Columbus Porter

Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” Someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone, “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us  would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked what you… inherited?”

The question made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”
“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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“I’m sorry,” I announced later, “Our new hunt is gonna take place where, exactly?”

Yeah, it was time for the hunt. Which meant that the whole team was here. Not just the team, but Deveron as well, and Professor Dare. Which meant that, since finding out that Seosten couldn’t possess hybrids had cleared Vanessa and Tristan, there was about a ninety percent certainty that whoever that Seosten had possessed was actually in this room right now. Someone I trusted. It had to be someone I trusted, and there weren’t many candidates other than these people.

I just had to keep it together, knowing that one of the people around me was most likely plotting the murder of Avalon and enslavement of me and everyone I cared about. Right, no problem.

“Suarilia,” Professor Dare repeated, standing there with her hands behind her back in the portal room of the Pathmaker building. “It’s a small outpost world that was set–”

Columbus interrupted. “Okay, wait. Outpost world? As in, ‘not Earth’? You’re sending us to a different world for this hunt? I mean…” He gestured slightly. “Yeah, sure, living up to my namesake and all. But still.”

“Please,” I urged him, “don’t live up to your namesake. We’ve got enough evil people to deal with.”

Clearing her throat while giving us both a look, Sands asked, “Suarilia, I know that name. Wasn’t that the place where that outpost got wiped out by the Hangman a couple years ago?”

Professor Dare gave a slight nod. “Yes. The outpost was manned by roughly twenty Heretics and their assorted families, until they were attacked by a single Hangman. There were no survivors.”  

If he had been surprised before, now Columbus’s eyes widened even more. “Wait, what? You mean one Hangman killed… killed twenty Heretics? As in full Heretics, not just students?”

“Correct, Mr. Porter,” Dare confirmed. “It killed twenty full Heretics and their families, who were no slouches of their own. Hangmen,” she added flatly while frowning, “are no laughing matter.”

“But…”  Beside me, Sean swallowed hard, continuing. “You’re not sending us out to find the Hangman, right? I mean, yeah, we’re a pretty badass team, and I know Gaia wants to challenge us and all, but…” He trailed off, looking pale even as Vulcan nudged against him reassuringly.

It was Deveron who spoke up. “The Hangman’s dead already, don’t worry.” His face was serious as he added, “They sent enough Heretics to put the thing in the ground four or five times over. Hunted it right to the edge of the world and finished the damn thing off. Pericles was part of it.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in her sister’s ear then, and Sands spoke up for her after nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. Scout wants to know what we’re doing if there’s no more outpost and the thing that wiped it out is already dead. Did they bring the outpost back or something?”

Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Deveron, and Professor Dare. Any of them could have been possessed by the Seosten. Any of them could actually be a threat. The thought was… well, it was really, really depressing. We had to get that damn choker away from Pace so that we could identify who was possessed and be done with this whole stupid paranoia bullshit.

Yeah, the choker. Unfortunately, Sands had heard the exact same thing I had from Namid. Which meant that there was no way for me to say that we should keep it secret from the others without, at the very least, drastically raising her suspicions if she was the one who was possessed. I’d had no way to suggest keeping quiet about it, so now the whole team knew what the choker could supposedly do. They’d all acted excited about the possibility, of course. And yet, there were good odds that, even if we did get to Pace, one of them was going to try to get rid of the thing before we could actually use it.

Oh well, we were just going to have to deal with that when the time came. I’d keep my eyes open and watch for any of them trying to make a move for it.

It did raise another question though. Why? We knew that Pace, Doxer, and Trice were working with the people who were trying to kill Avalon. And now we knew that at least a couple of those people were actually Seosten. So why would the Seosten allow Pace to walk around with some kind of magical artifact that allowed her to identify when they were possessing someone? How had that come about and why were they letting it continue in the first place?

It was just one of a few dozen questions I wanted to ask the crazy girl when the time came.

Meanwhile, Dare was explaining. “No, the outpost has not been resettled yet. But, we have been looking into it. And in the time the place was…” She paused, wincing a little before settling on, “abandoned, a few smaller threats have settled into the remains. They aren’t anywhere near the level of danger that the Hangman was, but they are still a potential problem. A problem that needs to be dealt with. Originally, the Committee was going to send a couple of regular hoplites in, but, well, they were convinced to allow this to be one of our normal training exercises instead.”

Normal, right. Because any of this ever turned out to be normal. Still, something else made me blink and raise a hand. “Uh, hoplites? You mean like the old Greek soldier guys with the spears?”

