his voice before I did. “Isn’t it Senny? Like Asenath.”

The woman smiled a bit. “That is what others call her, Columbus. But she has always been my sun.”

“Oh, you–” he coughed a little awkwardly. “You know my name. Uh, of course you do.” Glancing sidelong toward his sister, he looked like he was going to say something, but stopped at her expression.

“I do,” Jiao confirmed, her soft smile returning. “Thank you for being such a good brother. I could not have asked for more.” Her attention turned to me then. “And thank you, Felicity, for helping my daughter so much. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”

For her part, Shiori had been standing there open-mouthed. I’d seen more emotion cross the girl’s face in those few seconds than a lot of people demonstrated in an entire week. She was happy, elated, scared, angry, terrified, hopeful, and more. And all those emotions kept flicking through her expression as she stared at her mother. Behind all of it, however, there was an obviously incredibly deep longing.

Her voice, when she spoke to break the silence that had fallen, cracked a little bit. “I don’t know you.” The words were simultaneously a plea and an accusation, and I saw the tears in her eyes. “You’re my mother.” She repeated herself, voice dull with an indescribable pain that had clearly been there for such a long time yet was only now being allowed to show itself. “You’re my mother, and I don’t know you.”

From Jiao’s expression, the words clearly struck home, drawing more pain than any kind of Heretic power or weapon could have. “I know,” she replied in a voice that was somehow even softer than before. “Reathma, my daughter. My child. I wanted so much, so badly to be there for you, with you.”

I could tell that the words mattered to the girl. But she was standing rigid, clearly trying to keep herself from crying even more. Her voice sounded brittle. “Why didn’t you? Because there were bad guys after you? I still could’ve stayed with you. You could’ve protected me if you wanted to. Didn’t you want me? Was I just too much to take care of? Was it too hard to watch me, so you just had to get rid of me?”

Jiao swayed back as if physically rocked by the words. “No,” she answered in a voice that was soft, yet as firm as any monarch’s decree. “I wanted you, Reathma. Never doubt that. I love your father and you as much as I love Sunny and her father. You were never a burden, and surrendering your care to others was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But I wanted you to be safe, and you weren’t. Not after…” She went silent.

“You said love,” Shiori managed after giving me a brief glance. One of her hands found mine, and I saw her take Senny’s hand with the other to get reassurance from both sides. “Love. Present tense. So he’s around. He’s alive. But where is he?”

Jiao’s expression fell, her gaze moving to the ground for a moment before she looked up. “He would be here if he could. I can promise you that much. If it was possible for him to be here, he would not hesitate.” She swallowed before continuing. “Your father’s name is Liang. I… I have been searching for him. I wanted to bring him to you, let him see how you have grown. That is why I was in Africa for so long. I wanted to give you that much. But he has gone missing and… and I’m afraid his enemies finally made their move against him.”

Shiori’s head shook rapidly, and I heard her breath catch. “But what enemies? The same ones that made you both give me up? Who’s my father? What enemies does he have? Where—what really happened?”

She sounded so desperate for the truth in that moment that it made me wish I could answer her. Instead, all I could do was squeeze her hand while trying not to interrupt. Now really wasn’t my time to talk.

Jiao, for her part, looked just as affected. And also like she really wanted to be the one holding her daughter’s hand (and probably more than that). She took a moment to steady herself before answering. “The short version is that your father is a member of the Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. In human Chinese mythology, the original members are eight originally ordinary humans who gained immortality and great power. The myths vary on how this happened, but the truth was that the Eight Immortals were actually–”

“Heretics,” Shiori interrupted with a gasp. “The Eight Immortals were Heretics, weren’t they?”

Jiao inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Or at least the Ancient Chinese equivalent. They worked together, the Ba Xian. And they took on both followers and what you would call apprentices, those who could see the monsters that they did and who would take up their places. Because the Eight Immortals, while long-lived as any Heretic, were not truly immortal. They could be killed. And they knew that it would happen eventually. So they set each of themselves up as a position rather than a specific person, allowing their place, their identity to be taken up by another, and then another after that. Crossroads has their Committee, and their Chinese equivalent has their Eight Immortals, their Ba Xian.”

“Like a bunch of Chinese Dread Pirate Roberts,” Shiori murmured under her breath. “And… my father, he was—is–was–one of them?”

Jiao nodded. “He was potentially one of them, a student of theirs. And he was very loved, so loved that it was obvious he would be chosen as a successor. But not all of his fellow students liked that. There were those who saw him as a threat to their own advancement, and would use any leverage they could gain against him.”

“Including me,” Shiori finished softly, working her mouth a few times. “That’s why you had to hide me, because these… these Chinese Heretics would have taken me. Not because they’d think I was evil, but because… because it would help them become one of the official Eight Immortals.”

Jiao’s voice was barely audible. “Yes,” she confirmed with a pained expression. “We hid you, not because we didn’t want you, but because you deserved to be safe. When we found out that they knew about your existence, that they would hunt for you… I had to make sure you were safe. That meant getting you as far away from both of us as possible.”

“And now he’s missing,” Shiori muttered. “So they probably just cut out the middle man… errr, girl and went right after him.”

“I believe that is the case, yes.” Jiao hesitated then before continuing. “I haven’t given up on searching for him, Reathma. If he is still alive, I will find him. And I will bring him to meet you. That, I promise.”

Silence returned to the park. No one moved or spoke for several long seconds. Finally, I felt a tug at my hand as Shiori pulled free from both Senny and me. She took another moment to collect herself, then stepped over that way, stopping in front of the woman.

“Mother,” she spoke in a cracked, somewhat broken voice. Then the girl’s shoulders heaved a little, and I heard the tears as she spoke again, a single word that came out as a desperate plea. “Mom.”

Jiao said nothing. No other words needed to be said. The only thing left was action. One action in particular. She took her daughter into her arms, crushing the girl against her chest as tightly as possible.

And for the first time since she had been a baby, Shiori was held by her mother.

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Tis The Season 19-06

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As a quick note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above. 

Later that night, I was laying on the roof of the house, staring at the sky. There was snow around me, but I didn’t really care. I’d thought about making an angel in it, but the very concept of angels was pissing me off at the moment, so it didn’t sound like fun. Instead, I just lay there watching the stars.

It had taken awhile to tell my teacher everything that had happened while she was gone. Dare was… well, to say she was surprised was putting it lightly. Plus, I think she was a little bit jealous about my interacting with Prosser. There was a certain wistfulness to her reactions that made me think that she wanted to have been there. I wondered if she had ever met the man, or if her reaction simply came from spending so much time around the Heretics that practically worshiped him (without knowing him).

Eventually, she promised not to tell anyone about it other than Gaia. Then Jeremiah had come back in with Suttle to erase my father’s memory about seeing Scott. The baron had left me a card with his phone number if I ever wanted to contact him again, adding a note on the back with an e-mail address as well. It was different from the one that was already on the card. A more private one, he’d said.

I wasn’t really planning on using it. The man seemed friendly enough, and his reasoning for helping made sense. I just… wasn’t sure about how much I trusted him, or how much I wanted to push that trust, even if Professor Dare said it was okay. Call me crazy, but I thought it was better to be more discreet.

It took effort after that, but I finally convinced her and Senny to spend some time together while they had the chance, insisting that I’d be fine. Fossor had had his fun, showing that he could still hurt the people I cared about. At this point, he probably didn’t even know that Scott was a Pooka. If he had, he’d never have used him as an object lesson. Which meant that he’d probably leave me alone to stew in my misery, having (in his mind) made his point. So, after extensive discussion, I eventually got the two of them to go by promising that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. And technically that was the truth. Laying on the roof wasn’t actually going anywhere, and I had desperately needed to get out of the house for a little bit.

