Douglas Frey

Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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Exodus 44-08 (End Of Year One)

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Eventually, we arrived in the lake, the one by the Atherby camp. It actually took a couple jumps. First we were in one of the Earth oceans, then another lake, and another, before we finally made it to the right one. It took a lot of juice to move something this size with this many people on it, so Nevada had to send it through a few hops before getting to our destination.

Through it all, hundreds of questions were being hurled in every direction. No one knew what was going on. All the people we had picked up were caught between realizing just what they had just done, and all the newfound knowledge about the rebellion that was still fresh in their minds. It was a lot to cope with, and the ones who weren’t blurting questions were sitting down wherever they could, staring off into the distance. The latter was mostly the older people, the ones who had probably been a part of the rebellion before and were now coming to terms with everything that had happened, everything they’d done, over the past couple of decades.

Dare, Kohaku, and a couple others were fielding as many questions as they could, telling people where we were going and that we would figure out what to do once we were there. Gabriel spoke up at one point, promising that there would be a meeting with everyone to get people on the same page, if they would just be a little patient right now. It helped, but there were still a lot of questions being thrown out. Especially from the students who had left without their parents.

It was going to take a long time to get people situated, to say the least. I tried to tune most of it out, looking toward the Atherby camp once we arrived in the middle of the lake and started heading closer to shore. There were already people there waiting, and I was pretty sure one of them was my dad.

He’s there, Tabbris assured me. Everyone else has been telling him what just happened.

Speaking of which, I thought back to her. You knew the whole time what I was using that notebook for, didn’t you? You knew what was going on and you kept quiet about it.

There was a brief pause before she hesitantly confirmed, Uh huh. I… you agreed to having it umm… erased, so I didn’t think I should un-erase it. Miss Gaia, when we… when she talked to me about it, she said that it was okay and that you would understand.

She was right, I assured her quickly. You did well, Tabs. You did really well.

I was distracted then, as the yacht got close to shore, by Avalon. She looked over, meeting my gaze before raising an eyebrow. “You really did it now, Chambers.” Her voice was soft.

Wincing, I started to reply before blinking slightly to the left. From his place on her shoulder, Porthos was busy staring over at the new Harper while making twitterpated sighing sounds as he pressed both hands where his heart would be. He was practically fluttering into the air.

“Err…” Shaking myself, I focused. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I… I guess I agreed to keep that secret from everyone, even you. It was a really big deal and I didn’t even say anything to you about it before agreeing to keep it secret. So–”

“It’s okay,” Avalon interrupted. She started to say something else before stopping herself to swallow hard. “It’s… it was about your mom. It was your secret to agree to. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “the more people who knew about it, like me, the harder it would’ve been to erase it. I get it. I’m just…” The next bit was clearly hard for her to admit, the vulnerability too much.

“You’re worried about Gaia,” I supplied, waiting until she nodded before hugging her. “We’ll get her back, Valley. They’re not going to do anything that bad to her. We’ll find her. We’ve got a lot more people on our side now, people who know what’s going on and can help.”

“Your mother is okay.” That was Sariel, who had stepped over to join us while speaking quietly. She looked to Avalon, continuing with, “I just checked in on her. She’s… unconscious. Too far down for me to reach. The spell she did took a lot out of her. She was prepared for it, but it’s still going to take a long time for her to wake up.” A brief pause then before, “Maybe weeks. Or even months. I’m not sure, exactly. Not yet. But we were ready. She knew it’d drain her, so I helped set it up.”

“You helped with that?” Tristan blurted from nearby. “But you never said anything to us!”

Shaking her head at that, Sariel reached out to pull her son over by the arm. “Yes,” she confirmed while mussing his hair a little bit, “because it was a secret.”

Turning away from the railing she had been leaning on, Scout nodded to me. “A big secret.”

“I’m sorry your dad didn’t listen, guys,” I told her and Sands. “I guess I was kinda hoping he’d change his mind and… and join us if you and your mom were…” Trailing off, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Larissa appeared nearby, putting her hand on my arm briefly. “Liam made his choice, more than once. Maybe he’ll change his mind, but…” She hesitated before exhaling. “I’m not basing my happiness on what he does.” The woman moved beside her daughters then, putting an arm around both of them with an added, “We will… figure it out.”

“Yeah, Flick,” Sands put in while leaning against her mother. “We’ll work with our own family. Pretty sure you’ve got enough to deal with right now anyway.” After a brief pause, she added, “But for the record, that was really cool. Especially seeing the looks on their faces.”