It was Deveron who explained. “You know how Runners are basically detectives or investigators? Hoplites are… uh, basically foot soldier-level Heretics. Usually, their recent graduates who haven’t really made a big name for themselves yet. They tend to get deployed onto new worlds that need a heavy Heretic presence to maintain our foothold in, but aren’t quite dangerous enough to warrant one of the more powerful people. Numbers, they’re basically about numbers. Plus,” he added thoughtfully, “It’s a way of letting younger, newer Heretics gain more power faster.”

I didn’t miss the fact that it also put the more easily expendable people out on the front lines. But he wasn’t wrong either. It was a good way of letting them gain power. Plus, he had said that they were used on worlds that didn’t actually need the more experienced Heretics. So I supposed there were both good and bad things about the system. Maybe I should wait on the whole judging thing.  

“Yes,” Dare was saying, “as I said, the Committee was convinced to allow students to investigate and handle the situation. Which means that you’ll have the opportunity to see an Outpost world.”

“Plus,” Sands put in, “going to a whole new world should make it harder for those assholes to come after Avalon again. Or at least make it easier to track them down if they do.”

Yeah, I thought to myself without speaking, but are you happy about that because it means your teammate is safer, or upset because it makes your job of trying to kill her that much harder?

Yup, I was gonna go ahead and make a firm declaration. Paranoia sucked. It really, really sucked.

******

As it turned out, Suarilia, or at least the part that the former Crossroads outpost had been located at, was dull and drab. The sky was gray, with wispy, sickly yellow clouds, and the single sun was a slightly blueish color that cast a tint over everything. Meanwhile, the soil was brownish-green, and the local equivalent of grass (which basically had a thin stalk similar to grass, only with a wider, circular top about a half inch across that made it more like clover) was rather bright orange. Which stood out pretty well against the otherwise gray landscape, but there wasn’t more than a few patches of the stuff here and there. Mostly it was the dull, off-green dirt.

The outpost itself, which Dare had informed us had been called Chantli, after the Aztec word for house, was almost like one of those old forts from the classic American West. Basically, the whole place was surrounded by ten foot tall metal walls that were about a foot thick. The walls were arranged in an octagon formation, with a guard tower at each of the eight corners that rose another ten feet higher. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more buildings within the enclosure of the walls. One was placed directly in the center of the area and was obviously some kind of command post, while the one next to it looked like an infirmary of some kind. A third building closer to the entrance looked like an armory and supply center. And at the opposite side of the fort, furthest from the entrance, there was a place that had obviously been a combination cafeteria and entertainment lounge for people to relax and try not to go crazy out here.

Finally, the remaining eight buildings were set up with four near the western side of the fort and four near the eastern side. They were taller than the other structures, and were apparently living quarters for the twenty Heretics and their families that had been here. Apartments, basically.

Twenty Heretics, all of them wiped out by a single Hangman. That would have been basically one fifth of my entire class. Almost four entire teams. Basically everyone I even semi-regularly interacted with, all murdered by a single Hangman. That was… that… yeah, maybe that explained why we could have a graduating class of a hundred or so Heretics each year without completely overrunning everything. These outposts were dangerous places, and considering how many worlds were probably out there… yeah, I could see now why, even with a much longer general lifespan, they still needed to recruit and train as many students as they did.

Especially since Crossroads considered everything not-human to be a threat. Exactly how many worlds had we invaded? How many worlds were out there where the Alters who lived on it saw us the same way that we saw those alien monsters in all those sci-fi invasion movies? Or worse, how many worlds saw us as more like demons, who came from another dimension to destroy and kill everyone they loved? How many families, cities, entire civilizations had we destroyed?

“Uh, Flick?” Sean interrupted my musing as the six of us stood in the middle of the outpost grounds. “You alright over there? You look kind of… annoyed, I guess?”

“What’s wrong?” Deveron’s voice came through the communication button from where he and Dare had set up, close enough to intervene if anything happened. “Did you see something, or–”

“Down, boy,” I tried teasing to make him calm down. “I was just thinking about something else. Never mind, it’s okay.” Shaking it off, I focused. “So what are we looking for here?”

Before anyone could answer, Vulcan whined and trotted away from us. He was heading for the cafeteria. With a collective shrug, the rest of us followed after while keeping a wary eye out for the Strangers that had apparently taken up residence around this place. Or any other… interruptions.

