Douglas Frey

Study And Scrutiny 20-10

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The last major fight that I’d gotten into had been at the Wonderland mall. In that case, there had been a lot more room to maneuver than there was in this little classroom, crowded as it was with so many desks and tables. It might have been a good place to learn in (as far as learning from a genocidal psychopath could be good), but it pretty much sucked as far as gladiatorial arenas went.

But I was learning how to improvise.

Hyde was fast. Wicked fast. Not so long ago, he would have taken me completely by surprise as he lunged clear across the classroom in a single leap. But now… well, now I had the reflexes of a werewolf.

He was still at the start of his leap when I began to react. Pivoting on one foot, I hooked the end of my staff around the leg of the nearest desk and hoisted off the ground while continuing the turn. The werewolf strength meant that I didn’t even notice the weight of the desk as it came off the floor and into the air. As I finished the turn, the desk hung loosely off the end of the staff, which was pointed straight at the incoming monster. With a grimace, I triggered the kinetic charge that I had been building up in the staff ever since I took it out. The blast sent the desk careening off my staff as if it had been shot out of a cannon. It collided with Hyde, slamming into his chest hard enough that the forward momentum from his lunge was entirely negated and he was sent flying backward.

He was still in mid-crash when my follow-up leap planted my foot against the desk. The kick was so hard that my foot went through the desk, shattering it into several pieces before colliding with his chest. A second later, his back hit the wall hard enough to send several cracks through it, while I landed in a crouch.

He recovered quickly, that long, nasty proboscis lashing out towards me like a snake. But I was ready for it, my staff spinning up and around to smack it out of the way. Unfortunately, while I was prepared for that, I hadn’t been prepared for the scorpion-like tail with attached stinger that the Aswang produced. It lashed out and down, cutting through the air while I was still slightly off-balance from knocking the proboscis out of the way.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Doug was there. Even as that scorpion stinger came lashing down towards me, he stepped up and put his shield in place right over my head to intercept it. His sword cut at the thing, but it withdrew just as fast as it had extended.

By that point, a protective, bug-like exoskeleton had extended over the man’s entire body. I could still see some of the hair that he had sprouted sticking out from between the narrow gaps in the plates. At a quick guess, I would’ve said that the hair served the purpose of providing sensory feedback that the plates themselves took away. At the same time, the Aswang grew a second set of arms from the lower part of his torso. They ended in a deadly-looking set of pincers

Doug followed up his defense with a fast offense. He threw himself at the Aswang, sword arcing up in a wide, diagonal swing that Hyde parried with his tail. One of the monster’s lower pincer arms lashed out before being caught by Doug’s shield. Unfortunately, the pincer closed around the shield itself and tore it away from the boy. Hyde cast it aside, but the shield simply vanished a second after it was away from its creator.

Meanwhile, the other pincer-hand came in on Doug’s other side. But I was already there, catching the flat part of the open pincers with my staff before using It to shove the arm aside. In the same motion, I brought my right foot up to kick against his chest before pushing off with that same foot to turn myself into a spin that brought my other foot up and around to smack into his face.

Doug went for the kill while the Aswang was recovering, shoving his sword up to the guy’s chest. But the blade just clanged off of the hard scales of that exoskeleton, and Doug had to quickly pivot to catch the descending tail once again. It recoiled before striking out a couple more times, forcing him to parry each one while backing up a couple steps from the ferocity of the counter-attack.

Between the Aswang’s four limbs, tail, and proboscis, Doug was about to be quickly overwhelmed. But like hell would I let that happen. I was already there, catching one of Hyde’s grasping hands with one end of my staff before smacking the other end up into the bottom of his jaw with every ounce of my newly considerable strength. It was enough to make his mouth clang shut while rocking his head backward.

It wasn’t enough to put him down though. Not even close. If anything, he got even angrier and more ferocious. I think Doug and I had managed to cross the point from simply being a couple of nameless Heretics among so many that he wanted to kill, to being very specific targets for him.

Well, honestly, if he wanted to kill me, he was gonna have to get in line or take a number.

But that was a line that he clearly wasn’t ready to wait for, as he came after both of us with a noise that sounded like a cross between a roar and a scream. One of his normal hands tried to shove my staff out of the way, while a pincer hand grabbed for my throat. I barely managed to duck aside before the pincer shut with a vicious, violent snap right where my neck had been. If I hadn’t moved, it probably would’ve taken my head off. Or at least cut deep into my throat.

At the same time, his other pincer actually did manage to get hold of Doug’s sword. Shoving it aside, he sent that proboscis shooting out again. But I threw my staff up, setting off a quick blast of kinetic force that sent the searching mouth-tongue-thing off course.

That scorpion-tail came down, but Doug had already recovered. The boy released his grip on the sword and let it disappear while he lunged backward to avoid the blade on the descending tail. It slammed into the floor before pulling back up, tearing a long, jagged hole through it in the process.

Do not let up. Don’t let up. It was like Avalon had said. The biggest benefit I had was that I could go harder a lot longer than most people could. They got tired. They had to rest and recover. I didn’t. I could go at full speed a hell of a lot more than others.

With that in mind, I went after him hard. Throwing myself forward, I parried his lashing claw out of the way before driving my foot into his lower stomach, then his upper chest, then back to his lower stomach in a quick three-point kick before snapping my leg back out of the way. Even as the Aswang grabbed for it, I was already spinning around to put myself out of the way while my staff swung up to knock his grasping pincer away.

Meanwhile, Doug wasn’t resting on his laurels. The pen, which hung from a strap around his wrist, flicked up into his hand and he clicked it a few times quickly. On the third click, a glowing energy-chain appeared in the air. Catching the chain, he swung it up and around, catching Hyde’s tail before giving a sharp yank to tug it down into range. At the same time, he clicked the pen once more before letting it fall back down on its strap as another copy of his sword appeared for him to snatch out of the air. A shout escaped the boy as he drove his sword up and around, cutting into that tail a few inches from the tip with enough force to cleave through it completely. The pointed tail-blade fell to the floor, writhing around a little while the Aswang screamed.

It still wasn’t enough to stop him though, or even really slow him down that much. Which Doug found out quickly when he was back-handed across the face by one of those pincers with enough force to send him crashing backwards into one of the desks.

He lunged for me then, all four of his arms moving to grab me while his proboscis went for my throat. At the last second, I threw myself up and backward in a jump that brought me to land on the top of the table that he had been trying to drive me into. Unfortunately for him, my item-sense had warned me about how close it was.

Landing on the table, I brought my staff up and triggered a blast that simultaneously knocked the man a step or two away from me while sending myself sliding backwards along the top of the table before I landed on the floor on the opposite side.

Without wasting a second, I brought my foot up to kick hard against the end of the table, sending it careening forward into the man, who was just recovering from the kinetic blast to the face. The force doubled him over. It also nearly pinned him to the wall, but he brought his pincer arms up and his regular arms down, slamming them into the table with enough strength to shatter it into several pieces to free himself.

Grabbing four of those pieces with his hands and pincers, he hurled them at me, forcing me to bat them aside with a quick flurry of motion from my staff.

Doug had recovered by that point, and was back on his feet. He’d also used that pen of his to conjure a long trident, a fact that Hyde discovered when Doug drove the trident right into his arm with a scream (from both of them, actually), pinning it to the wall. With the Aswang’s arm trapped, Doug put both hands on the handle of his sword and reared back to drive it forward through the man’s face. He was clearly intent on putting an end to this once and for all.

Hyde, however, clearly didn’t agree. An instant before Doug would have driven the point of the sword through his eye, the Aswang transformed. He suddenly went from being a man with some extra bug-like features to being a wolf with some bug-like features. Yeah, he looked like a big wolf that was covered in exoskeleton scales and had face that looked more like a beetle than a canine. Plus, not only did he have those pincer arms still (they came out of the wolf’s shoulders), he’d also fixed his tail during the change to give himself the blade on the end once more. So he actually looked like a cross between a wolf and a scorpion.

The sword was driven most of the way through the wall, penetrating nearly to the hilt. And before Doug could pull it back, the transformed Hyde struck with that reformed tail-blade. It went right through the boy’s arm nearly to the bone, drawing a rushing torrent of blood. Doug grabbed his arm with a cry then, leaving his throat open for the tail-blade to take his head from his shoulders.

Or it would have, if I hadn’t opened the portals on the ends of my staff to send a rush of sand into the Aswang’s eyes. He reared back with a cry, his tail narrowly missing its intended target. Instead, the tail struck Doug upside the head, drawing a line of blood across his temple and knocking him hard against the wall beside his own sword.

With a howl of frustration, Hyde jerked his head from side to side while blinking rapidly to clear the sand out of his eyes. Except this wasn’t normal sand. I was still controlling it, shoving the grains up into anything vulnerable I could see. Mostly that meant gouging his eyes with it as if he was walking through a blistering sandstorm. Or rubbing them with sandpaper.

But it didn’t stop him. Spitting a curse (which itself looked weird coming from the scorpion-dog’s body), he came for me. The four legs that Hyde now had propelled him right up to me in a split-second, his mouth opening wide to reveal a frankly obscene number of teeth, while his newly reformed tail lashed up and out.

A quick lunge backwards took me out of range of his first strike, and put my back right against one of the student’s desks. He kept coming, and I used the desk as a brief cover, slipping around to the other side of it just as his tail struck out at me, cobra-quick before it was caught by the side of the desk. Not that that slowed him down very much, he grabbed the desk with one claw and hurled it aside while lunging forward at me with the other claw, narrowly missing my arm before I brought my staff up to smack it aside. And judging from how it felt when my staff hit that claw, if I didn’t have the werewolf strength backing me up, he easily would have overpowered me and knocked the staff from my hand. He was strong, fast, and incredibly intent on killing me.

But hey, at least this time it wasn’t personal. He just hated me because I was a Heretic, not for anything particularly unique. Although the fact that that was kind of an upgrade was a bit sad.

We continued a winding route through the classroom that way. He kept trying to pen me in with the desks, or at least use them to take me by surprise, lunging whenever he thought I was about to stumble into or trip over one of them. But I always knew where they were, I knew where everything around me was. With that combined with my reflexes, I was able to work my way through the jumble of desks, chairs, and tables even as they continued to get knocked around.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually gain an advantage that way either. He was too fast, and his shape-shifting meant that he could continually choose to go under or over any of the obstacles. Plus, any damage I did seemed to heal pretty quickly. Not that it was easy to do damage to him in the first place with those hard scales.

But I had to do this. Wyatt was busy stopping that spell from killing all those people. And Doug was still recovering. He had been knocked into that wall pretty hard. Which meant that I needed to deal with this bastard myself. No matter what that took.

Fortunately, I already had a plan for that. And I’d been working on it bit by bit the entire time.

Shifting into his humanoid form, Hyde leapt up and over the nearest overturned desk in his path. His lower right arm came up toward me. This time, rather than using pincers, he’d formed his extra hands into long blades that had serrated edges like a couple of saws.

What followed went so quick, I could barely follow it myself, even with my enhanced reflexes. He came at me with his two arm blades, two hands, tail, and proboscis. Meanwhile, I was left to block with my staff or simply evade. One after another, his attacks kept coming.

My staff whipped up and to the left to catch his arm-blade there, while I pivoted away from his lashing tail. In the same spin, my foot kicked over one of the desks and sent it crashing into one of the others.

He was grabbing for my shoulder with one hand while trying to drive the other arm-blade into my stomach. I caught the blade against the staff, turning it aside while stepping in closer. Even as his hand caught my shoulder (sharp talon-like claws digging hard into the muscle there), I put my foot in his leg to knock him back a step. His claws tore my shirt, drawing a line of blood.

It hurt. I didn’t care. It didn’t distract me. Not now. Not anymore. Between Avalon, Professor Katarin (and now Hisao), And all the rest of the training I’ve been going through, pain didn’t distract me nearly as much as it used to.  

More. He kept coming. Blow from the top – block. Blow from the side – quick step backward. Three rapid strikes from alternating arm-blades, one after another. Block, twist aside, step in and parry to knock his arm out of the way so I could put my fist into his face. Repeat. Again. He was so fast. So furious. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t take the time to do anything other than keep moving. He nailed me a couple times, drawing more blood with each blow. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious, I felt the pain and realized he was doing damage to me. But I shut that part away and stayed focused. There would be time to deal with all of that later. Later.

Block, strike, twist, step forward, retreat a step, catch his tail, flick it aside while driving forward with one foot to keep him off-balance. Turn, flip the staff up and over my back to stop him from catching me there. Side-step, turn, flip up and over the same tail as he swept it around, trying to go in low. Land. Kick. Twist. Put a knee in him. Stumble.