Inside, Dad was doing his thing, and I didn’t want to be there for that. I didn’t want to look him in the eyes while he sat there with no idea of what was coming the next day. I knew that probably before the morning was over, Dad was going to find out about the discovery of Scott’s body. And that was going to destroy him about as much as it had destroyed me when I’d thought that Scott was dead. He’d been around for so long that my father clearly practically saw him as nearly a surrogate son in a lot of ways. What was he going to do when he was forced to think that the boy was gone forever, that he was dead?

And how could I look my father in the eye and react normally without telling him that Scott was okay? How could I look myself in the mirror with the knowledge of what kind of pain my dad was going through? Or his parents. Oh God, the people who had been Scott’s adopted mother and father, how could I let them feel the way they were going to feel when the news about their son came in? I knew them, I’d spent time at their house growing up. How could I let them think that he was dead forever?

And yet, what else could I do? Tell the truth? They’d either think I was insane, or if they did believe me (or if I told them too much), they’d completely forget it. The Bystander Effect would make sure of that.

A dark shape blotted out the moon that I was staring at as I lay on my back on the roof of the house. The raven flew in a lazy circle before coming back around to land nearby, shifting into Twister’s form.

“Hey,” I gave a wave without looking that way. “Kinda late for you to be up, isn’t it? Couldn’t sleep?”

Instead of making a crack like she normally would, the Pooka girl just watched me for a few seconds before taking an obvious breath to steady herself. “So, uh, there was a lot of stuff going on back there with all the Heretics being around and everything else, but… there’s probably something I should talk to you about before it blindsides you. Something about your dad and this whole Pooka revival thing.”

Confused (and honestly a little trepidatious about how bad it could possibly be), I asked, “What?”

“Your dad,” she started, looking like this was basically the last thing in the world she actually wanted to talk about, but was forcing herself to. “He’s not going to remember Scott after this. Like, at all.”

The words fell like a bomb. And like a bomb, it felt like a concussive wave had punched through my gut. For a moment after she spoke, I just stared at her while trying to comprehend. “What—what?!”

“It’s a Pooka thing,” she elaborated. “You know how the Bystander Effect erases all the supernatural stuff from human memories? They see something completely inexplicable and it just ‘poof’, disappears?” When I nodded, she gestured. “That’s what happens when Pooka die. Anyone that’s not immune to the Bystander Effect just… poof, we disappear from their minds. We’re erased. That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time around normal humans, because every time I die, they completely forget who I am. It sucks, so I stopped doing it. But it’s been awhile, so I didn’t even think about it last night when… when everything happened. It was all going so fast and there were Heretics here and–” She sighed. “Sorry.”

“You—he–” My mouth worked while my head shook. “That doesn’t even… how? You mean my dad just—forgot everything about Scott? Everything? All of it? What about his parents? Do they just forget they had a son? They have pictures! And his mom still had his room with some of his stuff that he didn’t take with him. What about all that? What about his job? Do they just forget about him? What about cases he’s supposed to testify in, or tickets he’s written, or anything else he did as a deputy?”

“Bystander Effect,” she answered. “They’ll look at the pictures and not see him. They’ll see his room and stuff and think it belongs to someone else, like a friend that stayed for awhile, or a nephew, or anything else other than the truth. People will suddenly remember the cases being taken by someone else. Everything in the Bystander world gets rewritten as if he was never there.” Her expression darkened a bit then as she looked away from me, voice dropping to a mutter. “Like I said, it sucks ass.”

“No, but—that’s not–” My stomach was sinking. His parents would just forget he existed? That was—that was just… wrong. Sure, I hadn’t known how I was going to help my dad and Scott’s parents get through losing him, but I didn’t want them to forget him. That was sick. It was awful. “That’s not fair.”

“Tell me about it,” Twister muttered. Her voice made it clear that she’d been personally burned by that. She looked over at me, brow twisted into a frown. “You said those angel fucks were behind that shit?”

“Seosten,” I muttered quietly while nodding. “Yeah. They created the Bystander Effect, apparently.”

“Yeah, well…” Twister went silent briefly, her emotions playing over her face far more than they usually did. “I’d like to get them in a room somewhere and let them know just what I think about that.”

Closing my eyes, I thought about Scott’s parents, coworkers, and friends just forgetting he ever existed. I thought about his entire life in the Bystander world being completely erased, of him being erased.

“So would I,” I muttered so quietly that the words were carried away by the breeze. “So would I.”

******

Christmas Day. It had always been important to my dad and me, a way of showing that we were still a family even though Mom wasn’t there anymore. When I was still young, he always went completely out of his way to make it special, obviously feeling like he had to make up for her absence. Not just as far as presents went, but with food and everything else too. He’d have holiday movies playing through the whole day, and the entire house would be filled with the smell of all the food he picked up from the restaurant and bakery the day before. Not to mention the lengths he went to as far as decorations went.

He’d always done everything he could to make sure that I didn’t feel like we were missing anything for the holiday. But we were. We were missing my mother, and no amount of cookies, music, bright lights, or Ralphie finally getting that BB gun could fill the void that her absence had left for all these years.

This year was worse in that regard. A hollow sort of empty feeling had settled over the proceedings throughout the morning, despite my (admittedly fairly pitiful) attempts to show enthusiasm. How could I, when the thought of Scott being completely erased dominated every moment that passed? Thinking about everyone grieving Scott’s death had been bad enough, but the idea that they forgot him? It made me feel sick. My stomach had twisted up inside throughout the morning, leaving me unable to eat.

“Hey kid,” Dad interrupted my thoughts, stepping in front of my chair while shaking a carton at me. “You want some of these pineapple cookies before I eat all of them? You didn’t take much breakfast.”

My mouth was already opening to speak even as I took the carton. The words came out automatically, before my brain had a chance to actually think about what I was saying. “Pineapple, Scott’s favorite.”

Even as I said the words, I was berating myself. No, no, no. I didn’t want to hear what came next.

Sure enough, Dad just chuckled as he stepped over to pick up the TV remote. Flipping through channels to find a Christmas movie we hadn’t already watched, he asked, “One of your classmates?”

It was a good thing that he wasn’t looking at me, because it took a few seconds for me to blink away the tears that tried to flood my eyes. And if he’d seen that, there was no way Dad wouldn’t push me on it.

“N-no,” I managed a bit weakly, the painful lump in my throat making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Just a…” I closed my eyes tightly for a moment before opening them. “Just a… good friend.”

“A good friend, huh?” Dad looked over at me slyly. “Should I be concerned about this ‘good friend’?”

No. I wanted to grab my dad and shake him. I wanted to shout Scott’s name into his face until it sank in. I wanted to scream at him that Scott had been taking care of me since I was a baby, that he himself had helped coach Scott’s Little League team, that… that he saw the boy as practically an honorary son.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do any of that. Because if I did, at the very best, he’d just think that I was crazy. At worst, the Bystander Effect would erase what I told him. Twister was right, this sucked ass.

Finally stopping on a station for longer than a few seconds, Dad smiled. “There we go, Earnest Saves Christmas. You used to love this movie. You begged so much for me to let you stay up to see it when you were ten.” Smiling at that memory, he glanced to me. “So, this Scott. He’s not from that school?”

Words almost failed me. Thought almost failed me. All that was left was emotion. And not very good emotion. Stumbling to my feet, I shook my head. “I—I need some air. I’ll be back later.” The words croaked their way out of me even as I went for the door, grabbing my coat and fleeing before he could ask more questions.

I was going to have to explain that later, or at least tell my father something. But I wasn’t thinking about that just then. All I could think about was how hard it was to breathe in the house and that I needed to leave before I blurted out something that I really shouldn’t. I had to go, had to get outside and just walk.