In the cafeteria, which basically looked like a small cafe with an attached entertainment room, I immediately caught the scent of what smelled like burnt meat. A closer inspection of the corner revealed a pile of dark blue, circular excrement that had what I swore was tiny sparks dancing through it. The sparks came and went, almost like the poop itself was an almost-dead sparkler.

Sands groaned at the sight of the stuff, putting a hand to her head. “Oh, great, these things.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Sean pointed out. “At least the assholes can’t fly.”

Avalon’s head shook as she sighed. “No, but they jump pretty well.”

Raising a hand to wave around, I gestured. “Anyone wanna help those of us who are still lost?”

Sands explained. “The uh, crap’s from something called a spinnevurr. Basically, think of a furry spider about as big as a Great Dane that can spin or spit webs that it can spontaneously ignite into flames any time it wants to. Oh, and they’re immune to any kind of fire or heat damage. Plus, they always know when one of their own kind is in trouble, even from far away. And… what else?” She looked curiously toward her sister, Avalon, and Sean to see if they added anything.

“Like Avalon said, they jump really far, really fast,” Sean put in. “Like, from one end of a basketball court to the other in one leap. And they like to throw out a lot of webs when they do. Webs that pretty much immediately catch fire and stick to whatever they’re attacking.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Right, so all the fun in the world, then. Marvelous.” Looking toward Columbus, I added, “Sounds like we’re dealing with Spider-Man and the Human Torch’s mutant love-child. Or children, whatever.”  

He nodded, making a face. “Sounds like a bad fanfic. So let’s find the things and wipe them out.”

We kept looking, finding more signs of the fire-spiders (mostly in the form of literal flaming poop), but none of the actual creatures themselves. However, our search eventually led to a hole in the south-eastern wall, near the tower there. The hole itself had obviously been burned through the metal, and there were several pieces of dark green, sticky webbing that smelled like kerosene.

“Guess this is where they came in and out,” Avalon murmured thoughtfully. She crouched near one of the bits of flammable webbing, careful not to touch it. “And they went that way.” Raising a hand, she pointed off through the drab gray landscape, where we could see a trail of the stuff.  

“Not just that way,” Sands put in, nodding toward Scout, who was pointing off in a different direction. “There’s stuff over there too.”

“And there,” Sean added with a grimace as he gestured yet a third way. “So we’ve got three different groups.”

“Attack one at a time?” Columbus asked, his hand moving to gently pat Vulcan on the head.

Avalon spoke up then. “No. We need to find these things and get rid of them, as efficiently as possible.” Her eyes glanced to me then as she explained, “It’s like Mason said, all spinnevurrs in a given… hive, tribe, group, whatever, are in constant contact with each other. Some kind of telepathic link. Or maybe it’s just empathic. The point is, they know when one of their own kind is in trouble, and they come running. Which means if we hit one group of them, the rest’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. And they’ll know exactly how to ambush us.”

“So we split up,” I murmured. “Two people for each group. Watch them, see what’s going on and make sure it’s safe to attack. Then we all jump them at the same time.”

There was a bit of discussion (and some argument) over the issue of splitting up. But in the end, it was the best way to handle the situation. We had to hit all the fire-spiders at the same time.

To that end, we split into partners. The twins went together, as did the boys. Which left Avalon and me to work our way along the first path that we had found. Together, the two of us followed the signs of the spinnevurrs over the dull brownish-green ground with patches of bright orange clover-grass.  Out here, I could also see what looked like the local equivalent of trees. They were really tall (for Earth standards, still tiny as far as Eden’s Garden was concerned), standing about forty feet high. Instead of a single solid trunk, they had what looked like dozens of thin vines all wrapped around each other tightly, forming a sort-of rope-like trunk. More vine-structures emerged at various heights like branches, with bright purple bits sticking out of them that were shaped like triangles. They looked like the ‘tree’s’ version of leaves, except several times thicker. Maybe a combination of leaves and fruit. I wasn’t sure.

Either way, we followed the path while keeping in contact with the rest of the team as well as Dare and Deveron. Gradually, the two of us worked our way to the top of a slight hill. As soon as we were up there, Avalon yanked me down while ducking herself.

“There,” she announced, pointing to a spot in a small field below. I could see four of the things there. Sure enough, they looked like fuzzy tarantulas that happened to be as big as Vulcan. They were an eclectic assortment of color combinations. One was bright orange with violet stripes along its back. Another one, the largest, was neon blue with red polka dots. Meanwhile, the third and forth were basically mirror images of each other. One was lime green and had black diagonal stripes going down both sides, while the other was black with lime green stripes.

