Donald Therasis

Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Investigations 25-05 – Rudolph Parsons (Interlude Arc)

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on Sariel/Larissa and the history of the Seosten. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Sunday Evening, January 28th, 2018 (One day before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Rudolph Parsons never got emotional about anything. That wasn’t exactly true, since he had plenty of emotions. He just didn’t see the point of showing them. Not that he was some emotionless robot or anything. He could be happy, sad, or anything in between. But most of the time, he didn’t really express much of that emotion. He couldn’t even really explain why. It just felt… well, in some ways it felt embarrassing to get overly emotional, either in a negative way or a positive way. It wasn’t just expressing sorrow or anger he had issues with. Overly expressive displays of happiness and amusement were hard too. He hated the idea of clapping and laughing in public, and going as far as cheering was completely out of the question. Let alone anything negative like yelling or… crying. The very thought made him shudder.

A good part of that had to do with his upbringing. After all, Warren Boyd Parsons, Rudolph’s father, treated emotions as if they were some kind of plague unleashed upon the world by maniacal Strangers and easily turned lethal through the sharing of them. Raised in Victorian London, Warren still dressed and behaved as though those days had never ended, wearing a flawless burgundy velvet vest over his full high collar, crisply pressed and buttoned white shirt, black ascot, dark pants, and of course, his perfectly-shined black leather boots. It wasn’t always the exact same outfit, but it was always along the same lines, and he wore them whenever he went any further than his own bedroom, which tended to attract attention in public. Attention which the man studiously and emphatically ignored. Because to not ignore it would be to show an emotion, and Warren Boyd Parsons would sooner cut open his own chest and hand an onlooker his heart than expose its existence in any other way.

Not that he was a bad father. He never raised his voice, he never struck any of his children, he provided everything they needed materially and he ensured that they were always cared for. Rudolph knew his father loved him, in his way. It simply wasn’t in the man to be demonstrative about it. And yet, growing up that way had its toll. While Rudolph wasn’t quite as repressed as his father when it came to emotions, it still wasn’t his first instinct to show them. Showing emotions in private was one thing, while the idea of public displays still made the boy cringe. Inwardly, of course. Must keep up appearances and all that.

Maybe that was why his great-great grandfather had taken such an interest in him. Far different from Rudolph’s father/his own great-grandson, Donald Therasis was never hesitant to show any emotion the second he felt it. And the emotions he felt most of the time was cheerfulness and joy, particularly when it came to the ideas of teaching and sharing information. The man considered everyone his students, and was genuinely tickled every time he was able to help them in some way, never making any attempt to hide his delight. And in Rudolph’s case, his great-great-grandfather consistently went above and beyond in an attempt to include him and pull the boy out of his shell.

Which was kind of why lying to and manipulating the man felt so unbelievably shitty.

“So,” Grandpa Donald started casually while leading Rudolph and Doug (who had accompanied him for this while the rest of the team stayed back) through the hospital on Sunday evening, “remind me what this report was that made you kids want to see Josiah?”

“Extra credit project,” Rudolph explained after a moment, biting his lip before continuing the way that they had rehearsed while trying to make it not sound rehearsed. “It’s for Professor Ross’s class, Heretical History. We wanted to do a project on someone who used to teach at Crossroads, but doesn’t anymore. You know, see how their lives have changed with different careers, and see what Crossroads was like a long time ago. Just that kind of thing.”

Grandpa Donald looked back toward them, and for just a second, Rudolph was afraid that the man was going to push the issue. In the end, however, he just nodded. “Well, okay then! Here we go.” Gesturing to a door, he cautioned, “Now remember, Josiah only has about a couple hours to talk before his next class. So make sure you don’t keep him too long, alright?”

The boys emphatically promised, and Grandpa Donald quickly excused himself to take care of a patient. With a quick glance to one another, Rudolph and Douglas stepped to the open door, the latter giving a soft rap against the doorjamb while they poked their heads inside.

Whatever the place normally was, it had been set up as some kind of miniature classroom, with four tables arranged in front of a larger desk. Each table had three chairs behind it, allowing twelve students to sit in and listen to the lecture. Behind the main desk itself, Josiah Carfried (a man who looked like he was in his late thirties with stringy blonde hair, a good build, and a heavily broken nose) glanced up at the sound of the knock before rising quickly. “Oh, hey there,” he greeted them while stepping around the desk to approach. “You must be the boys. Ah, lemme guess…” To Rudolph, he lifted his chin, “You’re Warren’s kid, right?”

After confirming that and introducing Douglas, Rudolph asked, “Did you really teach at Crossroads two-hundred years ago?” Even if this was a cover for their true intentions (and as laid-back and unemotional as the boy tended to be), actually talking to someone who had been a part of the school that long ago and then left was still actually pretty interesting.

Giving a slightly crooked smile (to match his crooked nose), Josiah nodded. “Sure did. That’s why you guys came in, right? Come on, have a seat. We can talk about what the place was like under old man Ruthers.” Pausing, he added, “Let’s just say you’ve got it easier now.”

They did just that. It would’ve been obvious if they didn’t listen to the stories that they had supposedly made the trip for in the first place, so Rudolph and Doug took the offered seats and started to ask the man questions about what the school had been like back then. And Rudolph had to agree, they were lucky to be going there under Gaia Sinclaire instead.

For an hour and a half, they listened to and questioned the man. Doug did most of the talking on their side after the initial part. Rudolph was content (as he was with most things) to simply sit back and listen while letting the other two guide the discussion.

Eventually, Doug managed to find the right opening. Raising a hand, he asked, “But you’re coming back, right? I mean, coming back to visit the school for Professor Dare’s Track class thing.” Gesturing toward Rudolph, the boy added, “That’s what he heard, anyway.”

Blinking once, Josiah nodded. “Oh, well, yeah. You heard right.” Smiling slyly at Rudolph, he asked, “You’re part of that group, aren’t you? Gonna be there for the thing tomorrow?”

Rudolph gave a slow nod at that, carefully choosing his words. This part was incredibly important. “I sort-of overheard that you’re gonna have a contest, with like… a prize.”  

The man hesitated, looking briefly uncertain before finally shrugging it off. “Sure, yeah. I guess it’s not really unfair if you know about the prize and all that. You can’t exactly practice for what we’re doing, so it’s not that much of an advantage. So yeah, we will be doing… something with your group, and the pair that pulls it off is gonna win a trip into New York.”

Beside Rudolph, Doug asked, “Pairs, how does that work? I mean, how do you set them up? Jazz and Rudolph are from the same team, but what about students that are there solo?”

“Oh, that?” Josiah explained easily, “I’ll just divide the groups up into pairs beforehand. You ah, might not get on a pairing with your teammate, Rudolph. You okay with that?”

Rudolph shrugged. “It’s okay, I can work with someone else.” Hesitating a bit, he asked, “How’re you dividing us, anyway? Choosing names out of a hat, or what?” This was the important part. They had to make this work, or risk leaving what pairing he and Jazz ended up with completely to chance. And with something this important, they couldn’t do that.

Hell, up to this point in this whole investigation, Rudolph hadn’t invested too much into it. Not that he didn’t care about Roxa (even if he didn’t know her as well as the others). He was just less invested in the theory that Flick had something to do with it, even if Doug’s power had kept pointing him at her.  After the interactions that he’d had with her, he just didn’t believe she was the kind of monster that the others thought she was. There had to be something else to it.

Besides, Doug’s power was pointing them at Flick, which everyone else was taking as her being somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance. But what if it was pointing them at her because she was a witness? Or because she knew something she didn’t know that she knew. Or… there were a dozen different options that they could be pointed at Flick for beyond her being a cackling villain. But arguing with the team he’d just met and who barely trusted him as it was wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And he hadn’t yet figured out the best way to go about fixing this whole thing.

So a part of him had been dragging his feet even more than usual. But this, this was a chance to actually have a face-to-face discussion with the other girl about everything that was going on, a way of confronting her away from everything at Crossroads. And that, that he could get behind.