So that’s what I did. Pulling my coat on, I all but ran down the sidewalk. I had to get away, had to leave before my dad asked me any more questions, or looked at me with that completely blank expression whenever I brought up Scott. Seeing his total lack of memory about someone that important killed me.

I had no idea where I was planning on going, but it didn’t matter. I’d only barely made it to the end of our property, stepping into the neighbor’s driveway before a voice called out my name. Not Dad. Shiori.

Turning that way, I saw both her and Columbus trotting my way, the latter carrying a brightly wrapped present under one arm. They were also both grinning until they got close enough to see my expression.

“Flick?” Shiori blurted, eyes widening as she took a step my way. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

My mouth opened and shut, then I moved. Before I knew what I was doing, my arms were already around the girl. I hugged her tightly, drawing a squeak of surprise before she returned the embrace.

For a few long seconds, I didn’t say anything. I just hugged Shiori and tried not to cry. It was all I could do to remain standing. Which seemed stupid. Scott wasn’t dead. Things could have been a lot worse. Yet somehow, the thought of my father forgetting him, of his own parents forgetting him… it ruined me.

Finally, I got enough control over myself to release Shiori. Stepping back, I sniffed once before blushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I just… I…” My shoulders shrugged helplessly and I nodded my head back the way I’d been going. “Do you guys mind… umm, walking with me?”

Both of them agreed quickly, and we started to walk. Shiori and Columbus kept giving me looks that were as curious as they were sympathetic. They obviously wanted to know what had happened. But they didn’t ask, didn’t push me to explain. Obviously, they were going to let me tell it on my time.

So, eventually, I did. As we walked fairly aimlessly down the streets, I quietly explained everything that had happened. I told them about the phone call, about Scott ‘dying’, about finding out he was alive, Prosser’s visit, meeting with the baron, and what Twister had told me. I explained everything, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible even as the two of them reacted with horror through a lot of it.

“But… but how does that—how?” Columbus stammered once I finished talking. “What about all the records, the physical records about his existence? Not just papers, but videos. And stuff in the computer, and… and all of it. What about all that stuff? Does the Bystander Effect just erase all that?”

I gave a helpless, equally annoyed shrug. “According to Twister, it’s more simple than that. People affected by it just don’t see things like that. If they look at a paper that mentions the person, their brains won’t comprehend it. The memory of what they read disappears immediately. It’s like back when we were trying to tell Sean and Avalon about Koren and Wyatt. The memory doesn’t stick in their head. If Scott’s parents look at a picture with both of them and little Scott, all they’ll see is the two of them. It doesn’t physically change documents or anything, it just makes it so they can’t retain that information long enough for their brain to do anything with it. It’s automatically erased before they consciously acknowledge it.”

“That’s… that’s…” Shiori stammered, face red as she stared at me. “That’s just… wrong.

“I know,” I acknowledged quietly, feeling even more helpless than I had before. “But what can we do? My dad, his co-workers, his friends, even his family all forgot him. I saw it with my dad, he had no idea who I was talking about.”

“Bystander Effect,” Columbus muttered darkly. “You know, the more I hear about that thing, the more I hate it. Those wannabe angels really screwed us over.”

Shiori and I both nodded in silent agreement. After a moment, I murmured, “Can you imagine how different the world would be without it?”

“In good and bad ways,” Columbus pointed out. “I mean, if humans knew they could get superpowers by putting Alter blood in their blood? A lot of people would hunt innocent Alters down just for that.”

“And a lot wouldn’t,” I replied. “I mean, sure, there’s bad people like that. But if it was all in the open, Alters could have… you know, rights and people who did that could be held accountable.”

“Would they be?” Columbus countered. “I’m just saying, humans don’t have the best track record of being able to get along with each other, let alone whole new races. Some of whom actually do prey on humans. It’s all… muddled.”

I nodded, acknowledging that. “It wouldn’t be perfect. It’s not like erasing the Bystander Effect would make everything into paradise. But still… the Seosten magic isn’t right. It’s not the way things should be.”

We continued walking then, each of us silent for a few minutes, clearly lost in our own thoughts.

Eventually, Shiori’s hand found mine and squeezed it a little. Her voice was quiet. “What about Fossor and Ammon?”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I managed to respond, “They’ll pay. Everyone they hurt, everyone they killed, everything… everything they’ve done. My mom, They’ll pay for it. That Denise from the gas station, Scott, everyone. They’ll pay for everyone they hurt, everyone they killed.

“Fossor wanted to remind me that he’s still a threat. He wanted me to take him seriously. Well, I’m going to. Everyone he’s ever hurt or killed, every life he’s ruined, every person he’s destroyed, I’m going to take it incredibly seriously.

“And when the time comes… I’m going to make him choke on it. All of it.”

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Mini-Interlude 13 – Shiori and Asenath

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath during Thanksgiving break.

“I should’ve gone with her, I should’ve gone with her, I should’ve gone with her.” As she walked down the sidewalk with her hands shaped into tight fists at her side, Shiori knew she was repeating herself, but the words kept coming. And no matter how many times she said them, it didn’t feel like enough. Her heart was racing and it felt like she couldn’t breathe. She felt cold, but she was also sweating. A dull ache had settled in her heart and her stomach kept flipping over.

Columbus, walking along the sidewalk to her left, shook his head. “Easy, Shy. Deveron said she’s fine. I mean–” His face turned into an awkward sort-of apologetic expression. “As fine as she could be.”

Pivoting on her heel to walk backward, Shiori fastened her stare onto the boy. “I know what he said,” she blurted. “He said that Seller guy took Flick, Koren, and Wyatt to Eden’s Garden with Koren’s mom because she… because she’d… die without help. Because it was a trap, a trap f-for… for–”

“A trap for Koren,” a level voice finished for her. Asenath, the one who had insisted on taking both Shiori and Columbus out of the house to go for a walk in order to stop them from acting distraught and worried in front of Flick’s father, was walking along the side of the road. Her gaze was focused off in the distance as she continued. “Not for Flick. From the sound of things, Flick, Wyatt, and Deveron showing up is what saved Koren and her mother.”

“I know it’s a good thing that they were there,” Shiori insisted, feeling awkward and confused even as the words left her mouth. “I know! But I should’ve been there. I should’ve helped! I should’ve tried to…” She trailed off, unsure of what she was even trying to say. The thoughts were all jumbled up in her head, as they had been ever since the news of just how bad Flick’s attempt at a Thanksgiving with her long-lost sister and niece had gone.

“You couldn’t have done anyth–” Columbus started, but Senny held a hand up to stop him before he could finish the sentence.

“Shiori,” she started in her soft, measured voice. “Do you want to know how I know that Flick is going to be okay now?”

Trying to swallow back the lump in her throat, Shiori met her vampiric half-sister’s gaze. “How?”

“Because she’s with Seller. And not only is he one of the strongest Heretics I know, who happens to be her own ancestor…” Asenath trailed off briefly, giving her a smile that showed her fangs. “But he also wouldn’t dare let anything happen to her, because he knows it would piss me off. And after Texas, well, he knows that’s a bad idea.”

What happened with you two in Texas?” Columbus demanded.

In response, Senny just raised a single shoulder in a shrug. “Let’s just say it started with a guy who thought mixing jackrabbits and rattlesnakes was a good idea.” She paused then, musing, “I still think a couple of those Rattlejacks got away…”

“Okay, one, that absolutely didn’t answer the question.” Columbus held up a finger, followed by another. “And two, I am never, ever, ever going anywhere near Texas. Actually, where are we?”

“Wyoming,” Shiori reminded him.

“That’s probably still too close.”

Despite her worry, Shiori managed a slight smile at that, and told herself that Flick was going to be okay. She still felt awful, worried for Koren’s mother and… and sad about what had obviously happened to her father. But the panic and terror about Flick being hurt or worse was starting to settle down. Asenath was right, Seller wouldn’t let anything happen to his descendant. Not only would Senny kill him, but so would the headmistress.