The two of us exchanged brief grins before Nevada called out for everyone to head off. She had done something to summon the energy bridge once more, attaching it to the end of the dock at the dock. People were already heading off, chattering with a mixture of confusion, worry, and awe as they started across the bridge. Some, of course, were more eager than others. A few stayed back, staring apprehensively at either me, one of the other adults, or the camp.

“Uh.” An awkward voice drew my attention, and I blinked over to see that boy from before, the hybrid who had spoken up and brought his whole team with him. Miles. That’s what the red-haired girl had called him when she’d called the Committee dickheads.

“Oh, uhh, hi?” I gave a little wave, feeling somewhat awkward. “Miles, right?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “It’s Miles Cleary. You’re–” He looked like he was going to say one thing, before settling on another. “That thing about the necromancer, about… Fossor. He really has your mom?” When I nodded, he breathed out. “Right, I–later. I need to talk to you later. It can wait until after the rest of this gets… figured out.” His hand waved around vaguely. With another brief apology, he moved back to where his team was waiting and started off the ship.

“What do you think that was all about?” Vanessa asked from nearby, watching the boy leave.

I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but we’ll find out before long.” Shaking off the uncertainty, I gestured to the others. “Come on, we better head into the camp before Dad charges in here to find me.”

Joining the crowd heading off the boat, we made our way over the bridge. I could see Dad in the distance, watching until he saw us. Abigail was next to him, along with Savvy, who was sitting on Choo. Miranda and Theia were behind the electric-pig and his Seosten toddler rider.

Seeing them, particularly my dad, made me walk faster. I moved across the bridge, hopping off once we were close enough that the water only came up to my knees. Landing hurt a good bit, but I didn’t care. Dad was already coming around the side, and I rushed the last few steps to hug him tightly. Tears that I hadn’t known were coming sprang into my eyes.

“I told them about her, Dad. I told them about Mom. They know. Everyone knows who she is.

“They can’t erase her anymore.”

*******

“I’m sorry we had to leave without your grandfather.”

My words were directed to Aylen, as the two of us stood together near one of the campfires.

It was awhile later. Late enough that the sun would be coming up soon. Everything was still getting organized, as people were assigned at least temporary cabins. The Kitsune, Busy, was… well… busy setting up brand new cabins (apparently he had dozens of them in storage that could be put up with less trouble or effort than most people put up a tent) for them. Gabriel had made it clear that no one had to stay. But they would be welcome for as long as they wanted to. Plus, there would be more coming. People who now remembered the rebellion, or who were learning about it for the first time. They would be looking for a place to stay.

It was a good thing Busy had a lot of those collapsible cabins, because I was pretty sure we would need them.

Also importantly, Wyatt had brought my sharks with us. Apparently he’d taken the time to carefully implant an emergency teleport beacon into each of them, triggering it as we left. Now they were safely swimming around in their new home, the lake. Which normally would have been a problem, being that it was a freshwater lake. But Wyatt had taken care of that too. Something about injecting them with a concoction he and Koren had put together once every few days until their bodies adjusted.

In any case, they were here in the lake. Which meant that, uhh, yeah, we were probably going to have to make sure there was a bigger supply of fish for them, pronto.

Aylen, for her part, was staring down into the fire. She smiled faintly without looking at me. “It’s okay, he’s not going anywhere.” Glancing up then, the girl added, “They need him too much.”

“Still,” I replied with a shrug, “I know you were looking forward to getting him out of there.”

“I am,” she confirmed, making a point of stressing the present tense. “And I will.”

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “We will. Mom–my mom… she had a bond with him too. She’d want us to get him out of there.”

That earned me a new little smile. “You know, I think I need to introduce you to my own mothers soon.” She paused slightly before adding, with an emphasis I didn’t understand, “And my other grandfather. He’s gonna love you so much.”

Her eyes unfocused then, a sign I had quickly figured out meant she was seeing through Sovereign’s eyes. At the moment, her cyberform hawk was perched on the roof of a nearby cabin.

“Professor,” she greeted without needing to turn around. “I’m glad you escaped.”

Dare, freshly changed into new clothes (a pair of khakis and a dark blue button up shirt), nodded to her with a brief smile. “Thank you, Aylen. I’m glad you made it too. Especially after what you did for Miss Chambers here.”

Flushing just a little, Aylen shook her head. “It was just–I couldn’t let her die. You…” She looked up then, hesitating before offering a slight shrug. “I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed, adding a wink, “but I’ve been told I have a habit of throwing myself into danger a few times. I’m glad you called for help instead of trying to handle it on your own.”

Looking back and forth between us, Aylen coughed. “I think I’m going to see if I’ve got a cabin yet. I… I’ll talk to you later, Flick.” She waved and headed off, leaving me alone with Dare.