“Well,” Josiah replied, “I thought I’d use a sock, actually. But basically, yeah. I know it’s not really… what’s the word you kids use these days, sexy? I know it’s not some sexy power or anything, but sometimes simple is best. Write the names on some paper, tear ‘em all off, then pull ‘em out of a sock.” He winked then. “Easy enough, right? I ah, just gotta give Virginia a quick call and get that list of names.”

And there it was. Doug paused slightly before speaking up, his tone as casual as possible considering the importance of the moment. “Oh, uh, Rudolph could probably help with that, right?” He glanced toward the boy. “You know who everyone on the Investigation track is?”

Rudolph coughed, doing his best to look uninterested. That, at least, was one thing that he had a lot of practice in. “Um, yeah,” he drawled slowly. “I guess I know who’s on the Track.”

“Rudolph could write down the names,” Doug suggested, nodding that way. “I mean, that’d be fair, right? He’s not picking them or anything, so there’s not, you know, some advantage.”  

“Eh.” Josiah shrugged, and Rudolph had the distinct impression that for all their effort to make this sound as casual as possible, the man wouldn’t actually care that much if they were trying to fix the teams. “Yeah, sounds about right. You wanna write down those names before the next class gets in here then? You can help me pick ‘em out.”

Flipping open the same notebook that he’d been scribbling notes in the whole time that they’d been asking Josiah questions about his time at Crossroads, Doug carefully tore out one page, one very specifically prepared page. “Here man,” he offered while extending it to Rudolph. “Write ‘em on this.”

Taking the offered paper, Rudolph had to focus to make sure his hand didn’t shake too much. This was the whole reason they were here. Josiah might not really care if they wanted to work with specific people, but it was better if he didn’t know that for sure. If he started to think that they intentionally put one of their own team with someone from Flick’s team, he might say something to the wrong person and then… well, it was just best if the man didn’t suspect that they had any interest in Flick’s team at all. Which was why they weren’t going to put Rudolph with one of the twins. No. They’d be using Jazz instead. That way, if Josiah did start thinking they’d done anything, he’d look at whoever Rudolph ended up with.

Setting the paper out on the table, he started writing down names, listing them out loud as he did so. Each name, he put directly next to a tiny, almost imperceptible black dot that had been added to the paper. One dot for each possible name. All but two were black, while that pair were red. On each of the red dots, he wrote and announced Jazz’s and Sands’ names, in turn.

It continued. Writing down the names of every student in the Freshman Investigation Track for the second semester, Rudolph held it up so that Josiah could see before starting to tear the names off into little individual slips. One at a time, he tore the page up and then jumbled all the pieces a bit, using the moment to cover as he focused. It wasn’t a hard spell, but it did require a second of focus to trigger. So he used the time while straightening up to do it.

“Yeah, I bet you wanna see who you’re gonna end up partnered with, huh?” the man guessed with a wink.

The two boys looked at each other, before Rudolph nodded. “I guess so, sir. But um, could you maybe not…”

“Not tell anyone you helped out with this so you don’t get blamed if people don’t like their partner? You got it,” Josiah assured him. “Time comes, we don’t know each other.” He seemed amused by the idea of having a secret like that, and chuckled to himself while tugging a pair of clean wool socks out of his jacket pocket (why he had them on him Rudolph wasn’t going to ask). Then the man pulled the socks apart before holding one open. “Alright, dump the scraps in here.”

Rudolph did so, pushing the bits of paper deep down in before stepping back. He and Doug watched as the man reached down in, taking out one scrap first before looking at the name. “Travis Colby and…” Reaching into the bag again, he felt around before coming out with another bit of paper. “Alan Sailers.” He passed it to Rudolph to check. “Uh, okay, yeah, you guys tell me if there’s gonna be any problem with any of these pairings, alright? Sure, random, but if I’m putting mortal enemies together or anything, lemme know.”

After the boys assured him that they would, the drawing continued. Josiah would pull a name out, announce it, and then hand the scrap to one of the boys to check that he had the name right and there wasn’t a problem. Rudolph was eventually placed with one of the girls that he hadn’t had much interaction with, while Scout Mason was assigned to be partners with Kurt Lewell. More names were drawn, and then the one they had been waiting for. Jazz’s scrap was pulled out, before the man reached back in to take the next one.

Time to trigger the spell. Focusing on the last bit of paper he’d been handed, the one with Jazz’s name, Rudolph set off the spell that they had prepared the paper with, the one that Doug had remembered seeing back in the library. From the moment that the spell was triggered, the next scrap of the page (assuming it was one of the bits with black dots) that was touched would switch the writing that was on it with the writing from the nearest scrap with a red dot. Essentially, no matter what piece Josiah grabbed, it would immediately switch its writing with the only remaining red dotted scrap that was still in the sock, the one with Sands’ name on it.

Clearly having no idea that the boys had just accomplished the very thing they’d come for, Josiah continued on, listing out all the names one by one and pairing them up. Dutifully, Rudolph and Doug kept helping. But the hard part was over now. Jazz and Sands were going to be on a team. And whatever the contest ended up being, Jazz would send a text to Doug, he would ask his power his one question, and then give her the answer.

Jazz and Sands would end up winning, and then they could talk to Flick in New York, away from Crossroads and anything that might’ve been set-up to either help the blonde girl or keep her in line, depending on how willingly involved with this she actually was. Either way, they’d get answers. And if Rudolph had anything to do with it, they’d do so gently.

******

“I’ll run you guys back to Crossroads just as soon as my shift’s over,” Grandpa Donald assured the boys a short time later as he led them toward the cafeteria. “You sure you’ll be okay until then?”

The two of them nodded absently. Rudolph didn’t know about Douglas, but he was ready to fall over and just relax until it was time to leave. They’d done their part, as stressful as the whole thing had been to make sure it went off right.

Chuckling a little, Grandpa Donald gave the boys a quick wink. “Yeah, this place throws a lot of people off. Just like your classmates when they came in for their project. That um, Avalon and her team.”

Avalon and her… wait. Wait. Barely stopping himself from skidding abruptly to a very obvious halt in reaction to that, Rudolph blinked over at his teammate, who was staring back at him. “Oh,” he managed after a second. “Right, Flick said they talked to you.”

Wait… wait… hold it… don’t say it too soon… don’t be too obvious… Forcing himself to count to five as slowly as he could, Rudolph finally squeezed the next words out as faux-casually as he could. “So what were they working on here anyway?”

Grandpa Donald told them about the tour, about how they’d come to see how one of Crossroads’ largest medical facilities worked. Through it all, Rudolph didn’t buy it. There was something else. Flick, and maybe the others, had come for something else. He wasn’t ready to throw her entirely under the bus. A big part of him still thought she wasn’t exactly a bad guy in this. But she did know something. Probably a lot of somethings. That much he was sure of, especially when he remembered her reaction to the name Fossor once Jasmine had mentioned hearing that vampire girl mention it while on the phone with Headmistress Sinclaire.

No, there was definitely something else, another reason they’d come here. So after Grandpa Donald directed them to where they could get some food with the orange card that he gave them, and excused himself for the time being, Rudolph turned quickly toward his teammate. “Can you–”

“Already on it,” the other boy replied. Closing his eyes, he asked in that distinct voice that came when he used his once-a-day power. “What were Flick and the others on her team really doing when they visited this place, besides what Donald Therasis thinks they came for?”

After a few seconds, the boy straightened up from his seat, glancing around briefly before gesturing. “This way.” He turned, making his way out of the cafeteria while the rest of the staff around them ignored the boys.

The two of them cautiously walked through the hospital. No one stopped them, but they also didn’t want to run into Grandpa Donald and have to explain what they were doing.

Eventually, they reached the long-term care wing. The place was almost deserted with just a single nurse behind the desk at the entrance. When she saw the boys, the young-looking woman straightened up. “Oh, boys, you can’t…” She paused, stepping around to join them as her expression softened. “You came to see your teacher, didn’t you?”