Being distracted was working. So, as they continued down the dark street in the middle of the small town that was where Flick had grown up, Shiori glanced back toward the other girl. “What’s it like?” she asked quietly.

“Being a vampire, or being this old?” Senny asked, eyes flicking over to meet her gaze.

Shiori bit her lip before clarifying. “Being alive for so long. What’s that like?”

“It’s…” Asenath paused, standing there on the pavement without moving for a few seconds as she collected her thoughts. “It’s wonderful, and sad, and amazing, and…. impossible to describe. Shiori, I have seen so many things, watched so much happen over the past couple hundred years. When the War of 1812 started, I was your age. When Spain ceded Florida and Desoto to the United States, I was twenty-four. When President Monroe declared that the American continent was off limits to European colonization, I was twenty-eight. When Texas declared their independence, I was thirty-one.”

She stopped then, quietly staring off into the distance before turning her attention back to the other two. “That was in 1836. Think about that for a moment. Those are the things that I witnessed within a normal human lifetime. Not even a long one. Age-wise, I was an ordinary adult. Going from 1836 to today, to 2017 is just… I want you to be able to see the things that I’ve seen. I want you to be able to… to travel, to learn, to… to experience the world. I want to take you to Europe. I want to take you to Africa. I want you to see everything that this world has, everything that this world is.”

Once she had found her voice, Shiori stepped off the sidewalk and hesitantly took the other girl’s hand. “Senny, you’re… you’re not upset that I’m not leaving Crossroads, are you?”

The question seemed to make Asenath smile faintly. “No, Shiori,” she answered softly. “I’m not upset. There’ll be plenty of time to show you everything that I want to. Maybe I’m nervous for you, being there when I can’t be. But I’m not upset.” She returned the squeeze against Shiori’s hand and lifted it up while looking at her. “Besides, I wouldn’t dare take you away from Flick.”

As Shiori felt her face go red, Columbus snapped his attention back and forth between the two of them. “I’m sorry, the what from the who now?”

“Oh come on,” Shiori rolled her eyes at him. “We both know I’m not that subtle.”

Asenath stepped up onto the sidewalk then, still holding her hand. Her voice was gentle. “It’s pretty strong, huh?” When Shiori hesitantly nodded, she asked, “Have you talked to her about how you feel?”

Shiori’s head couldn’t shake fast enough. “No, no, no. Not now. Not—no.”

Before Senny could say anything, it was Columbus who spoke up. “Shy, Flick isn’t Gabby.”

The name itself cut deep into Shiori, and she cringed even as Senny asked, “Who’s Gabby?”

Rather than answer right away, Columbus looked questioningly toward Shiori. Feeling that familiar pain, Shiori reluctantly nodded for him to go ahead. Then she lowered her eyes to stare at the sidewalk while he started.

“Gabby was Shiori’s best friend for a few years when we were little. They were basically inseparable all the way through junior high and our first year of high school. Then um—Shy, are you sure it’s okay?”

She made herself nod, despite the ache that his words were bringing back. “Yes,” she answered hollowly. “It’s okay.”

So Columbus continued. “Shiori figured out in our sophomore year, about a year ago, that she liked girls. Gabby in particular. She tried to keep it secret for awhile, but then they um, they went on this trip for Gabby’s birthday. It was a whole two-day thing, shopping, movie, games, everything. And they didn’t just have a sleepover, they stayed in a motel. It was Gabby’s parents in one room, Shiori and Gabby in the one next door. They were supposed to go to Six Flags in the morning.

“It was late, they were watching this movie. It was um–”

Good Will Hunting,” Shiori supplied without looking up. She had released Asenath’s hand and folded her arms against her stomach.

Columbus nodded. “Right, that. They were watching that and it was at the point where Ben Affleck’s character tells Matt Damon’s character that he wants him to leave town and make something of himself, that… even though they’re best friends, he wants him to leave because he knows he’s better than that. So Shiori looks at Gabby and said–”

“I said I must be a bad friend,” Shiori interrupted, voice sounding hoarse to herself. “Because I could never ask her to leave. I said I was selfish because I wanted to stay with her forever and ever. And she said that was okay, because she wanted to be forever and ever too. And I–” Her throat closed up again, and she gestured for Columbus to go on.

“She kissed her,” he finally continued, the words sending a stab of painful memory through Shiori. “She kissed Gabby.”

Asenath’s voice was quiet. “I guess it didn’t go that well?”

“She freaked out,” Columbus confirmed. “Stormed out of the room, slept with her parents. The next day, Gabby wouldn’t even look at her. Gabby’s dad drove Shiori home and talked to our foster parents. He told the Porters that Shiori molested Gabby. There was… more, but they didn’t really tell us all of it. Or even most of it. Gabby’s family were religious and it… um, it was bad. They took Gabby out of that school, transferred her. Shiori tried to talk to her a couple times, but it never went well. She called her–”

“Don’t,” Shiori finally interrupted, head shaking. “Just don’t. Please.”

Relenting immediately, Columbus stepped over to her. “Flick isn’t Gabby, Shy. It’s not going to–”

“I can’t.” Her head shook. “I just—please. Don’t bring it up. I can’t do it. Not now. Gabby was my—she was everything, and she—I can’t.”

Columbus was hugging her, and then Asenath was doing the same. When it stopped, Senny laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’re a beautiful, funny, brilliant girl, Shiori. Just give it time.”

Swallowing once more, Shiori made herself change the subject. “What about Mom? What’s… what’s she like?”

Asenath smiled at the question. “Mom is… how do I describe her? She’s quiet and dignified… and she tells the raunchiest jokes you’ll ever hear. She’s this small Chinese woman that doesn’t shout, doesn’t make a big scene, but she can drink a troll under the table. Seeing her fight, it’s… she uses these two guns, these pistols and it’s… you know the movie Equilibrium? The whole gun-kata thing? Picture that, but coming from this seemingly meek, polite, soft-spoken little Chinese woman. She doesn’t talk while she fights, she doesn’t mock them, she just… she’s a quiet force of nature.”

The description of Jiao made Shiori smile while simultaneously feeling the pain of not knowing the woman. “I… I really want to meet her.”

“I’m sure she wants to meet you,” Asenath assured her. “As soon as we can, as soon as I get a hold of her, I promise. We’ll make it happen.”

“Can I ask you a question?” Columbus put in after a few long seconds of silence had passed. When the vampire nodded to him, he went on. “Flick said you started this whole thing because you were hunting for Ammon, because he killed that girl.”

“Denise,” Asenath supplied. “The girl he killed at the gas station.”

The boy nodded. “Right, yeah. I—whatever happened with that? I mean, you’ve been here for awhile.”

Senny was quiet for a moment before she answered. “I called her mother and told her that the person who killed her daughter was dead and that she needed to stop paying me because the job was done.”

Shiori blinked at that. “You… lied to her?”

“I gave her closure,” Senny corrected gently. “Ammon will pay for what he did. But the fact that it has to wait this long, the fact that he’s a little kid and that what he is now probably isn’t his fault, the fact that… any of these details won’t help her. She can’t even know them because she’s a Bystander.

“If I made her wait, she’d never be able to move on. She’d never be able to focus on remembering her daughter, because she’d spend every single day waiting by the phone, obsessed with the person who killed her. And Ammon doesn’t deserve her attention. Her daughter does. She should be focusing on remembering Denise, on honoring her daughter.

“This way, she can move on. She can put her love and attention where it belongs. And eventually, I will honor my promise. I will get justice for Denise. But until that happens, her mother deserves peace. So I gave it to her.”