“How many?” I asked, watching Sovereign fly down to join his partner.

“Eighty-four students came with us, beyond your group,” Dare answered. “It’s about half and half between Bystander-kin and Heretic-born. Which means a bigger percentage of the Bystander-kin came, considering they’re a smaller part of the school overall. But still. And there will be others, those who change their mind after sleeping on it, or who couldn’t get away at first. Or even those who slept through it.”

“And there might be those here who change their minds and want to go back to Crossroads,” I pointed out.

She nodded. “Yes, there may well be. We’ll have to deal with that. Beyond the students, we also have eleven teachers. There’s me, Risa, Nevada, and Benji Carfried from your year, as well as two from the second year, three from the third year, and one from the fourth year. And Hisao, of course.”

Grinning at her despite myself, I couldn’t help but tease, “I’m glad Hisao got out too.”

I was rewarded with a slight blush. “Yes,” Dare murmured, “well, without him, it would have been a lot more complicated for me to get out of there.”

There was a brief moment of silence then before I offered, “I know I never knew him, but… I think Grandpa Joshua would be… glad that you found someone else who makes you happy.”

That earned a smile, as Dare looked to me. Her gaze was a bit longing, but also happy. Happy to be here with me. Happy to share at least this little bit of herself with someone. “I think he would too.”

We stood there quietly together for a few seconds, each contemplating that until I looked over and cleared my throat. “I… I saw some of the security members fighting each other, and a few of the Committee’s people,” I mused. “They came with?”

“Some of them,” she confirmed. “That’s another eight adults, with more that couldn’t get away. Plus Larissa and Haiden, who should count for a few adults separately.”

“And whoever else comes in eventually,” I mused quietly, shaking my head in wonder. “We really blew up Crossroads, huh? Err, metaphorically speaking.”

She chuckled lightly. “Yes, metaphorically speaking, you blew the hell out of Crossroads.”

“It’s funny,” I murmured quietly, “Ruthers didn’t want me there because he thought I’d destroy your society. I guess he was closer to being right than anyone thought.”

Dare shook her head. “You didn’t destroy anything, Felicity. You helped bring things back to where they should be. This was a war that needed to start again. We need to make things right.”

“We need to find Mom,” I stressed. “And find out why Fossor wanted to kill a Committee member. Not to mention how he did it.”  

“There’s a lot to work out,” Dare confirmed. “Which we will. And we’ll find Joselyn.”

“Mom and Gaia,” I added. “And Sean. And… anyone else that we need to.” I coughed, shaking my head. “It’s gonna be a busy summer.”

She gave me a brief smile. “Yes. But at least we’ll have help. Including Lancelot, of all people.” A slight grimace came then. “I can’t believe we had no idea who she was.”

“To be fair,” I put in, “she did a really good job of pretending to b–” I stopped talking then.

“Felicity?” Dare blinked at me. “Are you okay?”

“I… yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I was just thinking about how I really have to thank her for everything she did tonight. Everything she’s been doing… for awhile, apparently.”

******

“You weren’t frozen.”

I’d found Harper, in her adult form, standing near the woods. It was like she was waiting for me, watching the busy campgrounds with everyone running around, trying to get things set up for the new arrivals. When I approached, she simply stood there, waiting for me to start.

“At the library, when… when they came. You weren’t frozen.”

The woman watched me with a hint of a smile, and I had a good chance to look at her face finally. She looked… well, enough like Harper that I could see the resemblance, though there were differences. Besides obviously being older, her own face was slightly thinner where Harper’s had been more rounded. Not in an unhealthy or anorexic way, just… thin. It made her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes, like Harper’s, seemed almost too big for her face. It made them incredibly expressive. Especially now, as her amusement at my announcement was obvious. “No,” she finally replied, “I was not. And by now, your… other teachers have realized that as well. They will be contacting you as soon as they can get away.”

“You… you’ve known–you were there!” I blurted out loud. “You were there that day, when we ambushed that bus. You were in the trees. Tristan almost saw you.”

Coughing, she waved a hand. “Yes, well, he is very perceptive. More so than he will admit, in some cases.” Sobering then, she watched me. “You are wondering the same thing they will be, whether I will tell anyone what I heard. Before I answer that, I would like to speak to your boyfriend.”

Well. Of all the things she could have said right then, that was one that I never would have expected. I blinked a couple times. “Errr, my what?”

Harper chuckled. “It’s alright. I… I know you’ve been possessed by a Seosten for a long time, and that he kind of… fell for you. I’d like to have a discussion between the three of us. You, me, and this Tabbris.”