Without missing a beat, Doug was nodding. “Yes, ma’am. Is she okay?”

The nurse looked indecisive for a moment before answering. “I’m sorry, there’s been no change. But… here.” Stepping past them, the woman led the boys to one of the rooms, where a woman lay.

Professor Tangle. Right, she was still here. Was this why Flick had come here? But… why? One of the others might’ve said that she came for something nefarious, but Rudolph was just confused. What did Tangle have to do with any of this?

Feeling a nudge at his side, he glanced that way in time to see Douglas mouth silently to him, ‘Distract her.’ Then the boy nodded back out of the room, toward the nurse’s station. Obviously, there was something else, his power was leading him that way.

So, Rudolph did his best to keep the woman distracted for a couple minutes. He asked how Tangle was doing, if there’d been any improvement at all or noticeable reaction to their treatments. Anything to keep her talking.

Before long, the nurse had to excuse herself. As Rudolph turned with her, he saw Doug. The other boy was standing right in the doorway, looking like he had just seen a ghost.

“Oh…” the nurse saw Doug’s expression and winced. “I’m sorry. You must really care about her.”

Making the appropriate noises until the woman admonished them to leave the area before someone else caught them there, the boys quickly walked away.

“What?” Rudolph asked. “What did you find?”

Douglas didn’t answer right away. He was clearly bracing himself. “Liesje Aken.”

Blinking at that, Rudolph frowned. “You mean Bosch’s daughter? What about her?”

Again, Douglas paused before answering. “The part of the file that Flick was looking at, the reason they snuck in there. It was all about these blood tests. Three of them. One for Tangle that was taken about nineteen years ago. Then another one taken almost a year later, and the third a little bit after that.”

He looked over toward Rudolph then. “The first test showed a partial match, distant relation. But the other two were a lot closer. Direct descendant-type close.”

It took Rudolph a second, then his eyes widened. “Wait, you mean–”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah. Direct descendants of Liesje Aken.”

“Three descendants, three relations… and Tangle’s one of them…” Rudolph mused slowly as he came to terms with the news.

“And now she’s in the hospital, in a coma,” Doug reminded him. “That’s not a coincidence, dude.”

Rudolph shook his head. “But what about the other two? Descendants of Bosch, direct descendants. I–wait. wait a second. Do you… Roxa…” 

“Doesn’t have any parents,” Doug finished for him. “And they keep saying she had to disappear for–”

“–for family reasons,” Rudolph returned the favor of finishing the other boy’s sentence. “Okay. Wait. So Roxa disappeared. Flick and her team were searching these records and found out about this relation. Now your power keeps telling us that Flick knows something about why Roxa disappeared. And everyone keeps saying that Roxa had to leave for family reasons, a family she wasn’t supposed to have because she was an orphan. But… but if she–if she was–Doug, you don’t think…”

“I dunno, man,” Doug slowly intoned.

“But it sure looks like Roxa is related to the founder of Crossroads.”

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Medical Leave 15-04

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It seemed to take forever for the doctors to move on. Yeah, it was really only a couple minutes or so. But with the information that I was sitting on, those two minutes felt like several dozen eternities.

I used the time as wisely as I could, quickly checking through the files for what I knew had to be there. Sure enough, now that I knew what to look for, my eyes quickly found the note about a third blood sample that had been taken a year before the first one. It had been taken from a different subject than either of the first two. Three different subjects, three different blood samples, all connected. I knew why they existed, and that realization made me want to tell the doctors in the hall to hurry the hell up and stop blocking Tangle’s room. But I restrained the impulse, since it probably wouldn’t have helped.

I also took the time to type out a text and an e-mail on my phone, just in case anything went wrong. Finally, just after hitting send on the second one, I heard voices and footsteps. Peeking that way, I saw the chatty doctors moving past me, all of them deep in conversation about some kind of miracle fruit.

As soon as they were gone, I slipped back out of the room without ever waking up the elderly guy who was still slumbering away in his bed. Which was good, because on top of everything else that was going on, I really didn’t want to add ‘disturbing the rest of a heavily burned grandfather’ to the list.

Making my way quickly down the hall, I was almost there when Sands and Avalon emerged. Seeing me, the two of them picked up the pace. Avalon was almost as fast on her crutches as she had been without them, and I was briefly distracted by the sight of her motion before managing to snap myself out of it. “What’s going on?” I asked blankly. “What’d you guys find out? Is it really her in there?”

“I found her treatment schedule,” Sands explained, already gesturing for me to keep walking with them. “They’ve got specialists on the way right now, so being here when they show up is a bad idea.”

“And yes,” Avalon added, her voice flat in that way that told me she was doing some pretty heavy thinking. “We attempted every test that Gaia told me about. They all say that the person in the bed is really Giselle Tangle, and that she really is in a coma. She was unresponsive to everything we tried.”

Nodding, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Well, I just found a whole lot of diddly squat.”

Both of the other girls looked at me briefly. It was code. Using the words ‘diddly squat’ meant that I had found something important. So important, in fact, that I was afraid of anyone overhearing what it was, so I didn’t want to say it until we were sure that it wouldn’t happen. Preferably when we had the use of one of those magic private conversation coins that Deveron had been teaching us to make.

And that fact in and of itself had to tell the two of them just how important what I’d found out was, considering we’d risked talking out loud about running blood tests and such on a comatose professor.

Unfortunately, it also meant getting back to Scout, since she was still the only one who could manage it consistently. I’d made it work a time or two, as had all the others with varying degrees of effectiveness. But Scout was the one who could do it every single time, so we trusted her the most with the spell.

The whole way back down to the cafeteria, I could barely restrain myself from spitting out what I had learned. The words kept almost popping out of me, and I was squirming with each step to the point that it was obvious that both Sands and Avalon had noticed. They kept giving me long, searching looks. Well, Sands did anyway. Avalon mostly just told me to stop acting like an overly excited puppy that needed to use the bathroom. But it was the way she said it. I could tell she was as curious as Sands.

Somehow, despite the secret boiling up inside me, I managed to contain myself and we made it into the cafeteria. The three of us had just managed to get a few drinks and sit down before the others came back, so we made some polite noise about how much better Avalon was feeling. Then the rest of the team moved to get their own drinks while Doctor Therasis went over her muscles a bit with a hand. He asked her questions about what she was doing to exercise them responsibly, and ended up producing a bottle of pills that he told her to take one of every night until it was empty, even if she felt better.

Personally, as competent and trustworthy as the man seemed to be as far as medicine went, I made a note to make sure that Gaia checked them before Avalon took any. At this point, paranoia ruled my life.

Still, we finished out the tour, each minute seeming to take months considering how much I wanted to tell the others about what I had found out. I was pretty sure even the others had figured out that I had something big to talk about, considering the looks that I was getting from Scout, Columbus, and Sean.

But finally, we finished up and went through as brief of a question and answer session as we could manage without coming off as too rude or ungrateful. I really didn’t want Therasis to think that he’d done anything wrong, so I made an effort to show as much interest as I possibly could, considering the situation. Besides, the stuff that he was telling us about really was interesting. It just didn’t hold a candle to what had been in that file. So I asked questions and tried my best to listen to the answers.

Then we were heading back to the receiving room to go through the portal. As we stepped inside, I felt Doctor Thersais put a hand on my shoulder, his voice quiet. “Oh, Miss Chambers? Hold on a moment.”

Well this wasn’t surprising. Clearly everything had been going entirely too well. He knew what we did. There were cameras. He was in on everything. The whole hospital was just an elaborate front for a–

“I was wondering if you would mind taking this to my great, great, great, grandson.” The man was holding out a small present in blue wrapping paper. “Rudolph? I believe he is in your grade level.”

… It’s slightly possible that I may have been just a little bit too paranoid at that particular moment.

Coughing, I accepted the package. “Oh, right. Of course, I know Rudolph. Sure, I’ll give it to him.”