Shiori was quiet after Senny finished with that. She hesitated, then slowly reached out and took her sister’s hand, squeezing it. “Can… you tell us about your dad for awhile?”

Asenath’s eyes found hers, and then she smiled faintly. “Sure,” she answered in a quiet voice. “Let’s keep walking, and I’ll tell you everything I know about Tiras, of the Akharu.”

So they did.

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Second Hunt 16-06

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Scout made it to the room just as Avalon was starting to come to. My eyes snapped from the quiet girl coming around the corner, to my roommate as she gave a quiet groan and began trying to sit up.

Gaia was already there. She was still kneeling next to her adopted daughter with a hand on her face. The woman’s voice was soft as she said something quietly in a language I didn’t understand, but sounded quite tender. Then she added in English. “It’s all right. Take it slow, the threat is over now.”

“What–” Blinking a couple times, Avalon pushed herself into a slight sitting position. Her eyes went from me to Gaia and then back again before she muttered in an annoyed tone, “They tried again.” It wasn’t the kind of voice of a person terrified that some kind of conspiracy had attempted to kill her for what had to be the fifty-third time. Instead, it was the same sort of tone that I’d expect to come from someone who was annoyed that their roommate had taken the last of the milk. Exasperation. Annoyance. If Avalon was actually afraid of what was going on, she wasn’t really showing any of it.

I had to stop myself from rushing up to her. She’d been pretty much point-blank in front of an explosion that had knocked her unconscious for a decent length of time. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to… But no. Gaia was there. She deserved to be the one to check on the girl that mattered enough to her to adopt her, to do all of this for her. I cared about Avalon, but interrupting that right then would’ve been selfish.

It also reminded me of just how much the girl had to mean to Gaia. As old as the headmistress was and as much as she had seen over those centuries, she had to have lost a lot of people. But I had seen her expression when she came in to find Avalon unconscious after yet another attempt to kill the girl, and I saw her expression as she knelt with a hand on her face. I’d seen the anger and the relief. If Gaia wasn’t Avalon’s mother, it was pure semantics. She clearly cared about the girl just as much as if she was.

Moving up to my side, Scout looked at me questioningly. So, I whispered a quick explanation, “Bad guy fought Deveron for awhile and then got away just before Gaia showed up. She dismantled the bomb and fixed the hole.” Glancing to her and the blood on her uniform, I added, “Are you okay?”

She gave a quick nod at that, making a face before lifting her rifle pointedly. Then she focused on the wound in my arm and the blood there, and her face fell a bit before the girl whispered a weak, “Sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Shaking my head, I lifted my arm and showed her. “Healing already, see?” Restraining a grimace of pain as much as I could, I instead tried to smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, deflecting bullets with a knife, who saw that coming? You were helping. I just… I’m glad Deveron showed up when he did.” My eyes glanced that way, and found the boy (or man) in question already talking to someone on his own communication pin. “He was… really bad ass. If he hadn’t shown up when he did…” Trailing off, I couldn’t help the shudder that passed through me. “It would’ve been really bad.”

Before Scout could respond to that, Gaia was standing up. She took hold of Avalon’s hand and helped her up as well. I could tell that the woman wanted to do more than that, but she stopped herself for the other girl’s sake. Then she was looking toward me. “Thank you, Felicity,” she spoke quietly, obviously more in control of herself by that point than she had been when she first arrived and actually called me Flick. “You have, as usual now, gone above and beyond what we should expect of our… our students.”

“Hey,” I tried to shake that off even as I cradled my broken and still healing wrist. “I didn’t do anything that Avalon wouldn’t have done for me. Except her way probably would’ve been a lot more competent.”

A slight, knowing smile touched the headmistress’s face then as she looked from Avalon to me and back again before speaking in an easy tone. “It’s very important that roommates and… partners be able to trust each other that much. I’m glad that you two are willing to go that far to protect one another.”

“She shouldn’t have had to,” Avalon spoke sharply then. “The bomb shouldn’t have gone off. We’re su-”

“We’ll discuss it away from this place,” Gaia interrupted, her tone gentle but firm. “For now, this exercise is over. We’ll go back to the island and have a… discussion with your entire team, together.”

“Um,” I hesitated before raising a hand. “Headmistress, what about the rest of the skeleblineists?”

The red-haired woman just blinked at me, head tilting a little. “I’m sorry, what about the what, now?”

My face pinked at that as I remembered that wasn’t their real name. “Err, sorry, I mean the… Strangers. I couldn’t remember the name, so I just—you know, skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. Skeleblineists.”

For a long, silent moment, Gaia just looked at me. Then she gave the faintest smile of amusement, almost undetectable before murmuring, “Fair enough. Now, as for what should be done about them…”

The woman trailed off, pausing as she looked away. I saw a momentary frown of concentration cross her face, and felt some kind of invisible yet almost tangible power pass through me. It was a little bit like feeling static electricity, and lasted for five seconds or so. Abruptly, the feeling cut out and there was a loud squealing noise from all around us. About five feet from Avalon, one of the skeleblineists popped out of the wall. On the opposite side of the room, another one appeared from the floor. And a third came out of the engine itself. None of them were attacking, however. They just popped half-way out, screaming in pain. Meanwhile, further off in the ship I could hear the cries of others echoing.

The terrible squeals only lasted for a second or two, until all of them were visible. Then all three of the ones I could see were reduced to literal ashes that fell to the floor. And considering the way the screams cut off everywhere else as well, I was pretty sure the exact same thing happened to the rest of them.

Gaia straightened, the by-then-familiar golden aura (the same color as my own, I noticed) briefly flaring up around the headmistress as she cracked her neck to the side. Then the woman nodded in satisfaction. “There. Now it’s finished.”

Okay, yeah. I’m pretty sure my gulp at that was audible from clear across the room. Or possibly even from the other side of the ship. “Oh, um. Thanks,” I managed weakly, my wide eyes darting to the girl beside me. For her part, Scout looked just as taken aback by the display of power. Which made me feel a little bit better. If she wasn’t used to it, having grown up around all this stuff, then it wasn’t just me.

By that point, Gaia was already gesturing toward the nearby hatch. At her motion, the broken doorway lifted up and set itself back into place before closing. Then the headmistress just stepped that way and opened it once more. Except rather than seeing the corridor of the ship, the open doorway revealed one of the Pathmaker portal rooms. She gestured for us to go. “You’ll find the rest of your team already waiting, I promise. As I said, we will discuss things once everyone is together and accounted for.”

So, Scout, Avalon, and I passed through the portal together. I resisted the urge to try to help Avalon. Not only was I really not feeling up to it considering the pain in my arm, wrist, and… well, pretty much everywhere, but I was pretty sure that if I had even tried to steady Avalon, she would’ve flattened me.

As promised, Columbus, Sands, and Sean were already waiting in the portal room. Wyatt was there too, standing beside the other security guy. When we came into the room, Sands went running up to embrace her sister, while Wyatt took a step my way before stopping himself. The poor guy looked like he wanted to tell the entire concept of secrets to go screw themselves as he stared at me intently for a moment before managing a slightly strained, “Oh—oh good, good, you’re all okay. No one d-died?”

Smiling faintly, I shook my head at him. “Nope, not… not this time. We’re fine, Mr. Rendell. Thanks.”

Vulcan had no such compulsions against showing how much he cared. The robot dog came bounding right up to me, barking until I obediently reached down to pet him. “Hey, boy. Did you take care of your partner? You keep him out of trouble, huh?” Smiling, I rubbed over his metal head vigorously.

My eyes moved up then toward Columbus. The boy was still soaked from his little swim when he’d been knocked out of the ship by the bomb, but otherwise he didn’t really look hurt. “You okay?”