For a moment, all I could do was stare. My mouth opened, shut, then opened again. There was essentially static playing inside my head. When I finally found my voice, it cracked. “Y-you… you… you think that… you… oh… oh my… God…”

Then I laughed. A lot. Doubling over, I clutched my stomach and laughed until I almost peed. It was all I could do to catch myself. “Oh, my God. You think that I have a–that Tabbris is a–is my–” Then I had to stop talking, I was laughing too much. It probably wasn’t that funny, but after everything that had happened, my emotions were pretty high-strung and I needed it.

Finally getting hold of myself while Harper just stared in confusion, I took my phone and texted Tabbris to recall to me as soon as she had a chance. “Okay, um, I’m sorry, but there’s a little thing you’re mistaken about.”

What’s going on? The girl herself appeared in me a moment later, reading my thoughts briefly before she too started to laugh inwardly. In between making disgusted noises. “Gross, gross! Yuck! Eww!”

“Ah, something I’m mistaken about?” Harper prompted, frowning in clear confusion. “Are you saying he’s not your boyfriend?”

“Umm, well…” I drawled before gesturing. “Come on out, Tabs.”

She did so, appearing in front of me with a grand, “Ta da!”

That lasted for about three seconds before she suddenly blurted, “Oh gosh, you are so freaking cool! That thing you did with the swords and the blocking and the ‘yah, you’re dumb, Ruthers, hiiii yah!’ Parry, parry, fire, block, your timestop does nothing to me, parry!  And then you said you were Darkwing Duck, and he was like, ‘buh?’ and you were like, ‘fwoosh, I’m behind you, dummy who doesn’t know like the best cartoons, have at you!’ Kwoosh, skewer, aaaaaahh! Wiff, punch, haha, and you smell bad too. Kick!”

All of this was accompanied by dramatic hand gestures or full on physical reenactments as Tabbris bounced around, spinning in circles, kicking empty air, and pantomiming a sword duel. At the end, as she spun back, the girl nearly fell over before my hands quickly caught her shoulders. She was panting, and gave a final, exhilarated, “Can I have your autograph?”

If this had been a cartoon, Harper’s mouth would have been on the ground. It was wide open already, as she pointed and gaped, making weak noises of confusion.

“Harper, Lancelot, whatever… this is Tabbris,” I gestured to her. “My… Seosten little sister.” Briefly, I explained what had happened, and where she came from.

“Of course… I… that… makes sense.” Shaking that off, the woman took a knee in front of Tabbris. “You know, I’ve met a lot of brave people in my life. But you might just be one of the bravest.”

Blushing deeply, Tabbris hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re really Lancelot?”

“Let you in on a little secret?” the woman asked. When Tabbris gave an eager nod, she made a point of looking around before quietly informing us, “I’m also Guinevere.” As both Tabbris and I made noises of surprise, she added, “You can call me Gwen.”

That raised a lot of questions. I was going to have to get the full story about that eventually. Later, once there was more time. For the moment, I just said, “You know I… can’t really tell you the whole story about… about what you saw.” It was impossible. Jophiel and Elisabet had made sure of that. “None of us can.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on getting it from you,” the woman assured me. “I’ll get it from them. For now, I’ll keep quiet. Until I find out the whole story, at least. And when I do, we’re going to be making a few adjustments to whatever deal you made with them. Starting with you not being forced to lie to your friends and family. There’s been enough of that.

“But we can work out the rest of that later. Right now, you just… let me know when they contact you, okay? You can do that without violating the spell?”

I paused before nodding. “I mean, I guess so. I can’t tell you about our deal, or anything about… them. But I don’t see why I can’t let you know when they make contact.”

“Good,” Harper–errr, Gwen smiled. “Do that. All of us need to have a nice long conversation, so we can get on the same page.”

She sighed then. “In the meantime, I better go talk to Shiloh and Eiji. See how much of this I can explain.” Taking a step, the woman paused before looking at me. “Are you going to be okay?”

I took a breath before answering, letting the question float in my head for a moment before looking to my little sister. “Yeah,” I confirmed while laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”

******

Walking toward the lake a few minute later with Tabbris at my side, I saw a small group waiting for me. Seller was there, with Miranda, Theia, Pace, and Roxa.

As we approached, Randi greeted me by walking forward and giving me a high five. “You know,” she started, “Principal Bonnelly used to tell me you were going to drag me into trouble.”

Blinking as she brought up that name from so long ago, I asked, “What did you tell her?”