“Excellent,” the man gave me a broad smile with a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make it to his birthday party last night. So much work to do. Please give that to him and let him know that I promise I’ll take him out next weekend, just the two of us. I’ve already scheduled the time off.”

Nodding quickly while tucking the package under one arm, I promised the man, “I’ll make sure he gets it, and tell him about next weekend. Did you, um, was there anything else you wanted to say, sir?”

Doctor Therasis shook his head. “No, I believe that was everything. If you have any more questions, or if you’d like to visit again, feel free to come by. We can always use more healing-oriented Heretics.” The man’s smile was a little sad then as he added in a quiet voice, “It’s not exactly the most glamorous of the possible professions to aim for when you leave school, but I assure you, it is quite important.”

“I believe it.” Nodding, I hesitated before looking up at him. “Thank you for the tour, Doctor Therasis.”

His hand squeezed my shoulder reassuringly for a moment. “You’re a good girl, Felicity Chambers. I really hope you get what you want out of school, even if it’s not to be a healer. Good luck to you.”

Thanking the man again, I stepped through the portal along with the others. As the image of the room inside of the Pathmaker building appeared around us, I let out a low whistle. “Holy crap, you guys.”

The rest of the team’s eyes turned to me, and I managed a weak little smile. “Don’t you get it? We’re back. We made it back. You know what that means? We went through a whole trip and nothing bad happened. There was no sudden interruption, no one was abducted, the whole thing went just fine.”

Columbus cleared his throat. “We’re not out of the building yet, don’t jinx it. And do you mean ‘just fine, absolutely nothing interesting happened,’ or ‘just fine, we found exactly what we needed to?’”

“Tell you later,” I got out just before the opposite door opened, revealing one of the security guys from the school. I didn’t know his name, but he had been with Wyatt and Reid Rucker when we had taken that field trip to visit ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From what I could tell, the guy didn’t tend to talk very much.

He kept up that record by looking us all over for about two seconds before grunting a simple, “All good?” When we nodded, the man pivoted back around and made a gesture with two fingers for us to follow. Then he led us out of the Pathmaker building, escorting us onto school grounds once more. When Sands asked where Professor Kohaku was, he gave the incredibly succinct answer of, “Busy.”

“Well,” Sean remarked idly once the man left us out on the school grounds to return to his normal patrol without a single backward glance or another word to us, “isn’t he a regular Chatty Cathy?”

Avalon grunted before pointing to Scout. “We need the coin spell, as fast as you can make it,” she said simply. Then she looked at me, her curiosity obvious. “And then you explain everything you found.”

“Oh, no problem,” I assured the other girl. “This, you guys are definitely going to want to hear.

“But first, I need to get the other phone back from Koren for awhile. There’s something I’m gonna want to check up on, and I’d rather keep it… quiet.”

******

A short time later, we were all sitting out on the grass at the back of the grounds, as far from everyone as possible. It was an added layer of security on top of the privacy spell that Scout had just finished, though she had put it on a rubber ball rather than a metal coin. Apparently, the object didn’t matter.

Then it was done, and with the added assurance of privacy, everyone was looking at me expectantly. I had already texted Asenath with the secret phone and asked her or Twister to call me back as soon as they could.

“Oh, wait,” Columbus interrupted just as I started to explain. “Are we sure that whatever you’re about to say wasn’t—you know, that your memory wasn’t altered somewhere in there? They do love that.”

I coughed. “Trust me, if they were going to change my memory, they wouldn’t make it anywhere near this interesting. And besides,” I waved my regular, non-secret phone at him. “I texted some of the details to Miranda and e-mailed myself. It’s not a perfect system, but I think we’re pretty much as safe as we could possibly be right now.”

No one else interrupted so I was able to finally get on with my explanation. “Valley,” I addressed the other girl, meeting her gaze. “I know why people have been trying to kill you since you were born.”

A frown touched her face then before her head shook. “The attacks only started this year.” After a brief pause, she amended that with a simple, “I mean, besides my father. But that’s… personal, between us.”

“No, it’s not,” I corrected her as gently as possible, knowing this was going to be a lot to take in. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, I looked through the files.” I produced the scanner that Sands had given me from my jacket pocket before waving it around. “There’s this part about these blood tests that they did.”

Sean raised an eyebrow at that. “Pretty sure they’ve done a lot of blood tests on Tangle by this point.”

“Not on her,” I corrected him. “They were blood samples that she brought to the hospital for them to test. Three different blood samples that were taken about twenty years ago. Well, one taken nineteen years ago, then another one taken eighteen years ago, and the third one about six months after that.”

Columbus frowned uncertainly, glancing toward the others. “I don’t get it. Why would Tangle take them three different blood samples to test over the course of about a year or so? What was she doing?”

“Okay, this part I kinda need help with,” I admitted. “I asked Vanessa, but I think you should explain it, Sands.” When the other girl looked at me with confusion, I asked, “Could you explain blood vaults?”

“Blood vaults?” she blinked once before shifting her position on the grass. “Uh, sure. They’re just these, well, vaults full of money, weapons, supplies, magic stuff, whatever a family’s got stockpiled away. They can only be accessed by the closest living blood relative of the person who set up the vault. It’s magically enforced and there’s no way to break in. It’s pretty much the most secure place in the world. If you’re not the closest living blood relative, you’re not getting in, period. I mean, unless the person who is allowed in takes you. But other than that, it’s completely impenetrable.”

“What does that have to do with people trying to kill me?” Avalon asked with a squint before adding a belated, “And why do you think they’ve been trying for longer than just this year?”

“The blood tests,” I explained. “The first one was taken a little over a year before you were born, and it had a somewhat decent genetic relation to the sample they tested it against. Then they tested the second sample just a few months before you came along, and it had a much closer connection. Like, second cousins versus grandfather and granddaughter difference between the two. Much, much closer. And then, a few months after you were born, there was that last test. It was almost as close as the second one. Just one more generation removed. I’m positive that the last one was you. And the second one–”

“My mother,” Avalon stated flatly, her eyes flicking away thoughtfully. “My birth mother.”

Bobbing my head up and down, I continued. “The sample they were testing the blood against, according to Vanessa, they’ve got a huge blood vault, one that no one’s been able to get into for… for a really long time. They’ve been looking for the closest blood relative, someone who could open it. I think Tangle was working with whoever that first blood sample is from. They tested it and thought they won the genetic lottery. But they couldn’t get in the vault, so they knew there was someone else.”

Glancing to Avalon, I added a little more quietly. “Your mother. I don’t think her dying in the hospital was an accident. I think they meant for both of you to die, to clear the way for whoever that first sample belonged to to become the closest living relative and get access to the vault.”

“But I didn’t die,” Avalon’s voice was even more monotone by that point, her eyes focused somewhere else. “I survived. For years.”

Nodding, I hesitated. “I don’t know what made them back off. Maybe they didn’t want to kill a little kid after you were born, or maybe they were pushing your father to do it and that’s why he was such a… piece of shit to you. I don’t know. But—hold on. Perfect timing.”

The secret phone was buzzing, and I clicked the answer button before holding it up to my ear. “Hey, it’s Flick. Twister? Yeah, I figured Senny’d be asleep. Thanks. I just have one question. In your, umm, line of work, have you ever heard of a shark-toothed guy named Fahsteth?” I paused, listening to her answer. “Right, thanks. That’s what I thought.”

Thanking her again, I disconnected. “Remember how my mom said to check on why Fahsteth was there? Yeah, according to Twister, he’s a mercenary, a hired gun. He’s not just some random spree attacker, he goes places because he’s paid to. And I think he was paid to kill you that night, Avalon, and make it look like a random accident.”

“Why?” Columbus asked the question everyone else was clearly thinking.

“Because Gaia was on her way,” I pointed out. “Remember, she said she was planning on talking to Avalon already. So these guys panicked and hired Fahsteth to kill her before Gaia spent too much time with her and maybe figured out this blood connection. I don’t know, exactly. We’ll have to ask the headmistress exactly how that went down. But I’m pretty sure that’s what they were doing.”