Breathe. Most of all, keep breathing.

It felt like hours had passed. Not because I was tired or anything, but because of how much my brain had been working to keep up with everything that was going on. It was furious, frantic, deadly work. And I couldn’t let up for a second, not for an instant.

Sometime through that, Doug had mostly recovered. But rather than jumping in, he stood there staring at what was going on. I could see his eyes widening with each passing second, and it seemed like he had frozen up.

Still, he shook it off fairly quickly. Clicking that pen of his, he created another sword and went up and over one of the desks to go at Hyde. The Aswang turned partway, smacking the sword out of the way with the flat of his tail.

But that gave me a brief opening. Taking advantage of it, I quickly drove the tip of my staff up into throat. He still had that armor plating protecting it, but the force of it at least knocked him back a step. And he was knocked back even more when I followed that up with a leaping kick that put my foot into his chest.

Hyde stumbled, catching himself with a grunt.

“It won’t matter,” he insisted through a voice that was filled with rage and disgust. “Even if you kill me, it means nothing. The cause continues. Heretics are going to pay for everything you’ve done. He’ll make sure of it. He’ll tear your society down, all of it.” 

“Who?” I demanded, not really believing that he’d give that much away. But it was worth a shot. Sometimes people got braggy. “The other guy you’re working with? Karl Ulsun? Who is he, your brother? Your wife’s brother? I don’t think he’s going to get much further than you have.”

The smile that he gave me then was as predatory as it was unhinged. “Oh, you’ll find out exactly who our friend is when the time comes. When he shows himself to burn all Heretics down.”

“Stop talking to it,” Douglas insisted, readying his sword while casting me a brief, annoyed glance. “It’s just trying to get under your skin, and screw with you.”

It. Not him. Some small part of my brain noticed that particular distinction. The Aswang was a monster, that was for sure. He’d killed innocent children. And yet, using the term ‘it’ felt like taking some of the responsibility away from him. If something was an ‘it’, there was less personal responsibility for their own actions. Calling Hyde an ‘it’ made him seem like a robot, something that could only do what it was programmed to do.

No matter his reasoning, Hyde was a monster. There was no doubt about that. But he was also responsible for his actions. He was a he, not an it.

Rather than getting into any of that however, I simply smiled slightly. “Actually, there is a benefit to getting him to talk, Doug.”

Both of them voiced questions of what I meant by that, with relatively similar levels of disbelief. So at least they had that in common.

Shrugging, I took a breath while putting my foot up on one of the fallen desks. “See, talking to him helped make sure he didn’t realize what I noticed awhile back.

“All these desks are made out of wood.”

With that, I dropped straight into the desk that I’d had my foot on. From there, I passed through to the next desk. And then the next one.

Yeah, I’d spent the last few minutes not just evading Hyde’s attacks, but actually setting this whole thing up. One by one, I had knocked over, kicked, nudged, or otherwise moved more than half-a-dozen desks until they formed a sort-of semicircle. All of them were touching at one spot or another, allowing me to keep passing all the way through them.

I popped up and out of the last desk… directly behind Hyde. Before he knew what was going on, or had even had a chance to react to my disappearance, I wrapped my staff around his throat and jerked backward. He made a strangled noise of confusion and horror.

A plea, a threat, a promise? I didn’t know. And at that point, I didn’t care. Not after all the death he’d been responsible for. His wife and daughter deserved justice. But so did all the kids he’d killed trying to lure Heretics out for his revenge.

He’d crossed the line, and there would be no going back.

Jerking backward on the staff, I twisted while simultaneously triggering the enormous kinetic charge that it had built up by that point. There was a screech from the Aswang, followed by a sickening crunch of snapping bone and tearing muscle.

The resistance vanished. With a final crack followed by a sick slurping noise, Hyde’s head was torn free from his neck, along with part of his spinal cord.

His body fell, collapsing to the ground to leave me standing there with his head tucked under one arm.

I had the sense of mind to throw the head away from me before the pleasure took over. Doubling over, I let out a gasp as my aura flared up. That incredible rush swept over me, and I barely resisted the urge to moan. It was the strongest reaction like that I’d felt since the shark-man. Or possibly since the Amarok. Wow.

Also, there was a disturbing amount of blood and other bodily fluids (or head fluids) that had leaked out over my clothes. I was basically soaked in the… stuff.

“Wyatt,” I managed after catching myself on my staff like a walking stick. Looking up that way, I pleaded, “Tell me you disabled that spell.”

He looked about as exhausted as I would have felt if it wasn’t for the Amarok’s stamina. Eying me, Wyatt nodded. “Yes,” he announced. “I had to wait to disable the last part until he was dead. But… you took care of that.”

“No shit she did.” Douglas’s voice was filled with awe and… well, what sounded like a little bit of fear. “You just–what did you just… how did…”

“She finished the fight,” Wyatt informed him, pride in his own voice. “And she did a very good job.”

“Indeed.” The new voice came from the doorway, where Professor Dare stood. She stepped in, looking at the body on the floor, then to the head on the other side of the room. Moving to me, she asked quietly, “Flick, Wyatt, Douglas, are you all right?”

“We’re good.” I looked around at the others before focusing. “Wh… what about…”

“Harper and Russell are fine,” she assured us. “Hisao is with them. And the other Aswang has been killed. I was hunting the other one and tracked him here. I see you were forced to get involved.”

“He was going to kill a lot more people,” I replied softly. “A lot more kids.”  

“With Heretic magic, Professor,” Doug put in quickly. “How is that possible? How could that creature know magic from Heretics?”

Her head dipped in a bow of acknowledgment. “That is a question to be looked into later, Douglas. By qualified experts. For now, your part is over. Relax. You all did well. Very well.

“Now let’s go home before we have to find a way to explain this mess.”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-09

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Barely a few seconds after I activated the emergency alert stone that Hisao had given us, it crumbled into dust in my hand. Stopping short for just a moment in the middle of the sidewalk just outside of the school, I stared at the dust while a thousand thoughts went through my head. Most of them centered around wondering what the hell had gone wrong this time.

I looked toward Doug, about to tell the boy to try his own alert stone just in case, while I used my phone to call someone. Before I could get the words out, however, the dust in my hand swirled up into the air, forming a cloud that expanded and grew. The dust cloud reshaped itself over the next couple of seconds, turning into the shape of a man. A moment later, the cloud solidified and Hisao was standing there.

Oh. Well, that was a new kind of emergency response that I’ve never seen before. Maybe it was an Eden’s Garden thing? And the people passing by didn’t even glance that way. The Bystander Effect at work. I didn’t know if they didn’t see Hisao at all, thought he’d been standing there the whole time, or if their brains registered him walking up to us.

Either way, Doug and I were still standing there realizing what had just happened while Hisao glanced around as though looking for the threat. Then he focused on me, just as I remembered to shift back to my actual face. “You know, they said that you were really good at finding trouble, but I thought they were exaggerating just a little bit.”

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “It’s not me this time, it’s the others, Russell and Harper.”

I started to go on, but my item-sense abruptly poked me with the arrival of two more people. Turning that way, I saw Dare and Wyatt step out of an empty classroom. Or, at least they stepped through a classroom door. Before it shut behind them, I saw the inside of the Pathmaker building.

“You two responded fast,” Hisao remarked. I saw him give some kind of brief hand signal to Dare, though I didn’t know what it could mean. Maybe he was telling her that we didn’t seem to be in immediate danger? Which made sense, because Dare had looked awfully tense coming through that door.

“Wyatt found me,” Dare replied, her eyes scanning me up and down before she added, “He said there was a problem.”

The security measures that Wyatt had placed on me, I realized. Apparently my stress levels or something like that had alerted him, and he’d run to get Dare. Or maybe she’d been waiting. I mean, I did have that kind of reputation by that point.

“How’d he know about it?” Douglas cut into my thoughts while looking at Wyatt. Obviously, to him, the guy was still a goofy, borderline incompetent and paranoid security guard with no sense of boundaries.

“I sent him a message,” I put in while Wyatt was still opening his mouth to respond. “Thought we could use as much help as possible.”

Staring at me, Doug demanded, “When? When did you have a chance to do that?”

“Magic,” I replied before shrugging. “More important things to worry about, Doug.”

Hurriedly, I explained the situation in as few words as possible, with Doug interjecting now and then to add his own two cents. I showed him what we’d found, and explained how we thought the Strangers couldn’t be identified during the daytime, and that the whole thing seemed to be a trap for Heretics because these Aswang were pissed off about their family being killed.

With Doug around I had to sound less sympathetic about that part, which was easier when I thought about the fact that these guys had actually killed innocent children in order to set their trap. I still felt bad for the guy’s wife and child, but those other kids didn’t do anything either. No matter how much right he had to be pissed off and vengeful, there was no justification for that. None. A woman and child being killed just because of what they were was monstrous, no doubt about it. But these guys had crossed the line. My sympathy for them evaporated when they murdered innocent children.

Apparently Dare agreed, because there was anger in her eyes as she straightened up when I finished talking. “Wyatt,” she announced, “stay here with Flick and Douglas. Hisao and I will get the others.” Glancing to the other man, she added, “Their alert stones?”

“Still active,” he confirmed after tilting his head to focus for a moment. “They haven’t gone off, which means the kids haven’t called for help, their stress levels are still normal, and they haven’t taken any kind of damage. Proximity’s still within a few feet of them, so they haven’t lost the stones either. We can jump straight to them.”

“Do it.” Looking to me, Dare added, “Stay with Wyatt. Don’t go anywhere unless you have to. We’ll get the others. Be safe. Be smart. Got it?” When I nodded, she glanced to Douglas. “Same for you.”

Hisao offered his hand to her then. A second after she took it, both of them turned into dust and then disappeared.

Exhaling, I slumped over to put my hands on my knees, muttering, “God, I hope they make it in time. They’re going to make it in time, they’re going to make it.” Muttering those reassurances to myself, I glanced up to see Doug squinting at me thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Wyatt had taken up what was clearly a protective position nearby and was busily scowling at everyone who walked past.

“Pretty smart, for monsters,” Doug remarked thoughtfully while looking away for a moment. “Luring Heretics out here, setting up an ambush like that. Seems like they know what they’re doing.”

Wyatt snorted in disbelief, head-shaking. “Not that smart,” he muttered. “If it was me, I’d pretend to be a different kind of Stranger. I’d kill the victims some other way, make it look like a vampire or something. That way, the Heretics wouldn’t know I could be out in the daylight, so their guard would be down. See, you both figured out that your Stranger-Sense wouldn’t work on them in the daytime, but they could identify you. So you were careful. But if they’d just pretended to be a different kind of Stranger, you wouldn’t have had that warning. They threw away an advantage like that for no reason. Stupid. Never give an enemy more information that he needs to have, especially if you can give him fake information.”

Well, Doug had stopped staring at me, and was now staring at Wyatt instead. His mouth open and shut, and it was obvious that he was trying to come up with the right words to say to the man that up until a couple of seconds ago, he had obviously dismissed as a goofy little nobody, just like the rest of the school.

Finally, he started with a weak, “You’re really not–”

Then it was my turn to interrupt. My roaming gaze had spotted something, and my eyes widened before I blurted in a quick half-whisper, “Hey, hey, over there!” I was pointing clear across the lawn of the school toward the far parking lot where the teacher’s cars were obviously kept.

It was Hyde. The pseudo-teacher was walking away from a jeep. Actually, he was half-running. It was obvious that he was trying to rush, without attracting too much attention or questions. A couple of people who were walking past called out greetings to him, and he gave them a distracted wave before hurrying on through the nearby door into the school.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Doug demanded. “He’s supposed to be off getting himself killed by Professor Dare and the Garden guy. What’s going on?”

My head shook. “I don’t know, but he’s definitely up to something. You saw the look on his face. Something’s wrong. Maybe he escaped, or…” I was already moving, my hands digging my phone out of my pocket so I could send a text to Dare. But somehow, I knew we couldn’t wait for them to catch up. And for all we knew, they were busy with the other guy. No, whatever Hyde was up to, it couldn’t’ wait. We had to see what was going on in there.

As I hit send on the text, Wyatt caught my arm. “It could be dangerous,” he pointed out tensely, his eyes staring through me. Obviously, there were things he wanted to say, that he couldn’t actually get out with Douglas standing right there.

“I know,” I replied. “But whatever is going on in there might be more dangerous than that. We can’t just wait out here. What if he’s got more victims in there? What if he’s trying to go out with some kind of big statement? He could be desperate, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know anything about what’s happening in there. Or who he’s about to kill.”