In the back of my mind, that new power that I’d picked up was still cataloging every inanimate object that got close enough to me. I could sense what was in Sands’s pockets, as well as Scout’s and Avalon’s. As far as I could tell, it didn’t actually tell me what was in the extradimensional storage space like our weapon sheathes. It probably had something to do with the items technically being in another world.

“Yeah,” Columbus nodded to the security guy who’d saved him. “Thanks to Bennet. Think I swallowed about half the ocean when I got knocked out there, but I’m good. What about you? You look… bad.”

“Gee thanks,” I mumbled before sighing. “We’re alive. Despite their best efforts. That’s what matters.”

Professor Dare came through into the portal room then, followed by Gaia and Deveron. The blonde teacher looked more worn out than I had ever actually seen her. I could see a few cuts and bruises, her normally immaculate uniform had a couple holes in it here and there, and her hair had come loose so that there were random strands sticking out. There was even a bit of blood under the woman’s nose.

“Bennet,” she addressed the other security guy, who was staring at her with probably as much surprise as I was. “Please go and find Risa. Ask her to join us here, assuming nothing else has gone wrong.”

The man glanced to the headmistress, who nodded. Then his eyes darted toward both me and Avalon for a second before he spun on his heel and hurried out the other way with a quick, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Once he was gone, Wyatt didn’t wait any more. He practically sprinted to cross the distance before he was hugging me. Actually, the poor guy was literally lifting me off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to turn off the escape-port, I wanted to use it, but she was still in trouble and the escape-port wouldn’t work with her and I was trying to fix it, but if I let you go then she wouldn’t have anyone and I couldn’t do that to you or her and I didn’t want to do any of it, but I had t-”

“Wyatt, Wyatt,” I quickly interrupted while he continued to babble. “I’m okay! We’re okay, listen, I can’t—Wyatt, I can’t understand you. What do you mean, escape-port? What happened? Talk slower.”

Visibly taking a moment to calm himself, the man swallowed hard. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a couple times before he pushed on. “I provided security measures for your mission that would have pulled you out of danger. Somehow, they… they blocked the effect on Avalon’s. Yours was still working, but I deactivated it. I left you in danger so that you could protect her, all because my measure failed.” His voice was getting higher by the end, and he turned abruptly toward Gaia. “Headmistress, I accept any punishment you give me for the unacceptable failure. I’ll… I’ll resign right now if you wish.”

“No, Wyatt.” Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you understand? We owe you our thanks, not condemnation. If it wasn’t for your security efforts, Avalon would already be… The assassins would have succeeded.”

The poor guy looked taken aback, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I—they would have?”

“Yes,” the headmistress nodded. “And Felicity here most likely would have been killed as well.” Her gaze softened. “You are correct, the person who attacked Avalon was able to block the spell that would have brought her out of danger. But even then, they were not able to take her anywhere. I detected several attempts in that room to leave with her. Obviously, their primary intention was to leave with Avalon, most likely so that they could… eliminate her in private without any of us to stop them.”

Gaia had a hand on Avalon’s shoulder, her voice soft as she continued. “Because of your security enchantment, none of those efforts worked. Which meant that they had to attempt to…” she swallowed just a little. “… kill her right there. That also required breaking through enough of your enchantments to even make the attempt. Between those efforts and their ongoing focus on preventing your retrieval spell from simply whisking Avalon away from them, the attacker’s attention was split enough that they were unable to put their full effort on the fight with Felicity. If they had, I believe she would be dead now.”

Well, that made me cringe. I’d thought fighting that masked assassin had been hard enough. But knowing that their attention had been split multiple ways and they hadn’t been fighting at near their full ability? Yeah, that thought made me want to whimper. Clearly whoever these people were, they were far over the level of a few first year students. Looking to Wyatt then, I managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“Does… does that mean they screwed with my bombs too?” Columbus put in. The poor guy looked about as guilty and stressed out as Wyatt had. “Because I swear I checked them before I put them in my pack. They should’ve been fine. The timers worked when I was testing them before the mission.”

I checked them as well, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare assured him. “I would not have allowed you to go out on a mission like that with active explosives unless I was confident that they had been assembled correctly and were safe. When I looked them over, they were. Someone interfered between the time that I did my inspection, and when you attempted to use them. Which indicates a disturbing level of access, as well as enough knowledge of what your mission was to assume that they would be used.”

Before anyone could say anything to that, the door into the rest of the building opened once more and Professor Kohaku entered. Her gaze took all of us in, clearly inspecting for any lasting injury before she gave a long sigh. “Again?”

“Again.” Gaia sounded just as annoyed before turning her attention to us. “We will talk more of this later. For now, I must ask you to excuse us while we… discuss what has happened and what we are going to do to prevent it in the future. As for your grade for this mission…” She looked to Professor Dare.

The blonde woman smiled just a little. Her injuries had already healed, though there was still the blood on her clothes and the rips through them that showed just how much she had been through. “I would say you all scored quite well, if we discount the… interference. Had things continued the way they were progressing, you would have sunk the ship, as we hoped you would. You displayed admirable teamwork both before and after the interruption. So I would say you’ve earned top marks, given everything that happened.”

The headmistress squeezed Avalon’s shoulder, looking like what she wanted to do was pull her back into a hug right there. “Yes. Very good indeed.” Clearing her throat, she nodded to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, if you could ensure that they arrive safely back at their dorms?”

So, we trudged out of the portal room together. Everyone else looked utterly exhausted. In my case, most of the pain had faded, and I wasn’t even tired. Mostly I felt numb. I wanted to hug Avalon and not let go. I wanted to know who the hell had tried to kill her again. We knew why they were trying so hard, but not who. I wanted her to be safe, and happy.

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

So I did. After spending some time with Avalon in our room and making sure the girl was really okay (hopefully without pushing her too far), I eventually left. Thanks to my new pendant, I didn’t have to obey the curfew anymore. Which meant that I could wander the grounds after hours, talking to my dad on the phone. Not that I told him that I was out, and especially not why. As far as he knew, I was in my room, and just needed to talk.

Eventually, he had to go to bed, so I switched to the private phone and talked to Asenath. Finding my way out behind the main building, I took a seat on the grass and watched the jungle in the distance while I told the vampire girl all about what had actually happened that day, and how worried I was. She listened while I vented about how angry I was that our security and safety had been compromised again, and how worried I was about Avalon.

There wasn’t much that the girl could do, obviously. But she was a really good listener, and didn’t try to cut in. She let me say what I needed to without interrupting, which let me get my head on straighter than it had been pretty much since the attack started.

Finally, I sat back and looked at the sky with the phone to my ear. “Thanks, Senny. Sorry for talking your ear off. I just…”

“Needed to talk to someone,” she finished. “I get it. Don’t worry. I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Trust me, you’re doing enough,” I assured her. “Just… don’t let anything happen to my dad, okay? I… I couldn’t take that. Not now.”

Her voice was serious. “You have my word.” Lightening her tone a bit, she added, “And hey, could you ask Shiori what her favorite kind of pie is before Christmas break?”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I nodded absently. “Yeah, I’ll find out. But I thought you didn’t cook.”

“I don’t,” she retorted. “But Twister does.”

We talked a little bit more. Now that I had the ranting out of my system, I was able to laugh a little bit and just enjoy the conversation. Eventually, I let the other girl get back to what she was doing and hung up. Then I just sat there under the moonlight, watching the jungle and the stars.

About ten minutes passed like that before a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes, I turned slightly to find Gaia standing just above me. “Err, sorry, Headmistress.” I quickly started to get up.

“It’s all right, Felicity.” Gaia extended a hand down to help me. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting?”

My head shook. “No, ma’am. I was just… thinking.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. “I’ve been doing a lot of that as well. And I believe it’s time that I began taking your training more seriously.”