She grinned, catching my hand to push it into a fist before bumping her own against it. “That you don’t drag me anywhere. We run into trouble together. Same thing here. Even if you are a bit ahead in the, ahhh, field of trouble.”

“I guess I did run off without you a bit,” I admitted before meeting her gaze. “Sorry for starting all the fun without you.”

“Eh, I’ll catch up.” With a wink, Randi gestured. “At least we already left Garden before you blew the whole civil war wide open again. I can’t imagine what’s going on back there.”

“Theia-I–” Theia started before catching herself. “I… mean… I can. My imagination needs more popcorn though. And a soda.” Despite her light words, something about the Seosten girl looked… emotional, and ragged. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and didn’t want to pry. But it was obvious that she was still working her way through things. She had technically killed her own mother less than twelve hours earlier.

God damn, when things got busy around here, they got really busy.

Pace spoke up then. “Things are probably pretty bad back there. But you know what… you’re fucking awesome, Flick.” She gave me a thumbs up. “What you did, what you and Headmistress Sinclaire did… it–you’re… holy shit.”

“Yeah…” I coughed. “I think holy shit sums it up. I really didn’t think it’d be that dramatic back when we were talking about it. I wasn’t picturing… well, that.”

“Things rarely go the way we picture,” Seller put in. “I, for example, never pictured my descendant starting a Heretic civil war… and my next descendant continuing it.”

Turning to the man, I tilted my head curiously. “What do you think about that?”

He met my gaze, deadpanning, “I think I’ve got a couple of hilariously overachieving nutjobs for descendants… who are going to need a lot of help. And I’m glad I get the chance to be there for them.” He paused then before adding, “And that taking care of Hannah taught me how to be there for them for once in my life.”

Smiling a little at that, I looked toward Roxa before swallowing, my expression falling a bit. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get Sean out.”

She glanced away briefly before turning back to me with a nod. “Yeah, I know you tried. They all tried. He… we’ll find him. Whatever hole they try to bury him in, we’ll get him out.”

“We will,” I agreed. “We’ll get them all out of there. Him, Gaia, and everyone else they try to lock up.”

We talked a little bit more then. Tabbris and Theia were deep in some conversation when I glanced over and saw Deveron, Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt a short distance off. Looking back to Seller and the others, I excused myself before starting that way.

“Felicity, you…” Abigail started before just taking a few steps over. Her arms were suddenly around me, squeezing tight. “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t–you really just… you…”

“Pretty much ruined Ruthers’ reputation, for one,” Koren put in, grinning. “That was awesome.”

“I didn’t include anything about who you guys are now,” I quickly pointed out toward my siblings, even though they definitely would already know that. “I didn’t think it would be right to expose you like that, not without you getting a say.”

Deveron took his turn for a hug then, squeezing me tight as he whispered, “Joselyn is proud of you. She knows everything you did too, you know.”

I swallowed at that, glancing away before turning back to meet his gaze. “They erased everything she did, everything she stood for. I couldn’t let that stand.”

Wyatt actually grinned at that, a goofy, buck-toothed smile that was still so endearing. “No one saw it coming. It was a fantastic sneak attack, right where they didn’t expect it.” He sobered then, straightening. “Now they know. They know about what that man did to end the war.”

“They know,” I agreed, reaching out to take his hand before squeezing it. My other hand found Abigail’s. “They know he burned down a nursery just to cause a distraction so he could abduct infants and use them as hostages. And we are not going to let them forget how far he went. How far they let him go. They’re going to deal with the truth, even if we have to beat them unconscious with it and then shove it down their throats until they choke.”

Koren piped up, “You know, that’s like the best newspaper slogan.”

*****

My team was standing on the edge of the lake, feet in the water. They were all there as I made my way to them a few minutes later. Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Columbus watched me approach. All of them, of course, aside from Sean. Seeing that made me sigh, and I walked that way before rubbing Vulcan’s head when he trotted up to meet me.

“Shouldn’t you guys go back to bed by now?” I teased despite myself. “I mean, you didn’t kill an Amarok on our first hunt and end up almost never needing to sleep.”

“And you’ve been using your extra hours to get into about five times as much trouble as you should,” Avalon retorted.

Doug coughed at that, shaking his head. “You know a lot of things are about to change now. Once they put the immediate fires out and everyone has a chance to breathe.”

“They should change,” I replied easily. “The longer we just let bad things happen because it’s easier than challenging the status quo, the more innocent people die. We needed this. They needed this. Gaia knows that. It’s why she wanted to undo the spell.”

“You’re right,” the boy replied. “They uhh, they’re already talking about what to do about the families of Bystander-kin who came with us and don’t know what’s going on. It’s pretty chaotic though.”