Wyatt look like he wanted to argue with that for a minute, but in the end all he could do with sigh. “Fine, but both of you stay with me, and take these.” He handed us each what looked like a couple of arrowheads. Pressing them into our palms, he touched a finger against each and activated the spell on them. As soon as he did, I felt a tingle and my hand turned partially transparent, like I was a ghost. Not just my hand either, I realized belatedly, but my whole body. Looking up, I saw set the same thing had happened to Doug and Wyatt.

“We’re invisible,” my half-brother announced carefully. “Just don’t touch anybody else or get too close, or it’ll break the effect.”

The three of us hurried inside then, and Doug and I led Wyatt to Hyde’s classroom. We got to the closed-door just in time to hear a crash from inside that was followed by a muffled curse. Clearly, the man had figured out that we had been in there. He was probably pissed off that we’d taken his stuff.

After glancing toward Wyatt, I stepped to the door and through it with my wood-walking power, emerging into the classroom on the other side. Coming out of the door, I saw Hyde on the other side of the room, next to his desk. Or rather, where his desk had been. At the moment, it was several feet away and turned askew, as if he had kicked it in anger. One of the drawers that I had set aside earlier was laying on the floor, with it contents spilled all over. Meanwhile, the man himself was muttering something out loud in a language that I didn’t understand while he scribbled something on the whiteboard. But he wasn’t using a marker. Instead, he was dipping a small paintbrush in a bucket of what looked suspiciously like be blood, and using that to scrawl runes on the board.

Magic, I realized immediately. He was doing some kind of magic. Which meant we probably didn’t want him to finish the job. Before I could really think about what I was doing, I was already across the room. My hands grabbed the guy’s arm and shoulder, and I bodily hurled him away from the board before he could scrawl more runes. I would have drawn my weapon, or done anything else to put the guy down, but I had no idea how much time I had before he would’ve finished that spell. All I could think about at the time was to stop him from writing anything else as fast as possible.

At the sound of the guy cursing as he crashed into the far wall, the door came off its hinges. Wyatt and Doug were right inside. All three of our invisibility spells had faded.

Hyde was already back on his feet. He glared, first at the other two in the doorway, and then at me as I stood between him and his spell. “More of you,” he snarled, hate and loathing filling his voice. “I don’t care. I don’t care how many of you ignorant, vile freaks there are. You won’t take this away from me. Not this time. You. Will. Lose.”

Wyatt took a step forward, but Hyde made a tutting sound while holding up a finger. “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned flatly. “The spell might not be complete, but it’s far enough to do some damage.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Wyatt looked to the spell on the board and grimaced before shaking his head. “Heretic magic. How did you learn–” He stopped then, focusing on the man. “It’s not enough, you don’t have the energy built up for the spell to get anywhere.”

“Don’t I?” Hyde snarled the words. Then he spoke a single other word, and all around the room, The various posters advertising lab safety, or whatnot fell to the floor, revealing more runes scrawled on the walls in long-dried blood.

“Uhh,” Doug started turning in a circle while pulling a pen out of his pocket. “What the hell do those mean? What’s going on?”

Wyatt answered without looking at him. His attention was focused on Hyde. “The spell on the board targets a small object and makes it burn up. It makes a small, really hot fire for about ten seconds. About this big,” he held his hands together in the shape of a ball about half a foot across. “It’ll melt through steel.”

“Small fire,” Doug muttered. “Could be worse, right?”

“That,” Wyatt replied while pointing to the last part of the board that the man had gotten to, “That’s a multiplier. It means the spell will affect more than one object, probably dozens.”

“Six hundred and twenty one, actually,” Hyde interjected. “Give or take a few. Can’t guarantee that all the students ate their special treats.”

My eyes widened at that. “You got every student in this school to swallow something that’s gonna blow up?”

“Not blow up,” the crazed man retorted. “Just make a little fire this big in their stomachs. Just enough to give them a bit of a tummy ache. Or, you know, burn them from the inside out.”

My staff was out of my belt and in my hand as the man went on quickly. “And those,” he indicated the spellforms that had been hidden behind the posters, “are battery spells needed to make sure that each and every one of those kids gets a real nasty surprise.”

“You’re insane,” I blurted. “Those kids didn’t do anything. They didn’t kill your family, Hyde. Or whatever your real name is.”

“Of course he’s insane,” Doug interjected. “He’s a monster. Why are you acting surprised?” Even as he spoke, the boy clicked the pen in his hand. In front of him, a glowing sword made out of energy appeared, hovering in the air. He clicked it again, and a shield appeared beside the weapon. He took both, one for each hand. 

Ignoring his words, I focused on Hyde himself. “What is this going to prove?”

“Prove?” he echoed before giving a harsh laugh. “You wanna know what it’s gonna prove? It’s gonna prove that you cocksuckers can’t just kill us with impunity anymore. You kill one of us, we’ll find a hundred humans and kill them in retaliation. You murder our families, we’ll wipe out twenty of yours. It’s war, you bitch. We win by making it cost too much for you to keep fighting. You fucks have gotta learn your lesson.”

Raising my staff, I shook my head. “You’re not setting that thing off. I’m sorry your wife and kid died–”

“Murdered!” he interrupted, a crazed look in his eyes. “They didn’t just die, they were murdered, by you motherfuckers!”

Ignoring the look from Doug, I pressed on. “But you’re not going to kill any more innocent people. That won’t prove anything. It won’t help anything.”

“Help? I don’t care about helping,” he snapped. “I care about revenge. And you can’t do anything about it.” His hand angrily gestured to the board. “The only thing you managed to stop me from putting in was the amplify effect. Turns the little fires into big ones. Ten feet instead of half a foot. They’d take out a hell of a lot more people that way. Anyone standing by my little walking bombs… poof. Ashes. Think that’ll be enough to teach you assholes to mind your own business?”

There are so many things I wanted to say to that, but I said none of them. It wouldn’t have done any good.

Meanwhile, the man himself sneered a little when there was no response to his question. “The spell’s automatic now. You can’t stop it. Either it goes off and kills all those kids with the little fires, or I get past you and make one last mark so the bigger fires kill a hell of a lot more.”

“Wyatt,” I quickly asked, “can you stop it?”

He spun on his heel, running to the board while calling back, “Stop him from getting to the board.”

“Oh, we’ll stop him,” I replied while glancing to Doug. “You heard the man. Keep him away from the board.”

“My spell,” Hyde snarled angrily. “You think you can undo my spell? You can’t. No one can. Not this spell. Either it kills six hundred, or it kills a lot more than that, but you can’t stop it.”

“You don’t know Wyatt,” I replied flatly. “And you don’t know us.”

From his pocket, the Aswang produced a small black stone. Grimacing as he held the stone up, he glared at us before crushing the thing in his hand.

My Stranger-Sense immediately kicked on and started shouting at me. But… it wasn’t night yet. Well, not late enough for Hyde to change, anyway. He should still be a normal human for a couple hours, unless that… stone… did something to make his body think it was late enough to change.

As those thoughts ran through my mind, the man’s body shifted. He grew half a foot immediately, hair sprouting on his body. His hands formed long, dangerous looking claws. At the same time, his mouth contorted, expanding a bit before opening both horizontally and vertically, almost like one of those movie Predators. Worse, a thin, tube-shaped proboscis with teeth on the end shot out a foot or so from the open mouth.

The thing the Aswang used to suck the unborn fetus out of a pregnant woman, I realized belatedly. The thought sobered me, and I narrowed my eyes. This fucker had killed innocent people. Whether or not he had good reason to hate Heretics, that was going too far. He had to be stopped. He had to be put down.

“Doug,” I muttered, “I hope you’re ready. Because we can’t let him interrupt Wyatt. Which means this just got a lot more–”

The monster lunged at us.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Croc from Eden’s Garden posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Have I mentioned,” Doug asked while the two of us jogged down the mostly empty street toward the school, “how weird it is that they’re sending first-year students to check out an active threat? I mean, isn’t it? This guy, if it’s him, he’s killing people. He’s killed people. And they’re trusting a couple first year nobodies to try and deal with it? What—why? Is it just how this Hisao guy does things or what?”

Well, I supposed that actually asking if this was Hisao’s ‘thing’ or a regular Crossroads plan was progress toward the Eden’s Garden substitute’s being accepted. At least Doug didn’t immediately jump to the whole thing being some psychotic plan on the man’s part to kill off some Crossroads students.

“I guess it could be either,” I admitted while shaking my head. “Maybe they think this thing isn’t that much of a threat if we can identify him? And Hisao is right nearby when shit does go down, so it’s not like we’re completely on our own. I guess either way, we’re gonna have to deal with these things eventually, so it’s better if it’s in a semi-controlled environment like this? You know, small town, one clear threat, badass teacher waiting to jump in if we need it. Honestly it could be a lot worse than this.”

I left out the part where I was so used to being randomly jumped by threats that actually weren’t controlled by this point that the thought of how dangerous this would look in the sense of a normal school hadn’t even crossed my mind. But of course, that kind of thing wouldn’t be normal for Douglas.

We reached the parking lot of the combination junior and high school a few minutes later, crossing a small park to approach the back where the football field and track were. There were still a few cars in the parking lot, and we could see a couple guys on the snow-covered field throwing a ball back and forth to each other. Overall, the place looked fairly quiet considering it wasn’t quite five o’clock yet.

“So how do we find the guy’s office?” Doug asked while the two of us stood there staring at the school.

Shrugging, I replied, “I was thinking about that, and I doubt he has an actual office. It’s a small public school, so he’s probably just got a classroom to work in. As for how we find it, if this town wasn’t so small I’d say we ask someone. But, you know, the way it is, they’ll know we don’t belong in there. So they’d probably just call him.”

“And that’d be bad.” Doug frowned. “Wait, Strangers recognize Heretics, right? Shit, does that mean-”

“That if he’s this Aswang guy, our senses won’t ping him until later tonight, but he’ll recognize us immediately?” I finished for him before grimacing. “Yeah, I think so. Safer to work under that assumption, at least. Figure if he sees us, he’ll know what we are immediately. Which means that–”

“We can’t let him see us.” Doug took his turn to finish my sentence, sighing out loud. “That’s just great. I don’t suppose that article had a picture of the damn guy so we don’t go stumbling right into him?”

My head shook. “Nope, sorry. But hang on.” Producing my phone from my pocket, I quickly looked up the school’s website. Even a little place like this had a school website in this day and age, even if it did look like something out of the late nineties. Still, after figuring out the positively archaic website navigation, I managed to get to the teacher directory. And thankfully, that was actually kept up to date.

“Here he is,” I announced, holding the phone out for Doug to see the picture of the slightly balding guy who appeared to be in his late forties. Really, he looked pretty much like the exact image that came into my mind the second I thought of ‘middle-aged junior high science teacher in a small town.’ Which might have been the point, come to think of it. What better way for him to blend in than just like that?

“Right,” Doug nodded slowly, giving me a brief look before continuing. “So now we know what he looks like. Still doesn’t answer the question of how we’re gonna get into his classroom to check it out.”

Considering that for a moment, I smiled slowly. “I’ve got an idea. Hold on a second.” My eyes scanned the area around the school, searching slowly before I spotted the right person. “There she is.” I pointed at a girl that was walking out of the school, heading for a small, beat-up sedan in the corner of the lot.

Blinking blankly at the girl, Doug shook his head after a second of appraisal. “Okay, so who is she?”

Still smiling, I shrugged. “No idea. But she’s about to give me a chance to get inside and find the right office.” As I spoke, I focused on changing my face and hair using the Rakshasa’s face-shifting power. Gradually, I went from looking like myself to looking like the girl who just left. She was about my same size and build, as far as I could tell. Close enough, at least, that a quick in-and-out should be safe.

“Okay,” I announced while zipping my coat closed to hide as much of myself other than my face as possible. “I’ll go find the right room, then tell you what side to come to so I can let you in the window. Just give me your number.” I waved the phone at him to make the point.

Doug looked like he wanted to argue with that, but couldn’t figure out how. In the end, he just gave me the number and added, “Fine, but watch out for that guy. Even with that face change, he’ll probably still figure it out if he sees you.”

Nodding, I plugged the number into my phone before starting to make my way across the lot. It would’ve been better if I could’ve matched my clothes (or at least the coat) to the other girl’s, but this was the best I could do. With any luck whatsoever, considering how few people were around the place, no one would pay any attention to me.

“Erin!” A boy raised a hand and called from one of the hallway lockers the second I stepped inside.

Oh, right. I forgot. My luck seemed to run in the complete opposite direction with this sort of thing.