Sands straightened then. “Wait, this is the year that Eden’s Garden starts teaching about magic, isn’t it? You said that before. There was a whole thing about that, like they teach you how to fight before, but this is the year they start magic lessons.” When Avalon nodded, her eyes widened as she got the same connection I had. “That’s why they had to get you out of there. Because when they teach magic, they’ll start teaching blood magic too. That involves taking your blood and testing it. And when they did that…”

“They would have figured out about her blood relation,” I finished. “That’s why they panicked and had to have you kicked out of Garden. And it’s why they’ve been trying so openly to have you either killed off since then, or just driven out of this school too. That’s why they’ve been trying to make everyone else turn against you, to pressure Gaia into taking you out of the school without revealing why they don’t want you here.”

“But why are they going so psycho about this?” Columbus pressed. “What’s in this blood vault that’s so important? Whose blood were they testing all those samples against.”

“I had to ask Vanessa if she knew the name,” I explained. “Let’s just say, she did.” Taking a breath, I looked to Sean and the twins. “Liesje Aken.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Sands jolted upright, Sean cursed under his breath, and even Scout’s eyes widened.

“Holy shit, dude,” Sean muttered again, looking from me to Avalon.

“What?” Columbus demanded. “Who the hell was Liesje Aken?”

“It’s not so much who she was,” I informed him while the others were still staring open-mouthed. “It’s about who her father was. See, Liesje Aken used her father’s real, birth surname. Probably to hold onto some kind of privacy or something. The man was born Jheronimus van Aken.

“But we know him better as Heironymus Bosch.”

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Medical Leave 15-03

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Despite the distraction and impatience of waiting for an opportunity to get on with our real reason for being at the medical facility, the tour was actually incredibly interesting. On the surface and at first glance, the place looked like any old normal Bystander hospital. But it was far more than that. Doctor Therasis showed us rooms with various magical healing runes that were used to enhance Heretic regeneration, other rooms where they used these special tools to extract various Stranger venoms and poisons, and even an area where they kept patients who were being hurt by some outside influence. If a Heretic was marked by some creature that could control, hurt, or otherwise affect them and there wasn’t an easy or quick way to fix it, they were brought to that last section. The place was heavily shielded somehow against any magic or ability, so it kept the affected Heretic safe until they could be fixed.

“This place is huge,” Columbus spoke up thoughtfully as we walked down another corridor. “Where is it, exactly?” He looked toward our guide then, along with the rest of us. “In the real world, I mean.”

Doctor Therasis, who seemed overjoyed by any prospect of teaching or sharing information, brightened considerably. “Oh, that’s a good question. Actually…” He lifted a finger run over over all of us until he was pointing directly at me. “You especially should find this quite interesting, Miss Chambers.”

I blinked at that, confused by what he could possibly mean. “Me? Why me in particular, sir?”

His smile broadened. “Well, because our facility here is located in the heart of your home state, of course.” As my mouth fell open, he continued. “Well, technically our roof is located about two hundred feet below the surface, with the rest of the facility below that.” He considered that for a moment before going on with a thoughtful voice. “Still, I believe it’s considered within the state by Bystander laws.”

“But why is this place in Wyoming?” I asked immediately. “And how far from Laramie Falls are we?”

“Oh, that’s quite simple, Miss Chambers,” the man answered easily. “We are in Wyoming because the baron of this state has been very helpful and supportive of our work, and provided both the land and the funding for our construction. He also remains very involved with the hospital whenever the opportunity arises. As for how far away we are, the town called Laramie Falls is about two hundred miles north.”

Once more, my mouth opened and shut. “Um. Should I… oh god, might as well. Who is this Baron?”

“There’s a picture of the man now,” the doctor replied, lifting a hand to point to a painting on the wall.

Turning slowly, I lifted my gaze to stare at the painting in question for a few seconds. “Oh… Wow.”

“What?” Sean pressed, eyes flicking back and forth between me and the painting. “You know the guy?”

“Nope,” I answered while continuing to look at the image of a young-looking, handsome man with shoulder-length auburn hair. “Never seen him before in my life. But the way everything’s been going, I kind of expected him to be my next-door neighbor or my Freshman English teacher or something.”

Chuckling with clear amusement, Doctor Therasis explained, “Jeremiah Dallant has been the baron of this state for the past fifty-three years, ever since the previous baron, his own father, disappeared.”

Something about that tickled my brain, and my mouth opened while I was still trying to figure it out. “What—umm, what do you mean he disappeared?” Meanwhile, I was thinking rapidly. Fifty-three years. Why did fifty-three years stand out to me so much? What had happened fifty-three years earlier?

It was Sands who kicked my foot lightly, clearly forcing her voice to sound casual. “Fifty-three years. That’d be about nineteen sixty-four. Isn’t that around when you said your uncle’s family got split up?”

Uncle’s family? I’d never said anything about a—oh. Sands wasn’t talking about an uncle. She was talking about Deveron. And by ‘split up’, she meant it was when Abigail and Wyatt were abducted by Ruthers’ people. So the infants had been taken away, and then this baron guy had disappeared in the same year? It could’ve been a coincidence, but then again, my mother had been put in Wyoming. Maybe it was for a reason. Either way, I had a feeling that I needed to talk to this Jeremiah Dallant.

Eventually, we continued on and the man led us to a heavy pair of metal doors. The doors had a frankly absurd number of locks on them, plus there were various magical runes on and around them that looked purposefully intimidating and flickered every once in awhile. Also, there was a silver line about two feet from the door that was identical to the one that surrounded the Pathmaker building at Crossroads.

“Aha, of course you all know what this is.” Doctor Therasis indicated the line with a smile as we all came to a stop well away from it. “And just like the Pathmaker building, it is meant to ensure that no unauthorized people enter this area. Though, as you can see,” he indicated the locks and the runes, “that would be rather difficult even without such a measure. Still, better safe than sorry, as they like to say.”

“So what’s in there?” Sands asked, her eyes lighting up with interest. “I mean, considering how secure this place is already, what’s so important that you have to go through all this to keep people out?”

The grandfatherly man gave us a conspiratorially look, his own eyes twinkling with mischief as he lifted a hand to the door. At his gesture, the two dozen or so locks and bolts on the door all released themselves, and several of the runes glowed briefly before the door cracked open slightly. “Would you like to find out?” he asked pointedly while stepping over to open the door the rest of the way.

As a group, we looked at one another before starting over to join the man. He led us through the open door and into a cement corridor with metal doors every couple of feet on both sides. Each door had its own set of locks and runes protecting it. The place looked kind of similar to the magic training rooms back at the school. There was even a slot that could be slid open up to see the inside of each room.

Doctor Therasis moved to the nearest one and slid the viewing port open, gesturing for us to take a look. One by one, we stepped up and peered through. When it was my turn, I leaned in to look through the glass in the port. I found myself staring at a long, narrow cell with a handful of creatures that looked like geckos about the size of Cocker Spaniels, with feathered tails and six eyes on their faces.

“Tabilten,” Therasis explained. “Vicious creatures, can’t get along with anything other than each other. Everything else is prey. But they have the unique ability to periodically cleanse their bodies of certain exotic toxins that many of our other healing abilities cannot affect. This makes them quite useful to us.”

“You… keep them, and then when someone is hurt by one of those… poisons or whatever that you can’t affect, you have them kill one of these things?” I managed a little slowly, thinking about the Peridles.

The man’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Precisely! Yes. All of these cells are filled with different Stranger animals which possess various healing-related abilities that can be useful to our patients.”

When I’d found out about the school bringing in the Peridles for us to deliberately kill in order to get our first regeneration ability, I hadn’t thought too much about it. They were just little bugs, after all. And in a way, I could also understand this. I wasn’t some crazy vegan about to go off on people for eating cows or sheep or whatever. Besides, when it came down to it, saving lives was a noble goal. But still, even knowing all of that, I couldn’t help but look down through the rows of cells and wonder just how many of them were actually ‘animals.’ If there were any actual sapient, thinking creatures mixed in with all their ‘animals,’ then this was… it was… I stopped myself from thinking about it much further.