“It will be for a long time,” Sands pointed out before looking to me. “You did good, Flickster.”

Beside her, Scout nodded in agreement, grinning my way. “You destroyed the memory spell!”

“Gaia did, mostly,” I pointed out. “I was pretty much just the right tool to do it.” Glancing toward Columbus, I added, “You know Sean would’ve jumped on that tool comment if he was here.”

“I’ll tell him about it as soon as we get him out of there,” he informed me, managing a tiny smile. “I mean, if you can help destroy the entire revolution eraser and bring back the Heretic Civil War, freeing Sean should be no big deal.”

“Damn it, why’d you have to say that?” I demanded. “Now it’s going to take most of the next year and like…thirteen and a half time-travel or alternate dimension trips. We may even end up in a reality where we’re all cartoons.”

“Pfffft,” Columbus retorted. “If it’s anything like this year… bring it on.”

Before anyone else could speak up, Asenath and Shiori approached. The former walked right up to embrace me tightly. “I had no idea we were getting the spell stuff for you.”

Flushing, I returned the hug. “Trust me, I didn’t know either, for most of it. But you pulled it off. All that stuff Gaia said she needed and you found it. That’s insane, Senny.”

“Hey,” she retorted, “when I take a job, I finish it. I…” She winced then, glancing away. I knew she was thinking about Seth, even if she didn’t say anything about him. Instead, she cleared her throat before looking back at me. “Twister wants to take you out to a dinner, by the way. A big dinner. And by take you out, I mean to her house so she can cook for you.”

Trying not to drool, I managed a weak, “We’ll have to do that sometime.”

Gradually, Asenath, Doug, the twins, and Columbus wandered away. I could tell it was a deliberate thing, but kept quiet until I was left alone with Shiori and Avalon.

“I think we’ve been abandoned,” I finally pointed out quietly before turning to face the lake. The sun was just starting to come up over the distant mountains, its light cutting through the shadows surrounding the camp.  

Shiori moved to one side of me, her hand taking mine to squeeze lightly. “That’s okay, I could stand to be abandoned with you for awhile.”

Nodding in agreement, Avalon took my other hand. Together, we stood there, letting the water reach our ankles. When she finally spoke, Valley’s voice cracked just a little. “It’s been a long year.”

God, had it ever. I thought about that for a minute. Everything I’d learned over the course of the past school year, everything I’d been a part of. I thought of Professor Pericles, of Seth, of… of poor Rudolph. I thought of Ammon, of Professor Katarin, of all the people I’d met, all the people I’d hurt, and all the people I wanted to hurt. I thought of all the people that had been lost over the past year, and those who had been helped.

I’d helped bring a lot of people together again, had put together families. Like my own. Or the Moons. Even Sands and Scout had their mother back. Families had been put together and healed.

But families had also been torn apart, just this very night. The civil war was back. Siblings, lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives, they were dealing with that right now. Dealing with those new memories, that new understanding of just what was going on, of what had happened to them. And a lot of them, I knew, wouldn’t take it well, hadn’t taken it well.

I’d helped put a few families back together, sure. But I’d also helped rip a lot more apart with my last actions at Crossroads. I still believed it was worth it, but I didn’t think it was easy. And it was going to get harder. Now Ruthers and the Committee were definitely our enemies. They wouldn’t be playing nice anymore, even if I did have a few allies in their group. A couple they didn’t even know about.

Yeah, things were definitely going to get even more interesting very soon. The fires were just getting started. And they were going to burn long and hot.

Glancing over at me, Shiori asked, “So what’s next on the agenda, Miss Chambers?”

I thought about it, staring at the water, at the light from the rising sun reflected off of it.

“You know… for now, ‘next’ is this, right here. It’s taking a little break with you guys, and the others. After everything that just happened, after the whole Seosten thing and getting that spell, after… the whole damn year, I need some time to process. And have a little fun. It’s time for a vacation. But after that…well, people keep saying this world isn’t what I want it to be, that I’m naive and it’s full of evil that I’ll never understand. So let’s make it better. Let’s change it.

“Let’s change the world.”

End of book one. Stay tuned for Summer Epilogues.

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Interim Incursion 43-06 (Vanessa)

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Two figures, one male and one female, sprinted full-out down the corridor with vault doors on either side of them. Their footsteps, pounding loudly against the floor, echoed through the hall along with the sound of their heavy breathing.