Coughing, I realized belatedly that my voice wouldn’t match this Erin girl’s either. So I just mumbled a faint greeting while giving him a return wave as I walked past the boy. Please don’t be good friends, I thought to myself. Please, please don’t be good friends. Just let her walk by. Just let her keep going.

Again, my luck meant that he pushed away from his locker and fell into step beside me. “Hey, I thought you were heading home. You know what’ll happen if your mom finds out Jack was there alone again.”

My mouth opened, and then I realized the easiest response. Coughing again, I gestured down before giving the perfect awkward shrug. “Bathroom,” I grunted the word before picking up the pace, speed-walking straight for the labeled restroom up ahead. Girl’s room. He was a boy. Easiest way to lose him.

“Oh, right.” The boy slowed down, giving me a curious look. “Didn’t you just go a few minutes ago?”

Because of course Erin had. Resisting the urge to sigh, I gave a helpless gesture toward my stomach as if to say ‘what can you do?’ before waving. Then I ducked inside the restroom. On my way in, the boy called, “And where’d that coat come from? Erin? Uh, okay then. See you tonight, I gotta go.”

I waited a minute inside the restroom, just to be sure to give the guy enough time to actually leave. Finally, I cracked the door and peeked out. After scanning the hallway and finding it empty, I sighed softly before stepping out. Then I walked down the hall, following the signs to the main office. Not that I wanted anything to do with the office itself, but there was probably something there that I could use.

Sure enough, just outside the main office I saw what I was looking for: a framed map of the school behind a glass cover. It was the sort of thing that most students wouldn’t even notice once they knew the place, but was probably there for guests to figure out where they were going. A quick glance at the map showed where I was, and it didn’t take much more to spot the junior high science classrooms. They weren’t too far away, actually. Just ahead through the cafeteria and then down a hallway to the right.

Moving quicker, I made my way there, passing the cafeteria where only a couple people were sitting with books spread out, apparently studying. Turning down the side hall, I watched the classroom doors, hoping for some other kind of sign of which one was the right one. There were three rooms, but none of them had the guy’s name written outside or anything. And peeking through the windows on the doors just revealed normal science classroom stuff. I saw tables for labs, microscopes, formulas on the white boards, homework assignments, even a partially erased hangman game. But there was no neatly-written note that said, ‘Truman Hyde’s classroom is right here, and by the way, for any Heretics that come looking, check my desk.’

So, without that added hint, I had to make do. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard. More time-consuming than I would’ve liked, but not hard. Looking up and down the hall, I tried the first door. It was locked, so I focused on the Relukun’s power and stepped right through, merging with the wood briefly before separating from it inside the classroom. Granted, it would’ve been easy enough to shove the door open, but this way was quieter and didn’t leave any sign that we’d even been there. Yeah, subtle was better.

It didn’t take long to quickly search the desk at the front of the room. A quick glance at the grade book showed some woman’s name in the margin. Definitely not the guy were looking for, so I moved on.

The second room was a bust as well. Which figured. Finally, after a brief search of the third room, I found what I was looking for. The man’s name was written on a few papers spread out on his desk.

This was it. Moving to the window, I glanced outside and then opened it while hitting the button on my phone to call Doug. It took a minute to direct him around to the right side, but I eventually got him in.

“Guess we spread out,” I announced after he finished clambering into the room. “Look for anything important? We’ve still got a few hours before he turns, if he’s actually the guy we’re looking for.”

Shrugging after giving me a brief, appraising look, Doug muttered, “I’ll check the closet. You can take the desk.” Waving vaguely that way, the boy moved to the back of the room without another word.

Okay then. Still wondering what Douglas’s deal was, I shrugged and walked back to the desk. Tugging the chair out, I sat down and started to work my way through the drawers. Not that I looked that closely other than a quick perusal. This guy, if he was what we were looking for, wasn’t going to leave a signed confession or a map to his secret lair sitting in a drawer where anyone could dig through and find it.

On the other hand, however, there could be a secret compartment or something. And I had the perfect way to figure out if there was. First, I pulled both desk drawers all the way out and set them on one of the tables nearby. Then I quickly pulled everything off the top of the desk, the papers, a framed photograph of some kind of volcano, and a plastic apple, setting all of it out of the way as well.

That done, I moved back to the desk and focused on the skeleblineist’s power. If there were any items still in the desk after I’d removed the drawers and moved everything off the top of it, that would prove there was a secret compartment. Then all I had to do was find it, and I had a plan for that too.

Sure enough, as soon as I focused, the power told me that there were three things still in the desk somewhere. I sensed a pad of paper, a silver coin, and a photograph. I didn’t know what was written on the paper or what the picture was of, but I did know they were there. Which meant they were hidden.

But again, I had an answer for that. And it didn’t involve blindly groping around the desk looking for the right spot. Instead, I put my hands on it while focusing on the wood-merging power again. A moment later, I hopped right into the desk. From there, I just worked my way through it, feeling for open spots that shouldn’t have been there. Which, I supposed, was still sort-of blindly searching in some ways, but it was faster than groping around with my hands for a button or a loose panel, at least.

It only took a few seconds for me to find the hidden compartment in the desk. As I popped out the other side, I traced my path back to the right spot. It was just above the top drawer and a little to the right left, inside the area where the man’s legs would have gone if he was sitting behind the desk. Feeling around there, I knocked against it lightly with my knuckles. Yup, definitely a hollow sound. So that was where the hidden compartment was, but how did I open it? I could just break the damn thing, but there was–

Oh. Right, I was being stupid. Taking a breath, I focused on the wood-merging power one more time. Then I shoved my hand through that spot of the desk and into the open space on the other side. It took effort not to fully merge myself with it, as I felt the pressure building. It was like the wood was trying to suck me in. Blindly, I groped around until my fingers found the pad of paper. Whispering a silent plea to no one in particular, I yanked my hand back out again.

It worked. Just like when I held my weapon while merging with wood (or the clothes on my back), the pad came out with my hand. Without taking the time to look at it, I quickly did the same thing for the coin and the photograph. “Hey, I’ve got something,” I stage-whispered over toward Doug before finally looking at what exactly I had. Focusing on the photograph first, I saw the man in question standing with three others. There was another man, a woman, and a young girl. All four were in front of that same volcano that I’d seen in the other picture, the one that had been on top of the desk. His family, maybe? Except no, the paper had listed him as a single man, a bachelor. So who were these other three? Maybe they were a family and he was a friend? Or a brother. One of the adults could be his sibling.

I didn’t know, and there wasn’t enough information on the photograph to be sure. Turning it over, I saw was a date. The picture had been taken three years earlier. Under that, there was a single word: Remember.

Remember. Remember what, exactly? Confused, I quickly looked at the coin. Sure enough, it was a real silver dollar. On one side, I could see a seated woman holding a stick with something on the end of it in one hand, and a shield in the other. On the shield, the word ‘Liberty’ was written. Under the woman was printed the date of 1836. On the opposite side of the coin, there was an eagle in flight, surrounded by a bunch of stars, with United States Of America – One Dollar written around the outside of it.

A silver coin from the eighteen hundreds. Okay then. But what was it doing hidden away? What was the significance?

Shaking that off, I looked at the pad of paper, hoping to find answers there at least. It was actually a full-sized notebook. As I flipped through it, I found… letters. Deeply personal, emotional letters to… his wife and daughter. They were full of vows about how much he loved them, what he’d do for them, how they were everything to him. It kind of made me feel bad to read, because they were incredibly touching. But why hadn’t he given the letters to them? Why were they all just in the notebook without–

Oh. Oh god. Looking back to the photograph, I realized. The woman and the girl were his after all. They were just… dead. That’s why he didn’t send the letters.

Sure enough, scanning through a bit more of the writing made that clear. He was writing to his dead daughter and wife. But who was the other guy in the picture?

“Okay,” Doug announced while coming out of the closet. “This is really freaking me out.”

When I looked that way in confusion, he held up a leather-bound journal. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here about… us.”

“Us?” I echoed, my eyes widening.

“No, no, not us specifically,” he amended. “I mean us as in Heretics. He’s got the names of both schools, details about that tattoo the Eden’s Garden people have, some stuff about what age we start school at Crossroads, more about how our weapons and stuff work. Even some stuff about the Committee and some group called the Victors, which… I assume has something to do with the Eden people.”

“Stuff about Heretics…” I spoke slowly, looking at the notebook. “And a bunch of letters to his dead wife and daughter. I—oh… oh shit, Doug, I think he’s trying to kill Heretics. I’m pretty sure Heretics killed his wife and daughter and now he’s—I don’t know, out for revenge.”

“Revenge?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Can Strangers even have wives and daughters, let alone want revenge when they die?”

Rather than say the first thing that came to mind at that, I snapped, “Even wild animals care about their own kind, Doug. Yes, I’m pretty sure he can be pissed off that his-that his mate and offspring were killed.”

“No wonder his name was so obvious,” the boy muttered then. “Truman Hyde? It was on purpose.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, looking at the photograph again. “I just wish I knew who this other guy was.”

Moving up beside me, Doug took a look. Then he did a quick double-take. “Wait, I know him. Hold on.” Quickly taking out his phone, he searched for the town’s informational website before bringing it up. “Okay, okay, look. Law enforcement. There it is, Deputy Karl Ulsun. He moved here a year ago. I was looking him up in the library, but he got here too long ago for the murders, so I dismissed him.”

“Moved here a year ago,” I muttered under my breath. “Long enough to make it into the police department and blend in before Heretics showed up looking for the Stranger that was killing people. Because most Heretics that came into town probably wouldn’t go to the library to look up information about murders, they’d–”

“Go to the police station,” Doug finished. “Which is–”

I was already spinning toward the door, digging the alert stone for Hisao out of my pocket. “Right where Russell and Harper went.

“They’re walking into a trap.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-07

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As it turned out, we couldn’t go visit the town that the Aswang (if we were right) had targeted right away. Not because we weren’t allowed to, of course. Hisao assured us that getting out in the field was kind of the whole point of being a Hunter. Rather, we couldn’t go immediately because the other two, Russell and Harper, also asked to go see the town themselves. Hisao thought we should be on the same footing by all going at the same time, so he set it up for the next evening (Monday) to take the place of our normal Hunter track meeting. That way, no one got an unfair advantage by checking the town first.

That would happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, I had another appointment scheduled with Gaia tonight so that she could work a bit more on getting the anchor spell transferred from me to Vanessa. But that wasn’t for another couple hours, once curfew started up so she could work without being interrupted.

Which meant that, for the moment at least, I had nothing pressing to focus on. Sure, there was figuring out a way to get information out of Namid, continuing to figure out who the traitor at Crossroads could be, dreading what was happening to my mother, worrying about what kind of trouble Dad was getting into with his investigation into Fossor, training to not be completely helpless when that necromancer piece of shit came for me, hoping Roxa and Mateo’s pack (not to mention Namythiet) were all okay and that they’d track down Pace, and probably even more things I wasn’t thinking about at the moment.

Okay, so I had a lot of things to focus on. But in that particular second, my schedule was fairly clear. So I made my way to my dorm room and stepped inside, taking advantage of the moment of downtime.

As I moved into the room, Avalon looked up from her desk. She had homework from Trigonometry spread out over the surface, and The Bee Gees were playing quietly through the computer speakers.

“Oh,” I paused, then reached back to close the door. “Hi.” Blushing. Why was I blushing so much already? Nothing happened. I’d been in the room with Avalon before throughout the entire last semester. So why did it suddenly feel somewhat… awkward to be alone with her? Was it just because–

“It feels awkward because of what we talked about before,” the other girl interrupted my line of thought while also simultaneously confirming it. “We brought it into the open, so now it feels strange.”

“It felt strange already,” I pointed out before coughing as my head bobbed up and down. “But yeah.”

Avalon considered that for a moment before dropping her pencil on the desk. With a squeak of the chair, she slid back and rose to her feet. “I guess that means we need a way to make it not awkward th-”

She hadn’t finished the sentence before I crossed the distance between us. I had the briefest glimpse of her eyes widening with surprise before my hands caught her shoulders pulled her down while I leaned up to find her lips with my own. It was my turn to kiss her, damn it. And I wasn’t gonna waste it feeling awkward or strange about the change in our dynamic. I liked Avalon. She liked me. Good enough.

Finally, one of us pulled back. I wasn’t even sure which. All I knew was that I wasn’t kissing her anymore. I was breathing hard, trembling a little while clinging to the taller girl. “Oh,” I managed in a weak voice after a few seconds of panting. “That’s… that’s really nice. That’s—oh, wow. Holy crap.”

For a moment, it seemed like Avalon was too taken aback to respond. Finally, she shifted while pointing out, “You started it.” Despite her attempt to sound as dry as usual, her voice cracked a little.