For now, anyway. I wasn’t done with this place. Not by a long shot. But it would have to wait for later.

******

The tour continued, and we eventually passed by the wing that Doctor Therasis said was meant for ‘long-term, extended care’ patients, people who they couldn’t fix right away or didn’t know exactly what was wrong with them for any number of reasons. That had to be the place where Professor Tangle was.

Still, I didn’t say anything just then. None of us did. We waited until the tour had brought us near the cafeteria a couple minutes later. Then I gave Avalon a pointed look and nodded toward her.

She gave me a disgusted look back, looking stubborn briefly until I squinted at her and nodded again.

To say that Avalon had hated this part of the plan was an understatement. She had argued long and loud against it. Still, the rest of us had pointed out why it was the best way, and the other girl couldn’t really prove otherwise. Not that she hadn’t tried until she was practically hoarse. In the end though, we won.

Still, the other girl hesitated for a moment before letting out a long, silent sigh. Finally, she made the slightest, faint groan before coming to a stop. Standing there on her crutches, Avalon breathed in and out, pretending to pant heavily while staring at the floor so that Therasis wouldn’t see her annoyance.

Coughing, I spoke up deliberately loudly over the sound of the man talking. “Avalon? You all right?”

The doctor turned that way, blinking once before he stepped that way. “Oh dear, did we push too far?”

Taking a breath, Avalon started, “No, I’m–” Catching herself, she made a noise that sounded like a groan of pain. Probably because it physically hurt her to admit any kind of weakness. Especially false weakness. The idea that our plan hinged around her being injured and in any way less than perfect seemed to cause Avalon actual physical pain. When she spoke, it was through gritted teeth as she forced the words out in spite of her own reluctance and annoyance. “Maybe I should sit down for a minute.”

“Well, there’s the cafeteria,” I pointed out while hoping that Avalon’s reluctance would be seen as pain.

Sands quickly bobbed her head up and down, right on cue. “Yeah, why don’t Flick and I stay with Avalon and get her a drink or something until she feels better, while you guys go on with the tour?”

Doctor Therasis looked a little reluctant. “Are you sure you want to miss the next part? We could all take a break here until Miss Sinclaire starts feeling up to continuing. I wouldn’t want you to miss out.”

After a brief hesitation, Avalon managed to shake her head. “No, go on, it’s okay.” She made what sounded like an at least somewhat convincing groan of pain and exhaustion. “I just need a little break.”

“We’ll catch up with you if she starts feeling better, sir,” I promised. “Or you can meet us back here.”

“Well…” the doctor paused before gesturing. “Okay. Here.” From his pocket, he produced an orange card. “Use this to get whatever you’d like to eat. We’ll be continuing straight down this corridor, then downstairs another level. Just follow the blue arrows. If you miss us, find one of those phones on the wall and ask them to page me.” To Avalon, he added, “Get off your feet, Miss Sinclaire. Take it easy.”

The three of us made a show of moving to the nearest table, Sands and I helping Avalon sit down. Once the others left, however, we got right back up and started back the way we’d come. The hospital was a maze of corridors and floors. However, thanks to the power that I had inherited from the Blemmye, all I had to do was think about the right spot and I was able to lead us straight back to it.

There was a nurse at a desk beside the entrance into the long-term care wing, but it wasn’t hard to wait for her back to be turned and then quickly slip past the woman. We hurried down the corridor, looking into rooms as we went on. Sands knew what the woman looked like, so she kept examining every patient until finally stopping short at one door about halfway down the hall. “There she is,” she pointed.

“Great,” I smiled. “So her patient file should be around here too. Probably back up at the nurse’s station.” Gesturing, I added, “You guys see if you can get anything from her, I’ll try to get a look at it.”

“Take this,” Sands dug into her pocket before producing what looked like a small camera with a wide lens. “Hold the button down and then run the lens up along the edge of a stack of papers. It’ll scan them all, front and back. It can do about an inch thick stack in one pass. We can read them together later.”

Nodding, I took the scanner and turned my attention to Avalon curiously. “You sure you got this?”

In response, the other girl leaned on one of her crutches to hold her arm up. Her gauntlet produced a tiny, scalpel-like blade. “It’s fine. If she’s faking, we’ll find out. If it’s not really her, we’ll find that out too.”

Reminding myself yet again not to get on my roommate’s bad side, I nodded. “Be careful. If anyone comes, just say you know her from school and wanted to see her. Pretend you’re sad or something.”

“You be careful too,” Sands urged. “Now hurry up and get those files before Therasis gets done with the tour. Scout and the boys are supposed to stall, but… well, let’s not push our luck too much, okay?”

With a nod of agreement, I hurried out of the room and back along the corridor. I passed a couple doctors or healers or whatever they called themselves going the other way, but neither paid any attention to me. I figured there were probably plenty of people that came to visit the patients here.

Once I was at the front, just on the other side of the nurse’s station, I peeked around the corner to see what was going on. The woman had her back to me, and was focused on typing something in her computer. My eyes spotted the filing cabinet just below the desk, and I realized that it was similar to the one back in the security station back at Crossroads: small, yet able to produce any number of files.

Right, I needed a way to distract her. My mind raced, until the sound of a squeaking cart caught my attention. Glancing that way, I saw an orderly walking by with a cart full of what looked like plates of spaghetti and bowls of jello. Obviously, the man was delivering lunch to some of the patients.

He stopped at the desk, stepping around his cart to talk to (and obviously flirt with) the nurse there. Smiling in spite of myself at the opportunity, I crouched down and looked both ways before sliding my staff out of its container. Hoping no one would walk past, I slipped a little closer while using counter for cover. Straining outward, I barely touched the tip of the staff to the underside of the cart’s flat top, just beneath the trays of food. Very carefully, I deposited the smallest possible kinetic mine that I could. I did the same thing to the other end of the cart before quickly stepping back out of sight. Then I waited.

It didn’t take long. After a few seconds, the orderly moved back to his cart and started pushing it down the corridor again. I leaned around the station once more, hand on my staff as I waited for the man to get far enough away, yet still in sight. Grimacing then, I offered a silent apology before triggering the mines.

The reaction was instantaneous. The cart jumped off the floor, and the trays of spaghetti and pudding went pretty much everywhere. The man cursed loudly, stumbling backward as the food he had been escorting pretty much literally coated the walls and ceiling.

There was a noise of surprise from the nurse, and she quickly moved around the desk before running over to see what had happened. The second she was gone, I stowed my staff and gave myself a quick boost up and over the counter. Dropping down in front of the file cabinet, I put my hand on it while remembering how Sands had done this before. Then, of course, I had to remember what the woman’s first name was.

“All records related to Tangle, Giselle,” I finally spoke quietly but firmly. As soon as I finished speaking, the drawer popped open, revealing a stack of folders several inches thick. Glancing up to make sure the nurse and orderly were still busy, I quickly took the files and started to use the scanner on them. From what I saw with my brief once-over, it was Tangle’s full medical file from the beginning of her education at Crossroads decades earlier. Obviously, a good portion of them were from after the ‘shark attack’ that had landed her in here without any explanation.

Knowing I had to hurry, I scanned all the files I could before quickly shoving the folders back into the cabinet. Sliding the drawer shut so that they would go back to wherever they were actually stored, I glanced up again and saw the nurse clearly finishing up and getting ready to walk back. Before she could come around and see me, I vaulted over the counter once more and dropped down just as the sound of her footsteps began to approach.

Unfortunately, those doctors that I had seen earlier were standing in the middle of the hall. They weren’t facing me, but they were blocking the way into Tangle’s room, and I didn’t want to draw attention that way if I didn’t have to. Grimacing to myself, I looked around before stepping through the nearest door and into another room.