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

The woman’s voice was somber. “We both know and understand how much… pressure you are under, Felicity. We know what you’re facing, what you have already faced. Between those threats and the ones you have put yourself in to protect my… Avalon, I would be a failure if I did not come to you now and offer… if you would accept it, additional training and schooling, during some of the hours that you now have available after curfew.”

My mouth opened and shut. “You… you mean you want to give me extra lessons, extra training… yourself?”

“Would that be acceptable?” she asked in a quiet voice, watching my reaction.

It took a moment to find my voice, but I finally bobbed my head up and down rapidly. “Y-yes, ma’am. Really, anything you can do, any… any training you can give me, I swear, I’ll do the best I can.

“God knows I need the help.”

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Second Hunt 16-04

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After giving a few creative and anatomically impossible (as far as I knew) curses, Sands heaved a sigh. “Right, we’ve got a whole possessed ship to deal with. And those things could be hiding anywhere.”

“So what do we do?” Columbus spoke into the silence that followed Avalon’s announcement. “I mean, can we just back off, blow the whole ship to kingdom come with the assholes on it and call that good?”

I half-expected Avalon to snap at the boy. Instead, she sounded thoughtful. “Actually… yes. Yes, we can. Not back off, but the second part. They did say there’s no civilians on the ship, so let’s just sink it.”

“Can we do that?” I wondered, glancing over at Sands beside me. “I mean, just sink the ship like that?”

“Porter,” Avalon spoke again after a brief pause. “That bag of yours, did you bring any explosives?”

Looking over toward the other set of stairs where the boy stood with Scout, I saw him nod to himself while putting a hand on the over-full bag of goodies that hung from his shoulder. “Uh, yeah. I mean, not enough to sink a ship like this. At least, not very fast. But yeah, I’ve got a couple we can use.”

Avalon was quiet again for a few seconds, clearly thinking. Eventually, her voice returned. “Okay. New plan. Mason, escort Porter down to the lower levels. Gerardo and I will meet you there. We’ll head for the engine room and see what we can do to send this deathtrap to the bottom of the ocean. Chambers, you and Scout head for the bridge. Get into the security system and make sure there’s no survivors. I know what they said, but just… double check. Then work on clearing the way from the engine room to the back deck so we can go straight out and get off before this big hunk of metal takes us down with it.”

Part of me wanted to object with that, but I couldn’t think of a better plan. Instead, I nodded. “Right.” Glancing to Sands, I gestured across the empty space between the two sets of stairs. “Do you mind?”

With a quick smile, the other girl made a swinging motion outward with her mace. As she did so, a narrow metal bridge appeared, connecting our set of stairs to the one that Scout and Columbus were on.

Columbus came over first, jogging across the bridge while the rest of us kept a sharp eye out for any interruptions from our skele-goblin ‘friends.’ Scout had her rifle out and was scanning everywhere until the boy stepped down onto our set of stairs. “Whew, I know the whole ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’ thing, but I expected to at least make it up to the bridge before everything changed.”

Clapping him on the shoulder, I managed a slight chuckle. “Don’t worry. Given the way things are going, I’m sure things’ll change again before it’s over. Maybe you’ll make it up to the bridge after all.”

Then it was my turn. Boosting myself onto Sands’ created bridge, I ran across. Months earlier, I barely would have been able to crawl across this thing, probably while whimpering the whole time about the height. Now, I didn’t even glance down. I just ran for the other side and hopped off to land by Scout.

Together, the two of us stood there just long enough to watch Columbus and Sands head back down the stairs. As soon as they were out of sight, I looked toward the other girl. “Ready to see what kind of surprises are up on the bridge?” When she nodded, I took the lead. Staff still out and ready, I moved up the stairs while she watched my back. We moved quickly, each of our eyes scanning everywhere for the first sign of the skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. I couldn’t remember what Avalon had called them, so I decided to go with skeleblineist in my head. It was easier than trying to remember the German word.

Just before we reached the top of the stairs, Sean’s voice came over the communication pin. “Ahh, shit! These things are a–” His next word was overshadowed by the sound of an obnoxiously loud burst of gunfire from Vulcan in gun form. “–pain in the ass! Okay, listen. Avalon wants to know if you guys are at the bridge yet. She’s just a little busy dealing with these annoying shits, so I get to do the talking.”

“Almost,” I replied shortly while continuing up to the door at the top of the stairs. “You guys okay?”

Another burst of gunfire came then before the boy responded. “We’ll make it. Fuckers like to pop out of the woodwork, and every other kind of work. So be careful.” He shot at something else and called a warning to Avalon before going on. “We need you to find a map or something up in the bridge and direct us, tell us the easiest way to get to the engine compartment once Columbus and Sands get here.”

“We’re on it.” Hurrying faster, I moved up to the landing at the top of the stairs and gave the door a yank. Locked. And the thing looked like a pretty heavily reinforced door. Probably meant to keep the guests off the bridge where they didn’t belong. Grimacing, I glanced toward Scout. “Watch out,” I warned her before stepping back to give myself room. Gripping the nearby railing with one hand, I put my other one on the door and took a breath before heaving backwards. It might’ve been meant to withstand a normal person trying to force it open, but there was no way it could hold against my enhanced strength. There was a brief resistance, then the sound of grinding metal before it ripped open.

Scout was right behind me as we moved into the bridge. The place looked incredibly intimidating. Hell, it looked more like the control room of a spaceship than the actual spaceship that I’d been on with the Meregan. There were two levels. First, the slightly lower one we came in on. A line of tall, slightly curved windows surrounded the exterior, overlooking the deck below and the ocean in the distance. Several desks with computers built into the raised portion were set up along this lower section, built into the floor itself so they wouldn’t move. There were also a handful of monitors that were suspended from the ceiling, held up by metal mounting brackets or braces of some kind that were wrapped all the way around the monitors to keep them firmly in place even if the boat rocked heavily. Most of the screens were either completely blank, or just showed a blue screen. One had a view of the empty ocean.

The big, heavily cushioned blue chairs were bolted into the floor as well, and were raised high enough off the floor to have foot rests. And the keyboards were fastened in place. Everything was clearly meant to stay right where it was no matter how much the ocean rocked the ship back and forth during its trip.

Two different short flights of stairs, one at each end of the room, led to the upper area where more desks and computers were, as well as what looked like the actual controls for the ship and the spot where the captain would be. Even from where we were at the entrance, I could see a map of the ocean on one of the screens that seemed to be getting updates about the surrounding water, as well as other information that I couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, the whole thing looked like Star Trek to me.

“Okay.” I nodded, looking toward my companion. “Now we just need to find a map of the ship for–”

That was as far as I got before Scout abruptly snapped her rifle up and pulled the trigger. Her shot went over my shoulder, and I spun that way in time to see one of the skeleblineists recoiling back into the wall from where he had been reaching for me. An instant later, one of the chairs literally tore itself off its mounting and flew at my face. A quick swipe of my staff sent it careening in the other direction to crash into one of the monitors. “Fuck, guess we’re not–” I started before yelping as a boney-rotted hand grabbed onto my wrist and yanked me sideways. My staff started to snap around at it, but suddenly stopped. I glanced that way to see another of the things leaning out of the console, grasping my staff with both hands to stop me from swinging it. Meanwhile, the first one clawed at my arm and hissed.

In the background, I could hear Scout dealing with goblins of her own. Which meant I was on my own. Luckily, that wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Grimacing as the first one dug his claws into my arm, I snapped my attention to the second. It was still holding my staff. “That,” I informed him flatly, “was a mistake.” With that, I triggered the explosive burst. The kinetic energy slammed into the creature, knocking it away with a scream. And now that the staff was free, I was able to spin around with a grunt and slam the end of it into the second creature that wouldn’t stop clawing into my arm.