My blush deepened, but I managed a shrug. “I’m pretty sure you started it. Back when you–” Stopping, I swallowed at the memory while meeting her gaze. “When you kissed me before Christmas break.”

“You were going away,” the other girl replied, her voice plaintive as she stared down at me. “I… I didn’t want you to go away for three weeks before you knew how—I had to let you know. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t…” She looked away, eyes downcast for a moment as she fought to find the right words.

“I’m not good at this,” she admitted. “I’m not good at needing people. I’m not good at relying on them. It’s not—it’s not who I am. You know why. I’m sorry, but it’s just—opening up like that, it’s… hard.

“But I need you.” Looking up once more, she stared at me with an expression that was partly intense and partly confused over her own feelings. “I’ve only known you for a few months, Chambers. But when I think about anything happening to you, when I think about what could–” Her voice turned hard, expression darkening as her hands tightened on my shoulders. “I’ll kill them. Anyone that hurts you.”

“Valley,” I murmured, shivering a little at her declaration. “You’re so…” Pausing, I swallowed while glancing down. Face flushing, I quickly looked back up (okay, maybe not that quickly). “You’re beautiful. Fuck it, you’re hot. You’re so hot. Why would you be… why would you be interested in me?”

Blinking at me, Avalon opened her mouth and then shut it. “You—you’re…” She shook her head. “You must be kidding.” Staring at me for another moment, she slowly frowned. “You’re not kidding. Chamber—Felicity, you’re…” Pausing, she breathed out long and slow. “Felicity, believe me, you are… look, you’re not exactly hideous yourself. You look… God, how do I put it? Yeah, I’m hot. I know. I work for it. I want to be… unapproachable. I’d rather people dream about me than talk to me. It’s easier. But you—Felicity, you’re intense. You’re smart, you’re funny, you know how to talk to people, and you look… trust me, you’re attractive. You’re more casual. I hate the term, but you’re the girl next door. I look like I just stepped out of a perverted magazine. But you—you’re the cute, smart detective or reporter that they can actually talk to. You’re… you’re real. Just a jeans and a hoody and you are…”

Avalon trailed off, head shaking again while she fought to find the right words. Finally, she reached out to put both hands on my face gently, her touch almost electric. “I like you. Shiori likes you. Okay?”

Swallowing, I slowly nodded. My voice wouldn’t work through the lump in my throat. It was all I could do not to latch onto her. I wanted to hold her, wanted to touch her, wanted to kiss her again, more, forever. I wanted to say the right thing, but I had no idea what that was. “Valley, I–” The words choked their way out through my throat while my eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Everyone always leaves.”

A noise of denial escaped the other girl before her arms wrapped around me tightly. I was pressed against her, smelling her incredible, peach-scented hair. “No,” she managed. “I won’t. I won’t leave.”

For a few long seconds, we just stood there like that. I closed my eyes, taking in the sensation before quietly whispering, “Do you have any idea how many people in this school would literally kill to be where I am?” To emphasize my point, I hugged the girl a little tighter while giving her a sly wink.

There it was. I was rewarded by seeing Avalon actually blush noticeably. “You are such a dork.”

Biting my lip then, I shifted my weight a little. I meant my next words to come out teasingly, but there was a seriousness to them instead, a need that surpassed that single moment. “Can I be your dork?”

If she actually said anything in response to that plea, I didn’t hear the words. All I knew was that her lips were on mine. She was kissing me again, and I felt my legs literally give out from under me. I would’ve fallen, but the other girl held me up. Her arms, wrapped tightly around my back, kept me up close against her as she drove every coherent thought and worry completely out of my mind.

Somehow, I wasn’t even sure on the specifics, we ended up lying on Avalon’s bed together. We were both facing the wall. My head was nestled against her shoulder, and she was petting my stomach softly with one hand while her other hand was clasped tightly with one of mine. Meanwhile, my free hand was reaching up and back to gently stroke that beautiful, dark, wonderfully luxurious hair. I felt… safe.

Lazily, contentedly, I glanced over my shoulder at the other girl. “Mmm… Valley, you really need to get some sleep. And I need to go see Gaia. She’ll wonder where I am if I make her wait much longer.”

Smiling faintly at that, Avalon squeezed my hand. “I really don’t think she’ll wonder,” she pointed out dryly before giving me a light, yet tender kiss that lasted only for a second. “She’s pretty perceptive.”

Face reddening, I squirmed a bit. “So I get to be the one to face her? She’s gonna see right through me.”

It was her turn to wink at me. “And you did just say that you should hurry up and get there. I mean–” She adopted a scandalized expression for a moment. “Imagine if she comes in here looking for you.”

“Oh my God.” Flushing even more, I started to sit up. Before I could right myself fully, however, Avalon pulled me down into another kiss. It lingered both for too long and not nearly long enough. Finally, I managed to extricate myself. Standing up, I stared down at the other girl for a few seconds. “Valley,” I spoke quietly, “you know that thing you said about being there for me, about not leaving?”

She nodded silently, and I went on. “That goes for me too. Whatever you need, I’ll be there.”

“Felicity–” When she said my name, Avalon’s voice cracked a little. She shivered, sitting up in bed. “Go,” she pleaded. “You should go now. Because if you don’t, Gaia really will have to come find you.”

Smiling to myself, I went.

******

“And if anything happens, what do you do?” As laid back as he normally was, Hisao’s voice was serious as he walked alongside Douglas, Russell, Harper, and me the next afternoon right after classes had ended. The five of us were off the island, strolling through a field just outside of Belsen, Kansas, the town where (at least Doug and I thought) the Aswang had been. We were going to be left to look into the situation and try to confirm what happened (and how to kill the thing that did it), but not without a reminder of the rules.

“We call you,” I answered along with the other three, our words an identical chorus that filled the air.

“I’ll be nearby,” the man confirmed. “So if anything, I mean anything pops up, you let me know. I–” He paused then before stepping out in front of us. Dressed in gray jeans and a black turtleneck, he gave all of us a long, silent look. “No games, okay, you four? I know some of you don’t trust me. You don’t know why I agreed to teach you. You think there’s some kind of angle. But this isn’t a game. Not out here. If something happens, you touch those alert stones I gave you. Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, when you’re facing something bad out there, it doesn’t matter. We work together. You all got that?”

That time, our confirmations were a little more staggered. I nodded my own head quickly, not bothering to mention that if anything did happen, Wyatt would probably beat him to wherever I was.

I’d asked Gaia the night before how she felt about me going out in the field again when things tended to… well, go wrong, to put it nicely. She’d told me that as much as she wanted to lock me up in a box until I turned at least thirty, that wasn’t possible. If I was going to get through what Fossor had in mind, I had to get out there. I had to fight, and I had to kill monsters. It was the only way I’d be able to get enough experience, enough power to be able to survive, let alone win. I had to keep going out.

On the other hand, she also made me promise not to leap into any danger that I didn’t have to, and to let Hisao know everything that happened. She said I could trust him as much as I trusted Professor Dare.

After extracting a few more promises about being careful and calling in when and if we found anything, the man let us go.

“Oh, my God, you guys,” Harper perkily announced as we walked. Well, we walked. She skipped. “Isn’t this great?!” She turned, somehow managing to skip backwards (don’t ask me). “I mean, not the evil monster killing people thing. That sucks. But we get to be out here! How cool is this?” Her bubblegum pink pigtails bounced with her movement as the girl’s bright smile spread over her face and seemed to light up the area around her. “Tracking down evil monsters, helping people, it’s awesome!

Before any of us could answer, she reached into her coat pockets (it was Kansas in January, after all) with both hands. “Here, take one, you guys!” As she spoke, the sunny girl produced a chocolate muffin in each hand, holding them out to Doug and me while beaming proudly. “I made them myself! I mean, I had to use the oven in Professor Nimbles’s apartment because Chef Escalan would probably stab me if I got anywhere near his kitchen, but still! They’re yummy, I promise.”

I’d already known the muffins were in her coat pockets, thanks to the power from the skeleblineists. And they weren’t the only treat in there. My power picked up two more muffins, a half-eaten bag of Skittles, and a package of Jolly Ranchers. She had some deep pockets in that coat. Still, I was kind of surprised that she was sharing so readily.

Holding them out to us, the girl paused before her face gave a slightly unnatural (for her) frown. “Oh. Wait. You probably think I put like— some kind of sleep drug or something in them or something just so Russell and me could win while you’re conked out and snoring. And even if you weren’t, you’re thinking that now. But I didn’t. I swear. I’ll sign something if you want. ‘Russell and I automatically lose if I did anything weird to the muffins. Signed, Harper Hayes.’ I wouldn’t do that. I pinkie promise times a thousand. Times a million and sealed with twinkle stars. I don’t wanna win that. I don’t care who wins, cuz we’re on the same side. Helping people. And they’re the real winners. I mean, the ones that aren’t dead. Should I stop talking?”

My mouth opened and shut as I slowly processed all that. Meanwhile, Douglas asked, “Do you ever?”

If she was offended by the question, Harper didn’t show it. Instead, she beamed brighter. “Not usually!”

Snorting despite myself, I took one of the muffins and made a show of taking a big bite of it. “Thanks, Harper. Mmm, wow, you really do know how to bake. But what about Russell?” I nodded to the boy.

“Ta-da!” With that, the other girl produced the other two muffins that I’d sensed. She held one out to her partner before taking a big bite out of her own. Mouth full of chocolate treat, she messily announced, “You’re right, I’m a great baker!” She then proceeded to nom her way through the entire thing in short order.

We walked further, finally entering the town itself while finishing the (legitimately delicious) muffins. It wasn’t a big place, to say the least. There was only one high school, and it served seventh through twelfth grades, with the younger students on one side of the building and the older students on the other. Even then, there was only a reported school population of about six hundred or so.

Beyond that, the main street held almost everything of interest. As we made our way in, I nodded to the two story building just across the road. “Library,” I announced. “That’s our stop. For now anyway.”

“Oh,” Russell coughed, glancing to his partner before gesturing further down. “Well, we’re headed for the police station. So uhh, good luck, I guess. Help figure out what those monsters are, huh?”

Giving the other two a thumbs up, I split off from them along with Douglas. The two of us continued across the street and up to the library. On the way in, we passed a curious but helpful old woman who pointed us to where they stored the town newspapers going back a year. If we ended up needing anything older than that, she politely informed us, she’d show us how to work the microfiche machine.

Thankfully, unless we were way off, recent newspapers would be fine. After all, the murders had only recently started happening. Which implied that the thing responsible had just moved into town.

Taking a stack of newspapers from the same week that the first murder happened, I handed them to Douglas. Then I took a stack from the week before that. “Remember, look for any reports of children dying from being sick, and any articles about someone who just moved to town. This place is pretty small, so new people would probably generate at least a small mention.”

Giving me a long look, the boy took the papers before nodding. “Right.” Stepping back, he sank into one of the heavily worn armchairs and started to read.

I did the same, and for a few minutes, we were lost in our silent scanning. Everything was quiet, save for the rustling of the newspapers as we turned the pages.

Eventually, Douglas sat up. “Here–” he started before giving a little shudder. “Think I’ve got it. Four days before the first murder, a five-year-old boy named William Oscars died. The doctor said it was some kind of sudden onset pneumonia, but his parents said he felt fine the day before.”

Nodding slowly, I replied, “Sounds like the Aswang sending back one of those fake kids to replace its lunch to me. And I think I’ve got a candidate for that.” Turning the newspaper around, I showed him. “Truman Hyde. Which is… probably the absolute worst pseudonym for a monster ever. Or possibly the best. True Man… Hyde? It works on a couple different levels, but talk about lack of subtlety.”

“Truman Hyde,” Doug echoed while leaning forward to scan the article. “New eighth-grade science teacher?”

I nodded. “And Belsen’s newest eligible bachelor. Students are too old for him, and he probably wouldn’t pick from his own classes anyway considering the Aswang… preference for keeping a distance between their lives and their victims. But it gets him access to their families.”

Picking himself up, Doug folded up his newspaper. “Okay, so what next?”

Pausing, I thought about it for a minute. “It’s almost four-thirty. He’s probably already home by now. But according to the books back at school, the Aswang don’t change form until about eight or nine. So even if we go find him, he won’t set off the Al–” I coughed. “The alarm of our Stranger Sense.”

“And we can’t just go stabbing him,” Douglas agreed. “He might be innocent.”

“Right.” Standing up, I folded my own newspaper and put it back on the stack. “So we should see if we can search his office at the school. That might tell us more. At least until it gets late enough to see if we’re right.”