There was one bed in the place, and an older man lay there. His face was covered in some kind of burn, and he appeared to be sleeping. So I tried to be as quiet as possible while I waited for the doctors to move on so I could get back to Sands and Avalon.

In the meantime, I produced the scanner once more and turned it around to start flipping through the images it had taken of the files. Gradually, I skimmed to see if there was anything interesting.

“Hmm…” My eyes scanned one of the pages, and I paused as a frown touched my face. “Wait.. blood sample? What blood sample?” It wasn’t hers. The woman had submitted some kind of sample for testing about eighteen years earlier. That was followed by another sample from a different subject a short time later. Neither sample was from herself, but the doctors had sure been interested in where she got them from. There was something in the file about genetic comparisons and a bloodline, along with an annotation to something later in the file.

Flicking my finger along the screen to flip ahead through the files until I found the part in question, I read quickly. Then I paused, leaning back against the wall as I thought about it before flipping once more. I read even faster then, my eyes barely picking up what it said until I finally took out my phone and dialed.

“Tristan?” I spoke quietly as soon as the boy answered. “Are you with Vanessa? Right, could you ask her if she recognizes the name Liesje Aken?”

There was a pause until I got my answer. Barely managing a thank you, I hung up. Then I slumped back against the wall, my mind reeling.

I knew why someone was so intent on killing Avalon. And why they had been trying ever since she was born.

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Medical Leave 15-02

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Hours later, after the regular school day had ended, the sound of my staff hitting sticks filled the air.

“Again, harder this time. Don’t be afraid of your new strength, Flick. Trust me, the staff won’t break.”

After giving me those instructions, Deveron stepped back along the sandy beach while holding a pair of escrima sticks up in the defensive position. “It’s meant to stand a lot more force than you can put on it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded and tried to stop holding back. Ever since I’d killed that werewolf and taken on his strength, I’d felt like I always had to watch what I was doing. Sure, being able to lift a thousand pounds (barely) wasn’t an unbelievable amount in the grand scheme of super powers. But it was about ten times what I was accustomed to being able to lift, so pretty much everything felt a lot more flimsy. Everything I did throughout the day required so much less effort to accomplish the same amount. It was taking a lot to get used to. And that meant it was harder for me to stop holding back while we trained.

Still, this time I tried to put my actual strength behind the blows as I swung the staff at my… god, what was Deveron? My tutor/sort-of step-father? God, this was really weird. And the thought of it distracted me enough that he simply slid my staff out of the way with one of his sticks before giving me a swift smack against the stomach with the other one. It didn’t knock the wind out of me or anything, but it did sting enough that his point was made without him having to say anything. Focus, Flick. Think later.

Abandoning my thoughts, I let my body work automatically, swinging high, then low, then bringing the staff around in a spin for momentum as I pivoted to go for his opposite leg. Each time, one of Deveron’s sticks was there. He was fast enough to easily keep up with everything I was doing, and it didn’t seem that difficult for him. I felt like a child wrestling with… well, her dad. In a way, it was reassuring. Especially since it meant that I didn’t have to worry much about accidentally hurting him.

We continued that way, moving back and forth through the sand. Sometimes he took the lead and made me defend, showing me where I messed up whenever I was inevitably hit. But mostly he had me attack him, playing defense while occasionally correcting my stance, or the position of my hands. Now that he was actually paying attention and trying to teach us, Deveron was actually a good tutor. I was already learning a lot from him, and between his efforts and Avalon’s, I was becoming at least halfway decent.

Finally, after an intense session of that, we took a little break. I stooped and picked up a water bottle, gulping it down for a second as I looked up and down the beach. We were the only ones in the immediate area, though there were others spread further apart. I could see about a dozen second years playing some kind of soccer game up away from the beach on the end of the school grounds. I considered it ‘some kind of soccer’ because there were clearly several added rules that I didn’t recognize. I mean, the last time I checked, soccer didn’t include flying remote drone robot things firing stunning lasers at whoever had the ball. And people definitely weren’t allowed to use weapons in the normal game. Plus, I was pretty sure that the ball wasn’t supposed to occasionally electrify itself.

Well, that was one way to train. Beyond the murderball, there were several other groups along the beach itself. Most of them were swimming, or just walking through the sand. A couple guys from my year were throwing a frisbee around. And, of course, there were more people training, like we were.

I took all that in for a moment before looking to Deveron. “I— I’m sorry you didn’t get to see Abigail.”

The boy was drinking from his own bottle, and froze a bit at my words. For a moment, he didn’t say anything. Then I saw him swallow noticeably before lowering the bottle. His eyes came up to find mine. “I believe you when you say that she’s all right. I just…” He hesitated, trailing off awkwardly.

“She’s your daughter,” I said for him. “And—and you haven’t really had a chance to see her in person.”

His eyes closed, and I saw him give a slight shudder at the reminder. “Yes,” Deveron said quietly. “And I would… I would give almost anything to be there with her, to be with my daughter.” He swallowed hard before pushing on, his voice weaker. “Except her safety. That’s the one thing I won’t risk to be with her. I won’t put any of you in more danger than you already are, just to make myself feel better.”

Wincing, I stepped that way, reaching out to take his hand. Squeezing it, I was quiet for a moment while searching for the right words. “Hey, I… you’re a very different person than I thought you were, when we first met.” I finally managed a little weakly as I cursed myself for not knowing what to say.

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me briefly before giving me a smile, one that actually reached his eyes, unlike his earlier mocking smirks. “That’s funny, you’re exactly the kind of person I thought you were.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I squeezed his hand a little tighter reflexively. “I’m… I’m glad I don’t have to hate you anymore.” It sounded awkward, but I felt like it needed to be said. “Don’t be a jerk again.”

“Scout’s honor,” Deveron replied, holding up two fingers. “And I’m glad you don’t have to hate me too.”

“Well, okay,” I shot back quickly. “But I’m not sure how Scout would know if you’re lying or not?”

Snorting, Deveron started to say something else, but before he got anywhere, I saw Avalon approaching. She was already moving pretty easily on those crutches, and for a second I was distracted at the sight of how graceful she was even as she navigated her way across the sand. If it was me, I was pretty sure I’d already have managed to get both crutches stuck before falling on my face. And yes, I was including my control over sand in that assessment. I’d used them briefly when I was in middle school and I’d sprained my ankle pretty badly. But, well, let’s just say I didn’t get the hang of them.

“Chambers,” Avalon spoke up once she was close enough. As Deveron turned that way as well, she leaned on the crutches and dug through the pocket of her uniform jacket that she had yet to change out of before producing some kind of pendant on a chain. She tossed it toward me. “Congratulations.”

Blinking, I caught the necklace before looking down at it. “Aww, presents? And here I thought you weren’t even going to pay attention to the all-important three-month roommate anniversary.” The pendant itself was silver, with the letters CRA for Crossroads Academy written across it in red on one side, and some unfamiliar runes on the back in elaborate blue script that seemed to glow a little bit.

Easing up the last few steps with the crutches, Avalon rolled her eyes a little too pointedly, obviously hiding her amusement. “It’s from Gaia,” she explained, pushing on before I could do more than open my mouth. “And no, she doesn’t care about the roommate anniversary either. People who wear those aren’t targeted by the security and alarms after hours. It means you don’t have to listen to curfew.”

My eyes widened and I turned my attention back to the thing once more. “Wait, really? The request finally went through?” I rubbed my thumb over the runes curiously before muttering a little under my breath, “I thought I’d end up with less privileges when I got back from that trip, not more of them.”

“Gaia made sure it happened,” Avalon replied. “She pointed out that locking you in the room all night isn’t going to do anything, and that if you’re going to be getting in trouble, you should be able to use all the extra time you have to train instead of sitting in the room twiddling your thumbs for eight hours.”

“Well, that should be useful,” Deveron smiled faintly and nudged me. “Now we’ll have plenty time for extra training sessions. You better be ready, because I’m gonna use it to put you through your paces.”