The blow knocked the skeleblineist out of the wall and to the floor. But before I could follow up, the thing literally sank into the floor and disappeared again while leaving behind little more than a squeal.

“That’s getting really old!” I snarled the words while looking toward Scout. The other girl was aiming her rifle at a chair, but gave a slight nod without looking away. Clearly the one she’d been fighting had disappeared into it. Now, however, there was no telling where the hell the damn thing had gotten to.

Tilting my head, I thought briefly. My eyes landed on the spot where the staff’s explosive blast had hit the skeleblineist that had been holding onto my arm. There was a tiny spot of dark yellow blood on the wall where the thing had been, a sight that actually made me smile just a little bit. “Oh, hello there.”

Leaning down, I touched my hand against the blood and focused on it while closing my eyes. Then I straightened, readied my staff, and slowly looked around while muttering a plea under my breath.

It worked. The blood-tracking ability that I’d inherited from the harpy on the Meregan’s world kicked in. I felt the presence of the skeleblineist directly above me, in the ceiling. It was hiding there, waiting for an opening. So I gave it one. Turning away, I took a step toward Scout. The presence above me followed. As I continued to walk that way, it pursued me. One step after another, the thing waited to pounce. And I let it think it had the upper hand, forcing myself to act like I didn’t know where it was.

One final step, and I sensed the skeleblineist make its move. The thing lunged down out of the ceiling. If I hadn’t known it was there, it would have taken me completely by surprise and probably gotten its hands around my throat. Instead, I spun and whipped up the staff that I had been charging up the whole time. As the staff slammed into the completely surprised goblin-thing, I triggered the explosion. The skeleblineist had time to let out a single second of a shriek before literally popping apart. I was sprayed with so much gunk and assorted nasty bits that I might as well have been in the front row of a Gallagher show. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it didn’t exactly smell pretty either. But the thing was dead.

Of course, that meant that there was a moment of distraction as a rush of pleasure rose in me. I was starting to get the hang of it, but still. I shuddered, eyes closing briefly as I felt the rush from killing the thing. My aura glowed briefly, filling the dimly lit room around us before it, and the pleasure, faded.

Opening my eyes, I grimaced while rubbing a hand over my face. “Eww. Remind me to bring wet-naps the next time we do this.” Then I focused on Scout. “One down,” I announced before stepping that way. She’d managed to hit one of the things with a shot, and its blood was on the console nearby. Extending a hand, I touched the sticky substance. “I’ve got this,” I announced. “Can you look for that map?”

She nodded silently, moving to do that while I focused on the room around us. My eyes scanned one way, but I could sense the skeleblineist on the opposite side of the room. It was lurking in one of the monitors, and began slowly making its way through the desks to where Scout was walking. Breathing out, I turned away and pretended to carefully inspect the completely empty door while activating the communication pin as the other girl stopped at another monitor. “Scout,” I whispered under my breath. “When I say now, turn to your right and shoot straight for that chair that’s at the console next to you.”

Then I waited, pretending to studiously ignore that side of the room while focusing almost entirely on my blood-sense. The thing crept closer and closer, confident in its ability to hide. It reached the chair that I had known it would use as a place to jump out from, and I whispered, “Almost.. get ready…” Another handful of seconds passed as the thing braced itself. Then it was lunging outward. “Now!”

Instantly, Scout spun that way and brought her rifle up. Without aiming, she fired a shot from the hip that took the suddenly revealed skeleblineist directly in the face. Its head went poof and disintegrated.

Walking that way quickly while Scout dealt with her own rush of pleasure, I kept a sharp eye out for any more of the things while activating my pin to contact the rest of the team. “You guys still there?”

“Tell us you’ve got directions,” Sands’ voice came back. “Because this place is a gods damned maze.”

“Got it, one sec.” Muttering about annoying hiding monsters, I looked to Scout. “We’ve got it, right?”

The other girl nodded and tapped at the computer before pointing to the screen. She’d brought up the map of the lower levels. “Okay, where are you guys?” I asked while looking at the monitor. “What do you see?”

They explained what they were seeing, and I figured out where they were. While Scout kept scanning the room with her gun, I directed the rest of our team through the maze of the lower levels and to the main engine compartment. Then I let them figure out what to do with it while looking toward Scout.

“Okay, time to make sure the rest of this ship is empty. Any idea how to do that without going room by room?”

Smiling slightly at that, Scout lifted a hand to point to the nearby handset for the intercom system.

“I always did want to make the morning announcements,” I muttered while reaching out to pick it up. Hesitating, I thought for a second before activating it. “Attention, listen up. If anyone is still alive on the ship, get to the main deck. Or at least get out into the corridors where the security cameras can see you, and we’ll help. Repeat, if you are alive, get out where the cameras can see you.”

By the time I’d finished with that, Scout had already managed to bring up the security feed on the nearest monitor. She started flipping through it, camera by camera while we watched intently for any sign of survivors. Not that I expected there to be any, but there was always a chance that the Heretics had missed someone. Especially after everything else that I’d seen happen in the past couple months.

And yet, no survivors appeared. We watched the monitors carefully, flipping through all of them. We were even able to check on the rest of the team in the engine compartment. Leaving that one up on a monitor, we switched to one of the others and kept watching, just in case. On a third monitor, I checked to make sure that their path straight out and to the deck would be clear as soon as they set those explosives.

“We’re pretty much done here,” Avalon’s voice announced. On the screen, I saw her step back from where she had planted one of Columbus’s devices. It looked basically like an alarm clock with a huge wad of silly putty stuck to it, along with some wires. It couldn’t have looked more like a bomb if it was a black ball with a lit fuse sticking out.

“Go,” she ordered Sands and Sean, clearly using the communicator so that we would know what was going on as well. “Gerardo, use Vulcan to make sure the path is clear. Follow Chambers’ directions. Mason, follow him and cover his back. We’ll set these to go off just after we get off the ship.”

The other two moved out, and I let out a breath of relief.

Which, of course, was pretty much when everything went wrong. Sands and Sean had barely made it up the stairs to the deck before Columbus abruptly whipped around as if he had heard something. On the screen, he pointed to one of the bombs they had set. I saw Avalon twist that way as well. Then the screen abruptly went white, and the ship was rocked hard. It felt like a giant fist had risen up out of the sea and punched it. Scout and I were thrown to the floor, and on one of the screens I saw both Sands and Sean go flying over the side of the railing, plummeting into the water.

“Avalon, Columbus!” I shouted into the pin after picking myself up. “What the he–”

Then I shut up. The view on the screen had come back. I saw a hole in the side of the ship where the bomb had been. Water was rapidly filling the compartment, while Avalon was laying unconscious (I hoped) on the floor beside one of the other bombs. There was no sign of Columbus.

Scout had already spun toward the door, shouting her sister’s name in a voice that was utterly full of terror. Before she had even taken a step, however, Professor Dare appeared directly in between us. Her hand caught Scout’s arm and mine, and her eyes were closed, brow knit with obvious concentration.

“We’re in a time-stop bubble,” the professor announced through gritted teeth. “The whole ship is. I need you to listen. Someone tampered with the explosives that Columbus brought on board. I checked them myself this morning to make sure they were okay to bring on this trip and they were fine. Obviously, someone switched them out, or altered them after I checked. That bomb shouldn’t have gone off this soon. And the second one is about to go off with Avalon laying right on top of it.”

“Then get her out of there!” I demanded.

“I have to hold the time-stop,” she explained, her voice still terse. “If I lose focus, that second bomb is going to go off. Scout, Deveron will get your sister. Trust him. He’s got her. Wyatt’s getting Sean, and Bennet already went under to grab Columbus the second he was sucked out of the hole. They’ve got them. You two need to get down there and get Avalon away from the bomb. Go now.

Scout and I looked at each other for half a second.

Then we ran.

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