Not even thirty feet behind them, the giant snake was hot on their heels. Its tongue flicked out, coming close enough to almost taste the pair, while the caustic gas it continuously exhaled withered the walls around itself to mark its own path. The snake was so fast that it kept nearly catching up to the two, only slowed at various corners and turns that they made to keep it from overrunning them. Even that didn’t help too much, since the snake simply shrink down for a few seconds to make the turn.

Maybe running wasn’t the right word for what the snake was doing. Overslithering them.

“The funny thing is, I’ve had nightmares exactly like this!”

As Doug Frey’s words interrupted her thoughts, Vanessa glanced sidelong at the boy. “Nightmares about being chased through a maze of corridors by a giant snake with acid breath?”

“Okay,” Doug admitted, “the acid breath is new, but other than that!” Producing his pen, the boy clicked twisted the cap to go through his recorded options. “I don’t know what else to hit it with! It’s already shrugged off three spears and any of my spell balls that I try to throw at it.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa confirmed, “Larees said they’re kind of resistant to magic. We don’t have any spell that can hit it hard enough to matter.” As she spoke, the girl freed the Seosten laser pistol that she’d acquired earlier. They were sprinting down a long corridor by that point, racing full-out with the snake catching up with each passing step. Before it could make that last lunge, she pointed the pistol over her shoulder and triggered three quick shots. The first two struck the snake in the eyes, while the third found its flicking tongue. The snake gave a terrifying sound of pain and anger, but didn’t stop. It did, however, slow fractionally to recover, buying the two a few precious extra steps.

In those steps, Vanessa’s other hand snapped out ahead of them, sending her whip that way to crack against one of the walls. At its touch, the whip left a glistening silver rune. A quick snap of the whip the other way left an identical rune a few feet further on the opposite wall.

The two of them ran through the planted traps just fine. But when the still-reeling snake passed through them, they triggered a cloud of intensely cold, supernatural ice that made the summoned creature slow just a little bit more. Another few steps were gained, saving the two from the snake’s stomach once more. It did not, however, solve the overall problem. As resistant as the snake was, they were lucky the ice-mines even slowed it down. They could (barely) hurt it and (kind of) slow it, but nothing actually stuck. Nothing seemed to last long enough to matter. And they didn’t have time to actually prepare anything better with it so close. Unless…

“We can get far enough ahead to buy some time,” Vanessa informed the boy beside her, even as the snake was shaking off the last of the ice effect and began catching up once more. “If I boost us.” With those words, she extended a hand toward him.

Doug hesitated only for a second, before his own hand grabbed hers. With a thought, Vanessa possessed him. She let him keep running (an easy thing to do with his hat), and focused on boosting the boy. Suddenly, he was running much faster, almost flying down that corridor. The snake lost ground, particularly when they turned the corner at the end of the hall and kept going.

Vanessa only kept the boost going for about fifteen seconds. But that was enough to buy some time. Once it was done and Doug slid to a stop, she hopped out.

“Can’t get too far ahead,” the boy muttered, “or the damn thing’ll just shrink down, turn around, and go back to find the others.”

Vanessa nodded, looking back the way they’d come. They could both hear the snake’s approach, though it wasn’t in sight yet. They’d gone just far enough to buy a few seconds to talk without being interrupted by the thing trying to eat them.

Thankfully, she already had a plan.

“You can make anything you draw, right?” Vanessa quickly blurted. “I mean, anything simple without a lot of moving parts.”  

“Uhh, yeah?” The boy was clearly confused. “I mean, for about ten minutes at least. Why?”

“Can you draw it big enough to block the hallway?” she pressed, already turning to start running so they could stay ahead of the snake. “Look.” she pointed as they passed another set of doorways on either side of them. “Can you make things that fit into that doorway from one side to the other, so the doorjambs hold it in place? Like a wall.”

“Sure,” he confirmed, glancing at her while they ran to maintain their lead over the snake. “But you know it’ll just melt through anything we put in its way.”

“Path of least resistance,” she replied, “it wants to catch us.”

Now he was even more confused. “What does that–”

“Take this,” she interrupted, reaching into a pocket before tossing the boy a bag without breaking stride. “Mom and Uncle Apollo made Tristan and me make up emergency camping supplies if we ever got lost somewhere. There’s books, tools, sleeping bags, weapons, everything.”

“Okay…” Doug opened the small bag, peeking within. “And why is that useful now, Vanessa? And what does it have to do with anything we just said?”

“Take it and keep going,” she hurriedly instructed, pointing down the hall. “Get out of sight so you can set things up.” Even as the girl spoke, they could hear the snake in question, and glancing back showed it turning the corner behind them. It would catch up soon, so they only had a few more seconds to talk.