“What if we are?” the boy asked quietly. “And he attacks someone while we’re checking him out?”

“Then we’ll stop him,” I answered, turning to head back the way we came.
“That’s our job.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-06

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“I understand that you had a rather important conversation this earlier today with Avalon and Shiori.”

Jumping a bit at the sound of the voice, I blinked up guiltily to see Gaia standing there. I’d been sitting on the bench beside her office door, waiting for her to get back. And apparently, I had been so absorbed with writing in my notebook that I hadn’t even noticed the woman’s approach. Though, to be fair, if she actually wanted to sneak up on me, it really wouldn’t have mattered how much attention I was paying.

“Errr.” Belatedly getting over my surprise at her appearance to notice what she had actually said, I found myself blushing even more. Coughing, I decided the safe response was to ask, “She told you?”

Smiling faintly, the woman gave a slight nod. “Yes, she was surprisingly open about it. Normally I’d have to coax her into opening up, but this time she came straight to me, and talked about how she felt. I suppose she really needed to talk to someone about it. And as you have no doubt noticed, there aren’t really that many people whom Avalon trusts enough to have that sort of emotional conversation with.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “I guess not. I think she opens up a bit to Scout, but that might be because Scout doesn’t say much.” Hesitating after that, I peeked back at the woman as my own nerves made me ask, “What do you think? A-about what we said and—and all that. Is it weird or… or dumb?”

The look on the red-haired woman’s face softened. “No, Felicity,” she murmured. “It is most certainly not dumb. Being open and honest with the people you care about is a good thing. You didn’t string either of them along, you didn’t make any promises you couldn’t keep. You told them how you felt and you did it before there were any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. That is never dumb, I assure you.”

Her hand reached out to find my shoulder then before she continued. “As for weird… well, you have to look at the lives that we lead. Weird is very much in the eyes of the beholder. What is strange and unsettling for others is what works for you. As you’ve obviously already heard, relationships among Heretics tend to be slightly different from what you are accustomed to among Bystanders. When one’s lifespan varies so significantly and when one is almost always in danger from one direction or another, having multiple romantic liaisons is encouraged more than not. Can you guess why else it would be?”

I paused, thinking about it for a second before straightening. “Because if you’re romantically involved with more than one person, there’s less chance of you completely shutting down forever if you—if you lose one of them. Because there’s others to help prop you up and get you through it. And since there’s so much fighting and killing, losing someone you care about like that is… probably not exactly rare.”

Gaia gave a silent nod, pursing her lips slightly with a thoughtful look before speaking. “No, it is not rare. You…” She paused again, eyes clearly looking at something far in the past. “You learn to live with losing things that you care about and moving on, once you have had an opportunity to grieve. And there are those within the Heretic community who believe that having other companionship helps to move beyond that loss more easily. Others disagree. I don’t believe that Professor Mason has ever been with another person that way since the loss of the twins’ mother.” Pausing, she looked to me. “Of course, there are other reasons beyond potential death for multiple relationships to be encouraged that way.”

Again, I thought about it quietly for a few seconds before making a guess, “I know that Heretics, umm, explore and colonize other worlds. And that probably means there’s a lot more deaths to get a foothold on a new hostile world. So if there’s more than one relationship, there’s… um, more chance of babies?”

“That is one way to look at it, yes,” Gaia confirmed with a slight wince. “Of course, that reasoning is never outright stated. But it is simple enough to see the supposed logic of. More romantic partners, in many ways, equals a higher chance of more children. And beyond that, having multiple romantic partners means that if one dies, the person is more likely to have someone else to continue their line.”

“Wow,” I muttered under my breath while shaking my head, “That’s kinda creepy if you think about it.”

The headmistress started to say something, but stopped abruptly and turned to look down the corridor. A few seconds later, the sound of approaching footsteps finally reached me, just as two figures came into view. Vanessa and Tristan. The two of them were each carrying a glowing blue orb about the size of a baseball. The temporary passes that Gaia had given them so they could come here after curfew.

“Okay, guess I owe you ten bucks,” Tristan remarked casually to his sister. “The office was this way.”

“Uh.” Raising a hand as the two neared us, I asked, “Why would you bet about where something was against someone with a perfect memory that’s been here long enough to already know that much?”

“Particularly,” Gaia added a bit pointedly, “when you have both already been to this office before.”

Grinning cheekily, the blonde boy shrugged. “I had a really good feeling about that other hallway.”

Chuckling, Gaia gestured to her office door then, and like before, it dissolved like a gradually slowing waterfall until the room beyond was revealed. As the wood magically faded away, Tristan leaned closer to me and whispered under his breath, “I swear, that just looks more awesome every time I see it.”

I knew how he felt. Nodding quickly, I followed the twins and Gaia into the office. “So, do you really think you can transfer the anchor spell from me to Vanessa?” I asked tentatively while looking around.

“I have no doubt that such a thing is possible,” Gaia answered simply. “The question that remains is how difficult and time-consuming it will be. Which is what we are here to find out right now.”

She led us into the middle of the enormous room, and I glanced up to see the holographic globe of the world set into the domed ceiling with all the green, yellow, and red flares that popped up randomly. As I watched briefly, a couple of the flares (one red and one green) turned gold and then disappeared.

Inevitably, my attention moved from the holographic ceiling globe to the ‘windows’ at the back of the room. Specifically, to the one window in particular that showed my own neighborhood with our house in plain sight. It was just as late there as it was here, but I could see two figures standing in the backyard. Asenath and her mother. The two of them were watching the sky while apparently chatting.

Right, I’d actually forgotten that Gaia had a view over my house in her office. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that to Asenath at some point, though I wasn’t sure what it would have changed. Maybe if there was a problem, it’d be good if she knew there was a way to get Gaia’s attention? On the other hand, if there was a problem, and Gaia happened to be watching at the time, she’d probably notice.

“What are the lights for?” I found myself asking, mostly to distract myself. When Gaia looked at me, I raised a hand to point up at the colored flares in the globe. “Those. What do the colored flares mean?”

Vanessa nodded quickly, looking relieved that I’d been the one to ask. “I’ve been wondering that too.”

Glancing to the ceiling, Gaia watched the random lights for a moment before answering. “Each of the lights that you see there show a reported or suspected Stranger sighting or event. Green is a non-violent situation, yellow is potentially dangerous, and red is quite threatening. Black would be for someone such as Fossor, a potential world-ending threat. When they fade out on their own, it means that the situation was resolved in some other way, most likely because the threat disappeared. When they turn gold, it means a Heretic killed the Stranger or Strangers involved and resolved the situation that way.”

My mouth opened, but Vanessa beat me to the next question. “There’s lights all over the globe. I thought Crossroads only operated in North and some of South America and most of Western Europe.”

Gaia nodded once. “Yes, for the most part, Crossroads officially claims all of the United States, most countries in Western Europe, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in South America. Those are the areas that we consider ‘ours’, though Eden’s Garden also lays claim to several of the same areas, so it can become rather… tricky diplomatically. For the most part, we often try to work around each other.”

Raising my hand before realizing the absurdity of that, I coughed and just spoke. “Professor Vandel said there’s a different Heretic group that covers Mexico. One that isn’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”

“The Hunahpu and the Xbalanque,” Vanessa put in then, looking to me. “They’re actually one group, named after their founders. Um, it gets kind of involved, but the short version is that in Mayan mythology, these twins named Hun and Vocub Hunahpu were really good ballplayers. They went to the Underworld and ended up being sacrificed by the Lords there. But Hun’s head was put up in a tree and spoke to a woman that came by. Then he—I mean it—the head spat in her hand, which made her pregnant. Honestly, I think the Mayans were kind of confused on the logistics of what makes a baby.”

She shook that off before continuing. “But the point is, she got pregnant and had a new set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Those two grew up to be the big hero twins. Like the Greek’s Heracles. They defeated the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and a lot of other stuff before being turned into the sun and the moon. Their whole story was supposed to show how Mayan people could kill demons themselves, even if only in the afterlife that they didn’t have to be helpless forever. There’s more, but yeah. That’s the myth. The real Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Heretics who fought ancient Strangers and created a group meant to fight them. They’re two sides of the same group. The ones who call themselves Hunahpu focus more on physical fighting and hunting, and the ones that call themselves Xbalanque focus more on magic.”

Chuckling, Gaia nodded. “Very good, Vanessa. Yes, the Hunahpu and Xbalanque claim all of Central America and a sizable portion of Mexico. We do have some relations with them, allowing us to create what are essentially embassies within some of their territory. The same goes for places like Australia, France, and most of the Middle East. We have embassies in those places, even if we don’t claim them.

“In other places, we have no such luxury,” she continued. “Places such as the jungles of Africa are too much of a Stranger stronghold for any Heretic organization to establish more than the slightest foothold in. We lose far too many people simply trying to ensure that the worst threats within those areas stay contained there rather than spreading over the world. Penetrating deep enough to eliminate those threats permanently has proven impossible. They are simply too entrenched and dangerous to risk it.”

Remembering another thing that Vandel had said, I pointed up at the globe. “Like Canada? It’s supposed to be really dangerous to send Heretics in there too. Which is kind of weird, honestly.”

Gaia smiled faintly. “Canada has been claimed by a very powerful Alter. He is not actually malevolent, though you’ll be taught otherwise in your classes. He is proud and reacts to violence in kind. He rules his dominion fairly but decisively, and does not respond well to invasion. He and his people have killed many Heretics who attempt to impose a Crossroads or Eden’s Garden authority in his domain, enough that the Committee and the Victors have elected to leave Canada alone, for the most part.”

Remembering what the entire point of this little sidetrack had been, I asked, “So there’s Crossroads Heretics all over the world, not just in the areas that we say belong to us. Either through embassies, or these little… umm, I guess the best word would be expeditionary forces. That sounds better than invasion, right?”

“Both would be correct,” Gaia confirmed. “Though you should refer to them as expeditions in public.

“I believe, however,” she went on then, “that we have gotten off-track. I’m sure that Vanessa and Tristan would like to sleep at some point tonight. So let’s see what we can do about that anchor spell.”

Tearing my attention away from the hologram, I nodded and let the woman go to work. I still had a lot more questions. Those, at least, were never in short supply. But they could wait. For the moment, the important part was letting Gaia move the anchor spell over to Vanessa instead of me.

Hopefully, that way what had happened to Roxa wouldn’t happen again. Because considering everything that had happened so far, it wasn’t a matter of if I would be unexpectedly teleported to another world again, but when.

******

As it turned out, it was going to take a couple more sessions for Gaia to transfer the anchor spell. Petan and his people had done their best to make sure the spell wouldn’t be erased or negated by the Seosten curse that had left Tristan trapped on the other world. Which meant that, while she could still adjust it, even Gaia was going to have to put more effort into it than she’d expected. Which kinda showed just how powerful Nicholas Petan and his people were, honestly.

Now it was the next day, Sunday. Gaia had asked me to go back in the next night for another round with Tristan and Vanessa, since she didn’t want all of our next couple actual tutoring sessions to be taken up with that. Instead, she wanted to get it all done in a few days and move on. Which I couldn’t blame her for. And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of plans to do during the middle of the night anyway.

At the moment, I was sitting in the library, scribbling in my notebook again while waiting for Doug to show up. The two of us were supposed to work on our little project for Hunter track, so he’d asked me to meet him that afternoon. I just happened to be early enough that I was fully engrossed in my notebook when my item-sense poked me with the realization that someone had just come close enough for it to pick up.

Glancing that way while closing my notebook, I found Doug doing his best to ‘casually’ move close enough to see what was written in it. As I glanced up, he froze before gesturing. “You already start?”

“What?” I blinked, then glanced to the closed notebook before shaking my head. “Oh, no. This isn’t—this is something else.” Shoving the book away in my bag, I turned back to him. “Sorry, I figured I should wait for you. Ready to figure out what this thing is and how to kill it?”

Doug paused then, squinting at me for a second. It looked like he was about to say something else, the suspicion on his face rather obvious. In the end, however, he just gave a faint nod and pulled out a chair across the table from me. “Yeah, let’s get it done before Harper and Virus be—I mean Harper and Russell beat us.”

Taking out the file that Hisao had given us, I set it on the table. “Okay, so here’s what we know. The deaths happened in a small town in Kansas. Barely six thousand people. So far, there’s been four deaths. Three were children, ages nine, seven, and four. The other was an adult woman. But she was pregnant and the… the attack focused on her stomach, killing the fetus. Which means it was still probably focused on the child, not the mother.”