“Oh good,” I shot back while making a face at him. “Cuz I was afraid I’d be bored.” After that reflexive retort, I blinked as something occurred to me. “Wait, are you saying you have curfew clearance too?”

He winked before waggling his fingers at me. “We mentors have many vast and mysterious powers.” Shrugging then, Deveron added, “Besides, I already spoke to Gaia about what’s going on. She agrees that you need a lot more training. And since I’m available, I’m afraid you’re kind of stuck with me.”

Heaving a long, dramatic, put-upon sigh, I made myself nod sadly. “I suppose I’ll just have to deal with it.” Glancing up to give Avalon the best puppy-dog eyes that I could, I added, “See what I deal with?”

“You’ll survive,” the other girl replied in a voice that was so dry it was probably flammable. Then she looked toward Deveron with a pointed gaze. “And if you don’t train her right, I’m coming after you.”

He smiled easily then. “Well, then I’ll just have to make sure I make her good enough to protect me.”

“Pfft,” I made a dismissive noise. “If she comes after you, I’m gonna be on the sidelines with popcorn.”

Before he could find a response to that, Avalon nodded past us and murmured quietly, “Incoming.”

Turning to glance over my shoulder, I found Malcolm Harkess approaching. The big Bystander-born boy was still the only person in our grade besides Shiori who had a chance of keeping up with Avalon during training. I didn’t know what kind of life he’d had that let him know how to fight so well even before we’d gotten here, but he was clearly incredibly competitive. He hated the fact that Avalon constantly beat him no matter how close he seemed to get, and kept challenging her to another match.

And Zeke was with him. Joy of joys. The Heretic-born boy gave me a brief, considering look as the two of them approached before speaking up. “Still trying hard to get the hang of that big stick, I see.”

Making a considering noise, I pretended to examine my staff critically. “Yeah… but you know, I don’t think it’s long enough.” Looking to him, I added brightly, “I know, could I borrow the one in your ass?”

The pompous boy stiffened at that, giving me a hard squint. “I’ll tell you what you can do with that sti-”

“Damn it, Zeke,” Malcolm interrupted with obvious annoyance. “Flirt with blondie on your own time.”

I don’t know whose outraged ‘WHAT?’ in response to that was louder: Zeke’s, Deveron’s, Avalon’s, or mine. They all came in a single chorus as the four of us whipped our attention toward the big jock.

Personally, I was going to need an entire session with Klassin Roe just to wash away the dirtiness of that insinuation. But if Malcolm even noticed the glares he was getting from… well, everyone, he didn’t acknowledge them. Instead, his focus remained fixed on Avalon. “Sens—I mean, ahh, Professor Katarin says he wants you to meet him in the gym for a few tests. Has to make sure you’re healing up right.”

Smirking, Zeke nudged his teammate a little. “Well, I bet you could beat her if you fought now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm shot back with clear disgust and annoyance. “Because that’d mean a hell of a lot. Just like if I beat her while she was tied up and unconscious. Shut the fuck up, Zeke. I don’t wanna beat her because she can’t fight back. I wanna be good enough to beat her.” Turning his attention to Avalon then, he added pointedly. “And I will be. One of these times, I’m gonna beat you. After you’re all healed.”

“Good,” my roommate replied coolly. “I can’t get any better without a challenge. Keep training.” Then she looked to me. “See you later, Chambers.” Her mouth opened like she was going to say something else, but a glance toward the three boys stopped her. Instead, she just gave me a nod before turning.

Malcolm and Zeke left then too, going back the way they’d come. That left me alone with Deveron again. He looked at me curiously before asking, “You heard anything about Roxa yet?”

Biting my lip, I replied, “According to Sean’s uncle, the pack was spread out for the holidays. But they’re supposed to be introducing her to them… today, I think.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “From what I know about them, that should be interesting.”

Nodding slowly, I sighed. “I wish I could be there. I wish I could… do anything to help. I wish–”

He stopped me. “You didn’t mean for her to be pulled along. And as for what those assholes did, it’s on them, not you.”

“I know…” I frowned despite that. “But I still wish…”

“Yeah,” Deveron’s hand squeezed my arm briefly. “She’ll be okay. Just give her time. You focus on taking care of yourself right now. And that means…” He tugged the escrima sticks back out of his pocket, tapping them against each other. “Let’s go.”

Tilting my head from one side, then to the other to crack my neck, I nodded. “Right.” Readying my staff, I took a breath and watched him for a second before throwing myself into another series of attacks. The sound of our weapons clashing against one another filled the air once more.

Throughout the rest of our training, however, I couldn’t help but be distracted. I hoped Roxa was okay. I wondered what she was doing, what being around that pack of werewolves was like, and how she was handling all of it. I meant what I’d said to Deveron: I wished I could be there with her, help her in at least some… small way.

Good luck, Roxa, I thought to myself while hoping yet again that the girl’s meeting with the werewolf pack was going all right. Just give us a little time. We’ll find Pace’s necklace.

I promise.

******

Then it was the next day, Saturday. The rest of the team and I were following Professor Kohaku toward the Pathmaker building for our little field trip to the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies.

“I thoroughly disagree with this entire endeavor,” the security chief was informing us. “The six of you are students, not investigators. You should be kept here where it’s…” she paused. “All right, I was going to say safe, but I’m well aware of how you would rightfully react to that. But it is still safer than sending you out on some orokana mission to investigate a woman that has been in a coma for months.”

“Maybe we won’t find anything interesting,” I admitted. “But you guys can’t go because it would draw too much attention. Right now, they’ll just see us as students on a field trip. You know, for training.”

The woman looked at me briefly before letting out a sigh. “Be careful,” she instructed firmly. “That goes for all of you. You’ll be meeting with a Doctor Therasis. Listen to what he tells you and do not get in anyone’s way. There are plenty of security measures in the hospital itself, but you also have the emergency beacons I’ve given you. If anything happens, anything, we’ll be right there. Understand?”

She waited until the six of us confirmed her words before ushering us into the building. “Fine then,” the woman spoke under her breath while still not sounding very happy about it. “Let’s get this over with.”

As promised, after we stepped through the Pathmaker portal a few minutes later, we found a man in a doctor’s lab coat waiting for us in the receiving room. He was a short, older man who kind of looked like Colonel Sanders with his neatly trimmed, pointed white beard and mustache. He was also smiling broadly as we appeared, his face jolly. “Welcome! Welcome. Good to see you.” Stepping forward, he proceeded to shake all our hands enthusiastically. “I’m Doctor Therasis. Thank you for coming.” He even took the time to rub Vulcan’s head, and produced some kind of treat from his pocket that the robot dog quickly devoured.

“Uh, thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” I managed, surprised by the man’s cheerfulness. “Sorry if we’re, you know, interrupting. We know you guys must be really busy here.”

The man just smiled even more broadly. “Of course, of course. We work hard to save lives, and it’s a never-ending process.” His smile faltered just a little and I saw the toll that working in such a place must have taken on him before he shook it off. “But the point is, we need as many new recruits to our little medical haven as possible. So we love when Crossroads students show an interest in our work.”

To Avalon, he asked, “And how are your muscles feeling, dear? Everything coming along all right?”

“Not fast enough,” she muttered with clear annoyance.

“Ahh, well, we can’t rush these things.” Doctor Therasis smiled at her like a kindly grandfather. “Your muscles have to heal correctly. Better to do it slow and right than quickly and wrong. Don’t you worry, Miss Sinclaire, you’ll be in full fighting shape before you know it.”

Clapping his hands together once, the cheerful man pivoted. “Now then, shall we start with a standard tour? After that, we’ll move into the more interesting and specific areas of our work.”

We were going to have to go through at least the first part of this before finding an excuse to slip away and look for Professor Tangle. So, we agreed and began to file out of the room after the man as he led us on a tour of the hospital.

I just hoped that, by the end of this visit, we’d have some actual answers.

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