Using the communication badge, I contacted the others. “We’ve got ours,” I murmured. “Four right below us.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to report that they’d found their own targets. Together, we waited until everyone had announced that they were ready. Finally, Avalon counted down so that we could all hit them simultaneously.

Then, it was time. Avalon announced, “Go,” and we were moving. She simply leapt off the hill, while I used a burst from my staff to throw myself into the air in order to come down on the spider-things from above.

And yet… in the end, it didn’t matter. As we both landed, ready to deal with the spiders, there was a sudden gunshot. No, four gunshots. Instantly, all four of the spinnevurrs simply… disintegrated

Avalon and I both spun toward the source of the gunshots, and found ourselves staring at two figures.

“Well,” Trice announced, flipping the rifle he was holding around until it transformed back into the pike that I had already seen. “That was a fun appetizer. How about the main course?” His chin lifted. “Of course, I’ll feel worse about putting down the spiders than you, you murdering cunt.”

Doxer, beside him, added, “Oh, and don’t worry about calling in or anything.” He tossed a small silver orb up and down once. “You won’t get through the jamming. But don’t worry, we already set up some pre-recorded messages to go off so they’ll think everything’s fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, you guys are just fighting the spinnevurrs, just like them.”

“Honestly,” he added, clearly far more amused by this whole situation than Trice was. Torv’s brother was just pissed off and lashing out with that hate and anger. Doxer was actually having fun. “You guys made this whole thing too easy. You think it’s hard for us to get to another world with you? With our contact? Pfft.”

“You’re here,” I spoke dully, feeling Avalon tense beside me. “You actually came all the way out here.”     

“Aww, don’t tell us you’re surprised,” the dark-skinned boy mocked us with a smirk. “We RSVP’d and everything.”

“Surprised?” I echoed, slowly turning my gaze to look at the girl beside me. “Were you surprised?”

Without glancing my way, Avalon kept her eyes leveled evenly at Trice. Her words were flat. “No.”

Shrugging, I looked back to the older boys. “See, she wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. But there was…” Slowly, I tapped my finger against my head while speaking thoughtfully. “… someone, there was someone who was about to be surprised. Now who was–” Abruptly, I stopped. “Oh, right. You. You were the ones who were about to be surprised. Cantaloupe.”

“Cantaloupe?” Doxer started to snort. “What the fuck kind of last word is that supposed to–”   

And yet, as I said the word, a pale-blue, semi-translucent wall of energy rose up all around us, closing into a dome about a hundred feet across, with a ceiling that was twenty feet up. The result of a spell, a spell that had been prepared by Wyatt several hours earlier, long before any of us had come here.

“The hell?” Doxer muttered aloud while reaching out. As his hand touched the shield, there was a zap of energy and he stumbled back with a curse. His gaze snapped to his partner before he cursed again, adding, “Those two didn’t make this shit. It’s gonna take some time to get through.”

Tilting my head thoughtfully, I cut in. “You guys were right about one thing. This is a trap. Just not exactly the kind you thought it was.”

Because the truth was, acting surprised about where we were going earlier had been just that: an act. I knew. Gaia, Wyatt, Avalon, and I had planned it, had planned for all of this. Gaia sent us to this separate world to ensure that there was no easy way for any innocent civilians to get caught in the middle, no hostages for them to take. Nothing to distract from what was about to happen.  Wyatt had set up the shield spell ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. And we made sure to separate from the rest of the team to draw in our would-be ambushers, as well as making sure that whoever the Seosten spy was, they wouldn’t see what was going on. Not only would the magical shield trap them here so they couldn’t run away, but it would also ensure that any listening devices or other ways of keeping in touch with their contact wouldn’t be able to give any kind of warning. They were cut off entirely from outside assistance.

“No one leaves,” Avalon drew their attention back to her. “No one comes in. It’s just you and us.”

“You and us, huh?” Trice snorted. He cracked his neck by turning his head from one side and then to the other. “Sounds like you’re finally gonna get what’s coming to you, bitch.”

Doxer’s head shook. “Nah, you know what it sounds like to me?” He winked. “Two helpless little girls. Sounds like a party.”  

“You think we’re helpless?” My staff slid down in my grip a bit, and I snapped it out to the side.

“Come find out.”

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And  get passed all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”

******

“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to say something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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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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