Even as I was speaking, a queasy feeling rose in my stomach that I had to push down. Looking over at Douglas, I added, “The report says it looks like the attacks were done by wild animals. Except for the pregnant mother. They said… they said that one looks like she was stabbed in the stomach by something and then everything inside was…” I blanched, looking away.

“Sucked out,” Doug finished for me, sounding queasy as well. “Like punching a straw into a juice box and—oh fuck.”

It took both of us a few seconds to collect ourselves then. Gross, awful, evil. It was a good reminder that not all Alters were pleasant. There were plenty out there that did need to be stopped. But that would be easier if the Heretics would just work with the Alters who weren’t psychotic evil monsters.

“Hey,” Douglas broke into my drifting thoughts. “You okay with this?”

Shaking a little, I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s just figure out what this thing is. Okay, so some people reported a noise like a card in bicycle wheels, that uhh, tok tok tok tok sound.”

“Is it a monster masquerading as a little kid with a bike like that?” Doug asked. “Could be how they get close to these kids and the pregnant mother.”

I thought about it, flipping through the file before shaking my head. “I don’t think so. No one reported any strange kid or anything, and the people who said there was the card in the bike wheel sound said they looked and never saw anything.”

Sitting back in his seat, Doug slowly looked out over the rows of books all around us. “I guess we should start looking up things that eat human children, huh?”

Groaning, I picked myself up and tried not to be sick. “Yeah, remind me to tell Hisao just how much I love this assignment.”

So we looked. The two of us hunted through the shelves, taking one book after another with the oh-so pleasant prospect of looking up creatures that ate children. There were a frankly depressing number of options.

“Could it be a Lamia?” Doug asked at one point, looking up from the book he was looking through. “They’re supposed to have a snake body below the waist and they do eat children.”

Biting my lip, I asked, “But what about the sound? What could they do that would make that sound?”

He shrugged and looked through the book some more. “It says they can remove their own eyes and use them to spy on people. That’s… really fucked up.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before looking down at my own book again. “Hey, wait, hold on. Listen to this. It’s called an Aswang. They’re a shapeshifter. During the day, they look and act just like normal people. They’re so normal, in fact, that the Stranger-sense can’t pick them up while the sun is out. So during the day, they’re just normal people. They have friends, they interact with their neighbors, they even have jobs.

“But at night, they turn into monsters. They shapeshift into things like bats, dogs, even wild boars. And they eat children and unborn fetuses. They use a long proboscis like a mosquito to shove into the womb of the expectant mother and… and take what they want.”

“Sounds close to me,” Doug agreed. “But what about the sound?”

Picking up the book, I read from a particular part. “The Aswang often make a noise that has been described as ‘tik-tik-tik’, which is louder the further away the Aswang is, and quieter the closer it is. This is done to confuse the intended victims.”

“Tik-tik could be mistaken for tok-tok, I guess,” Douglas murmured, sitting back in his seat. “So if it is an Aswang, it’s probably still there, pretending to live a normal life during the day.”

Nodding slowly, I added, “But the Stranger-sense can’t identify it while the sun’s up. It’s like they’re literally two different beings. At night, the normal figure is replaced with the monster. So how do we identify the right one? Maybe it’s someone connected to the deaths?”

Doug, who had taken the book by that point, shook his head. “Nope, look.” He turned it around and pointed to another part. “The Aswang never hunt their own friends or neighbors. It also says that sometimes when they kill children, they make a magic facsimile that goes back home, appears to get sick, and dies. So we should look and see if there’s other child deaths that weren’t reported because it looked like they just got sick.”

“Right, right,” I agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “So we’ll look that up, and then… how do we figure out who the Aswang is?” Even as I finished talking, I snapped my fingers. “Wait, I know. The deaths just started happening, so we look up who recently moved to the city. There’s only six thousand people, there can’t be that many who recently moved there before the deaths started.”

Doug closed the book then, straightening up. “Okay, well, how do we look all that stuff up? It’s not gonna be in the library here.”

I was already standing, grabbing my bag. “We’ll have to ask Professor Hisao to let us go to the town and look up that stuff in their records.”

“Go… to the town?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure,” I confirmed, already walking out of the library. “You didn’t think we were gonna solve this whole thing by sitting in the library, did you?

“We totally have to go sit in a different library to solve it.”

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Study and Scrutiny 20-04

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“Where the hell is Katarin?” The question, voiced more like a demand, came from a boy with a long, dour-looking face and light brown hair in a shaggy cut. His nose was a little too big, but other than that, he was the type of average-looking who would actually be quite good if he took better care of himself.

Preston, that was his name. Preston Scofield. I’d never interacted with him directly, but I did remember that he and his roommate were the first two students to be called by their mentor at the start of the year.

Shiori and I had joined the rest of the Hunter track students out on the beach a few moments earlier.

I could see a couple of the Hunter students practicing the Kevlar spell that we’d been working on earlier with Carfried. He’d made sure that everyone in the class could actually cast it before letting us go, and now they were testing it. Not with actual bullets, of course. Even Crossroads wasn’t crazy enough to let their first year students start shooting at each other just to test magic spells, healing or no healing.

Instead, they were chucking small stones at each other as hard as they could. The protective spell would slow the rocks down until it was basically like they were being lightly tossed, doing no real damage.

From what Carfried had said, the spell would only affect projectiles up to a certain size. It wouldn’t slow down any kind of melee weapon like a sword or a bat. Those were too heavy for the spell to affect. And projectiles that were big enough wouldn’t be affected either. Cannonballs, rockets, thrown axes, things like Shiori’s discs, none of that would be stopped by the Kevlar spell. It only worked on little things like bullets. Or, in this case, the rocks that the other students were throwing at each other.

There was no sign of Hisao yet, and even the people who weren’t practicing the spell seemed restless. There was a lot of pacing back and forth and muttering, and pretty much everyone looked agitated. Preston had just happened to be the first one to actually speak louder over the private conversations.

“I got a better question,” a girl announced while folding her arms over her chest. “Why do we get stuck with some psycho hack from that Garden place? Shouldn’t he be, like… locked up or something?”

My mouth opened to say something, but one of the other boys interrupted first. “I heard,” he started in a conspiratorial whisper (because that kind of phrase always preceded something easily verifiable), “that he had to leave Eden’s Garden because he was too psycho even for them. He was like… cutting the skin off Strangers and displaying it and shit. They made him go away because he even creeped them out.”

My mouth was still hanging open while my brain tried to wrap itself around that absurdity when Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy from Roxa’s old team, spoke. “Now if that was anywhere close to true, why would Headmistress Sinclaire let him join this place? Y’all think she’d hire someone like that?”

That kicked off a whole new round of arguments as some people insisted that the ridiculous rumors they’d heard (and helped pass around) had to have some kind of merit to them, while others continued to point out that anyone that over-the-top cartoonishly violent wouldn’t have been allowed within a hundred miles of teaching us. And, of course, there were the ones who thought that this was some kind of test that had been dreamed up by Gaia and the Committee. According to that theory, we were supposed to prove our loyalty to Crossroads by refusing to listen to the ‘intruder’ from Eden’s Garden.

Thankfully, there were enough people who insisted that Gaia knew what she was doing and that she wouldn’t have put Hisao in as a teacher if she didn’t trust him. Paul was one of those. I assumed his roommate was too, not that he said anything. Douglas Frey was too focused on the hand-held game he was playing to say much of anything. Actually, I wasn’t even sure he was in the right place at all, since his uniform had the purple trim for Investigation (previously, he’d been in the Development track).

I’d also caught him glancing up at me a couple times, though he wasn’t staring quite as openly as he had been before. Either he was losing interest, or learning to be a bit more subtle. I was guessing the latter.

“He’s gotta be a spy,” another voice announced, sparking off a whole new round of arguments.

“He’s not a spy,” Vanessa’s roommate Erin insisted, shaking her head with disgust. “Come on, be real.”

The voice persisted. “He could be a spy. A handsome, charismatic spy. Like James Bond, only cooler.”

That got everyone to turn that way, only to find Hisao himself leaning casually against a nearby fallen tree with his arms folded lightly. The Asian man was dressed in khaki shorts and a dark green tee shirt that showed his distractingly toned arms. At his feet there was a gray duffel bag lying in the sand.

“Cooler than Bond,” he repeated in a thoughtful tone while everyone stared at him, “and with a more stable girlfriend. I mean, say what you will about variety being the spice of life, but give me someone who actually knows what I like, you know? Or maybe I’m just more into cuddling than that guy is.”

Half the students who had been going on about how bad he had to be started babbling apologies (though whether it was more motivated by genuine embarrassment or fear that he’d punish them somehow was up for debate) while the other half of them simply stared as if convinced that any second he was going to start spouting anti-Crossroads rhetoric and trying to recruit them to Eden’s Garden.

The people who had been defending him (or at least Gaia’s decision to hire him), meanwhile, seemed just as surprised as the rest about his sudden appearance. Save for scattered whispers, there was silence for a few seconds. Finally, Paul stepped forward. “Ah, sir, I’m sure nobody really meant any kinda–”

“It’s okay,” Hisao interrupted. Pushing off the fallen tree to stand up, he continued. “You’d be a bunch of mindless lemmings if you didn’t have questions. And lemmings are terrible Heretics.” Pausing, he amended thoughtfully, “Pretty good games. Especially the first one. Classic. But terrible Heretics.”

Before anyone could figure out what to say to that, he continued. “The point is, questioning things is good. So let’s start with–” In mid-sentence, the man paused, head turning a little to look at Douglas. “I’m still getting used to your system around here, but are you in the right place, uhh… Doug, was it?”

The boy blinked that way, hand reaching up to self-consciously adjust his Rangers cap. “Wha—oh, the uniform. Yeah, I uhh—I was gonna go with Investigation, but I changed my mind. The headmistress said it was okay if I switched since this is the first track class, and I’ll get the right uniform tomorrow.”

Right. I wasn’t stupid or blind. He’d been staring at me for weeks off and on, and now he’d chosen to jump into the same track that I had been in before switching unannounced to my new track. Coincidences obviously happened, but that was just a few too many. What the hell did the guy want? Why was he paying so much attention to me? Was there a… relatively innocent reason like a crush or something (that was enough to make me blush, but at least I could deal with it), or something more sinister? Or had he somehow found out about my connection to Roxa and wanted to know what happened to his old teammate? I couldn’t rule that out. After all, if something happened to someone on my team and I tracked it to him, I’d probably be acting pretty similar to how he was acting now. But if he did suspect something, why? Roxa and I hadn’t even been seen interacting like that. And I was sure no one who actually knew what happened had said anything to him, or he’d probably be more direct.

“Good enough for me,” Hisao replied, stooping to pick up his bag from the sand. “So, questions?”

Erin raised her hand before speaking when the man looked to her. “Why did you agree to come here? I mean, this place and Eden’s Garden aren’t exactly on each other’s Christmas Card lists, you know?”

“You mean that whole bitter rivalry thing where your side is pissed off that they split off from you and stole some of your relics to make their own society, and their side thinks you’re a bunch of stuck-in-the-past fundamentalists who aren’t going to get anywhere until you adapt to the way things have changed?” Hisao asked conversationally, smiling at the flurry of indignant protests that it prompted.

I didn’t miss the fact that he said ‘your side’ and ‘their side’ without actually including himself on either.

“Take away all the bullshit,” the man interrupted once there was enough of a pause in the indignant retorts. “And what is your main purpose? Why does Crossroads exist? What are you trying to do?”

“Kill monsters,” one of the students answered flatly, arms folded over his chest as he stared at the Garden Heretic. “That’s why we’re here. To kill monsters and protect humans. Protect Bystanders.”

Hisao nodded. “Yup. Kill monsters. Take away everything else and that’s why you’re here. That’s why Crossroads is here, and it’s why Eden’s Garden is there. You can disagree on all the specifics that you want. But in the end, both sides want to protect humanity from the things that go bump in the night.”

There was some muttering, and then Preston spoke up. “Fine, but those differences are still there, ya know? Garden and Crossroads don’t get along. Never have. So why would you come here to teach?”

Hisao studied him for a moment, head tilting as he considered the question before replying casually, “Why? Well, to adapt the words of one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, ‘when nine hundred years old you reach, give a shit, you will not.’”

Beside me, Shiori giggled audibly, drawing the attention of several others. There were a few muted chuckles, though most people seemed too worried about appearances to actually laugh at his words.

Finally rolling my eyes, I raised my hand before asking, “You’re really nine hundred years old?”

His response was a wink. “It’d be accurate to say that I’ve been alive for nine hundred years, yeah.”

The man’s exact phrasing with that reply made me wonder just how old he actually was. And how and why he’d gotten involved with Eden’s Garden if he didn’t actually care about any of the political stuff. From everything that I had seen, he seemed alternately amused or annoyed by the whole rivalry between the two schools. So how had a man who clearly didn’t care about group loyalty ended up as one of the oh-so vaunted Vigiles, one of the most important and powerful ranks in Eden’s Garden?

Or had I just answered my own question? After all, Vigiles were independent. They hunted on their own and judged on their own. Their word was law unless their tribal chief or the council of Victors overruled them. So in about ninety percent of Hisao’s actions, he wouldn’t have to listen to anybody else. Anything he did was solely at his own discretion without anyone to report to or ask permission from. That probably explained why he could be the way that he was, and why he’d do so at Eden’s Garden. Because as far as I knew, Crossroads didn’t have an equivalent rank. The Runners were the closest, but they were a lot more structured than that. Tribald didn’t have that kind of blanket autonomy.

“I guess what it comes down to,” Hisao finally announced, “is that I’m here because your headmistress asked me to be. For those of you who disagree with that, take it as a learning experience. You don’t always get to agree with your leader’s decisions. But you do have to obey them. So let’s make this as simple as we can. If you don’t want to work with me, you are free to switch tracks. After all, she let Doug here switch from purple to green, and I’m sure she’ll let you change to something else if you’re so sure it won’t work. But uh,” he paused before shrugging. “I should point out that I’m also teaching your self-defense courses, and that I’m pretty sure she won’t let you transfer out of. Just food for thought.”

“But for now, we’re all here. So to start,” he continued, “How about one of you tell me what the Hunters are supposed to be, in your own words.”

Paul was the first to speak up. “Well, sir, if Investigators are the detectives, Hunters are the SWAT team. The big guns that get called in to deal with Stranger infestations that are worse than just a single creature pulling people into alleys to have a little lunch here and there.”

“Good analogy,” Hisao confirmed with a slight smile. “Someone with a big Hunter background is probably gonna be the type of Heretic who ends up playing cavalry a lot. You spend enough time in this track and people are gonna expect you to be able to pull their butts out of the fire.”

Raising an eyebrow curiously then, he swept his gaze over the four of us before asking, “So, what do you think the most important thing for a Hunter to have? Take away everything else, what do you need?”

“Power,” one of the other students piped up. “You can’t kill things without power. And if they’re strong enough for Hunters to be called in, you need be strong enough to kill the bastards.”

“Well, you do need power,” Hisao agreed before shaking his head. “But it’s not the most important thing. And before you ask, it’s not your weapon either. And it’s not a magic spell. All of that stuff, that’s gonna help. But it’s still not the most important thing.

Thinking for a moment, I raised my hand. “Knowledge? Of their weaknesses.”

Pointing at me, Hisao nodded. “Close. Very close. Yes, knowledge is important. But the most important thing is patience. If you’re going to be a Hunter, you have to be patient. You see these monsters doing bad things, you’ve gotta be patient enough to watch. You wait, and you identify what the monster is. Because if you just run in there without a plan, you’ll get yourself and the people you’re trying to protect killed. It’s all well and good to want to save people. Like we already said, that’s why we’re here. But you get killed because you Leeroy Jenkins’d your way into the situation, and you won’t help anybody. So have your weapon, have your power, have your magic, have all of it. But also make sure you have the patience to examine the situation, figure out how to deal the thing you’re fighting, then involve yourself. Be ready, be smart, and be calm. That’s how you save people.”

After letting that sit in people’s minds for a couple seconds, he straightened up and cleared his throat. “So, to that end, let’s split up for a bit. Those of you who were in this little club last semester, stand over there.” He pointed closer to the water before pointing closer to the jungle. “And those of you who are new this semester, stand over there. We’ll let the old hats do their own thing for a bit.”

Shiori squeezed my hands, whispering ‘good luck’ before heading over to join the rest of the older Hunters, like Paul and Erin. Meanwhile, I made my way close to the trees along with Doug and a couple other people. There weren’t that many of us in the ‘new Hunter’ category. Possibly because people had found out about Hisao taking over the track before signing up for it. Either way, it was me, Doug, and two others, a boy and a girl. Both of them, I remembered from orientation, were Bystander-kin.

Hisao spent a couple minutes talking with the other, larger group. When he finally stepped away from them, they all started jogging off down the beach away from the school, following the water line.

“Just four of you, huh?” the man spoke easily. “All right. I know Flick Chambers there and Doug Frey there. What about you two?” He nodded to the other couple that were standing between Doug and me.

“Uh.” The boy shrugged a little, looking self-conscious. He looked like someone who had gone through an intense punk phase but had grown out of it mentally faster than he had physically, and was now almost embarrassed by his nose ring, dyed bright red hair, and visible tattoos. Actually, I remembered seeing him around the last semester, and from what I could tell, his change in attitude was new since Christmas. “I’m Viru—I mean–” Coughing, he amended with a flush, “Russell. My name’s Russell.”

“I’m Harper,” the girl chirped then. “Harper Hayes.” She couldn’t have looked more different from Russell. Honestly, she looked like a cheerleader who had gotten lost and wandered over to the beach. She wore her hair in pigtails and colored it a bright, bubblegum pink. I had never really interacted with her before, but every time I’d seen her, she had been smiling. As far as I could tell, she was always cheerful. And always trying to help. Plus, she covered her uniform with loud, brightly colored stickers.

“Russell, Harper, Douglas, and Flick,” Hisao announced, going down the line. “Got it. Well, look around. I hope you can all get along, cuz the four of you are probably going to be stuck with each other a lot until you get caught up enough with the others to put you all together.

“And the best way to get started with that,” he continued, “is to play a game.”

“A game?” I echoed.

He nodded. “First, split into pairs. Let’s say, Russell and Harper on one side, Doug and Flick on the other. I’m going to give each pair one of these.” With a flourish, he produced two manila envelopes. “In each of them is an identical report about a Stranger that’s out killing people. Each of your pairs will take your envelope, read the report, and try to write up the best way to deal with that monster. Use your books to figure out what it is. Try to identify it, how to track it, how to kill it. Next time we meet, the pair that has identified the Stranger correctly and come up with the best way of dealing with it will win a little prize.”

“… Roleplaying,” Doug blurted. “You want us to roleplay being Hunters and work out how to fight some kind of monster.”

“Exactly.” Hisao touched two fingers against his head. “Because if you can get the right mindset up here, then you’ll be ready for what happens in the real world.

“So go ahead and take your envelopes, and we’ll see just how smart you guys can be.”

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Mini-Interlude 19 – Rudolph

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and his new team (Roxa’s old team). 

The early light of the still-rising sun above the ocean illuminated the beach where six figures, five male and one female stood almost a quarter mile away from the edge of the Crossroads school grounds.

“See this here?” Jasmine Rhodes stood beside Rudolph Parsons, gesturing to the boy. “This is bullshit.”

Blanching a little, Rudolph glanced toward the tall, black girl with a weak shrug as he offered, “Sorry?”

Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy, put a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. His role as the peacemaker of the team was well established. “Aww, I’m sure Jazz didn’t mean it like that.”

Rolling her eyes, the girl shoved both hands back through her dual-colored purple and pink hair. “No, I don’t mean your very existence is bullshit. I mean you’re another dude. They think they can replace Roxa with a guy. Which means I’m all by myself. This team is a great big sausage fest.”

That, naturally, was the perfect opening for Isaac Acosta, the short Hispanic boy with black curly hair that fell to his shoulders. His face lit up and he grabbed his roommate by the arm. “You hear that, Gordo? She said we have great big sausages. Do you–”

Gordon Kuhn, his face as flat and humorless as ever, slipped free of his boisterous roommate’s grasp. His voice was dull. “I heard what she said, Isaac. It’s not funny.”

“Aww,” Isaac’s grin lit up the beach more than enough for both of them. “Don’t worry, big guy. Like I said before, we’ll find something that makes you laugh before the year’s out. That’s my new life’s goal. How do you feel about monkeys on little trampolines?”

“We’re getting a little off-subject here,” Paul pointed out. “We didn’t come out here to talk about Gordon’s sense of humor.” To Jazz, he added, “Or your lack of female companionship.” His hand went up almost immediately in Isaac’s direction to forestall the boy’s next words. “I know. I know. I heard it when I said it. Let’s just let that one go for now, kay?”

“My ‘lack of female companionship’ is a pretty big subject.” Jasmine insisted while folding her arms under her chest. “Who the hell am I supposed to talk to about girl stuff, Doug?”

In the back of the group, the short, skinny boy kept his eyes riveted to the Gameboy that his fingers were still dancing across. The lowered bill of his omnipresent New York Rangers cap hid the boy’s expression, though his voice was mild. “I choose to take that as a compliment.”

Jazz shook her head. “I’m serious. You three,” she gestured toward Paul, Douglas, and Rudolph, “get moved to a bigger room for you all to share. Meanwhile, I’m all by myself. It’s…” She shifted a little before sighing. “It’s lonely, okay?”

Feeling a pang of sympathy, Rudolph bit his lip before speaking up. “I can, umm, ask Headmistress Sinclaire if she can switch me with a girl. It’s okay, I don’t mind going to another team.”

Sighing, Jazz shook her head. “Nooo, it’s okay. That’ll just break up some other pair of girls and leave one of them by herself. I can deal. Besides,” she added pointedly, “I don’t want another girl. I want Roxa back. We had a good system. Err,” the girl waved vaguely toward Rudolph. “No offense. Nothing wrong with you. You’re just not Roxa.”

“That,” Paul seized on the opportunity to cut in, “is why we’re out here. Why we wanted to talk to ya away from the school.”

Rudolph blinked around at his five new teammates staring at him. Well, four. Douglas was still engrossed in his game, fingers flying over it so fast they were almost a blur. “You wanted to talk tome about Roxa? Uh, sorry, I really don’t know anything more than you do. Just what the teachers said. She went-”

“Yeah, yeah, we know the official line. Family emergency, had to stay home.” Isaac interrupted. “We don’t buy it. Something else is going on.”

Blinking again, Rudolph hesitated before asking slowly, “Something else? You think the… teachers are lying?”

Paul shook his head before considering. “No, we—okay, yeah. But we don’t think they’re being malicious or anything. We think they’re trying to—dunno, protect us or protect Roxa or something. Whatever, they’re not telling the whole truth.”

“What makes you think–” Rudolph started.

“Roxa doesn’t have any family,” Jazz interrupted. “Trust me, we talked about it. She was an orphan. She lived on the streets. So how does she suddenly have a family emergency?”

Before Rudolph could try to find an answer to that, Paul took over. “That kinda told us there was something else up. So we looked into it. Which brings us to you.”

“Me?” The pale boy blanched again, head shaking. “Listen, I really don’t know anything else. I just volunteered to come over here so Tristan could stay with his si–”

Gordon interrupted, his face somehow more serious than before. “It’s not about that. It’s about Flick Chambers.”

Now Rudolph was even more confused. “Flick? What about her? What does she have to do with Roxa?”

“We’re not sure, exactly.” Paul shook his head. “But—you’re tutoring her, right? With the whole bow thing.”

Rudolph nodded slowly at that, looking around at them. “Yeah? Why? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Like he said,” Jasmine put in, “we’re not sure exactly what Flick’s got to do with Roxa. It’s just… eh, you tell him, Doug.”

The short boy finally looked up from his game, thumb hitting the pause button as he focused. “It’s this power I got on that second hunt we went on. It sort of… gives directions.”

Rudolph’s head tilted uncertainly. “Gives directions?”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah, I mean, once a day I can ask a question and it gives me a hint about where I can find the answer. Sometimes it’s really vague, sometimes it’s really specific. Depends on the question. So I keep asking it how we can find out the truth about Roxa. And every single time, it just gives me one thing. Flick Chambers. That’s the only hint it’ll give me. Flick Chambers, over and over again.”

“Oh.” Rudolph straightened with realization. “That’s why you’ve been staring at her. I thought you had a crush.”

Doug coughed, flushing a little bit. “I was trying to make my power give me more information. But it won’t. It’s just Flick Chambers over and over again.”

“So you see,” Jazz put in then, “why we’re interested in your whole tutoring thing with her.”

Hesitating, Rudolph slowly nodded. “Sure, but I don’t know if she knows anything about her. Did Flick and Roxa ever even talk to each other?”

The other five exchanged glances before Paul spoke up. “We’re not sure. But we need to find out. Whatever the teachers are lying to us for, doesn’t matter. Roxa’s our teammate. We wanna help her if we can. And right now, the only clue we’ve got is Flick. So we’re hoping you could tell us everything you know about her.

“Cuz whatever happened to Roxa, that girl’s involved.”

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