She took advantage of them, quickly telling Doug exactly what to do. She told him how to set up what they needed, stressing just how important it was that he do it right.

“And what are you gonna do?” the boy demanded, even as they continued running to stay ahead of the snake for just a bit longer.

“I’m going to be my brother,” Vanessa informed him. “Since he’s not here to do it.”

“Be your brother?” Doug was baffled. “What does that even–”

“I’ll buy you time!” she interrupted, pivoting back the other way. “Just do everything I said!” With that, Vanessa began to sprint back toward the snake, raising her hand to touch a spell that had been stitched into her shirt. As it was activated, the spell sent her clothes into a safe pocket dimension, leaving the blonde girl in the simple skin-tight Seosten bodysuit.

That done, she lifted her appropriated pistol, firing several quick shots. She hit the snake’s tongue each time, even as the thing jerked back and forth wildly. It was easy. She just thought about where she wanted the shot to go, and it went there. She knew exactly where to point the gun, exactly when to pull the trigger, exactly how to adjust it for each movement… she just knew.

The shots did more to annoy the snake and sting it a little bit than any actual damage. Still, they made sure that its attention was on her. Not that there was much question of that, considering she was running straight at the thing.

The instant she was close enough, the thing struck. Its head snapped down at her as quick as… well, as quick as a snake. But Vanessa used her boost to react just as quickly. With a grunt, she launched herself up, letting her super-leaping ability carry her all the way up to the ceiling, over the snake’s lunging head and its acidic gas.

Then she shape-shifted. Because Vanessa had discovered something interesting while experimenting with her powers. When she normally shifted into her bird or bear forms, it took at least a few seconds. Longer for the bear. But if she was boosting at the time, the change was almost instantaneous.

In the blink of an eye, she was suddenly in her bird form, above the snake’s head. With a few quick flaps, she flew down the length of it to the tail, even as the snake was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

Reaching the opposite end of the snake, Vanessa flipped around in the air while shifting into her human form. Her human form with her weapons. Because thanks to Uncle Apollo, the Seosten bodysuit she wore had been given a little upgrade, which made it so that anything she was holding when she shifted would disappear, automatically shunted into the same space as her clothes, and then reappear instantly when she shifted back.

So, with weapons in hand, she landed, skidding from her own momentum while snapping her whip out to create a fire rune against either wall. Both exploded immediately, turning into a brief, yet intense ball of flame right on the tip of the snake’s tail.

That got its attention. The summoned creature shrank, spun to face the other way, and regrew almost in the span of time that it took for Vanessa to take two quick steps backward. It had inverted itself that easily and quickly, and was practically right on top of her once more.

It lunged again, but Vanessa leapt backward while snapping her whip down at where her feet had been. This time, she created a wind rune. A sudden gust blew into the creature’s face. It did nothing to damage the thing, but it did blow all of its caustic gas away for the moment.

Vanessa took advantage of that. Boosting again to speed her shifting, she threw herself at the snake while changing into her bear form. Now a massive grizzly, she slammed her meaty, furry, frying pan-sized paw into the side of the snake’s head, colliding with a satisfying thud that drew a brief noise of pain from the snake. Before it could recover, she slammed her other paw into the opposite side of its head, digging deep with her claws. It wasn’t going to kill the thing, but she did some damage. If the snake hadn’t already been pissed off, it definitely was now.

By that point, the snake had begun to spit up more of that acid cloud. But Vanessa boost-shifted again, going back to her bird form to retreat down the corridor a bit with a couple quick flaps, luring the thing after her and giving Doug space to work.

She repeated that process a couple of times, clearing the gas before shifting to bear to dart in and do a little damage. It was annoying the snake, which was the point. Plus, it gave Doug more time.

But it was also predictable, which Vanessa didn’t want to be, since she had no desire to be eaten by a snake anytime soon. So she had to mix things up after a few quick rounds of that.

Back to human again, and that time, she made a quick grasping motion with both hands. The air itself seemed to solidify, forming what looked like a pair of almost clear glass balls in her palms.

This was the power she had inherited from the minor Olympian Seosten that she had killed (with a lot of help from her father and Larissa) back at Kushiel’s lab. She could solidify air into these extremely durable ‘glass’ balls and then control them with her mind. According to her mother, the Olympian she had taken it from had been able to make more of the balls and then reshape them into other forms like blades. Or even combine them to make much larger things.

Vanessa couldn’t do that yet. But she could send these small, nearly invisible orbs flying at the snake, making them rebound off its eyes or any other spot she wanted them to hit. They were tough enough to ram full speed into the back of the thing’s scaled head without breaking. Which didn’t really do any actual damage to it, but did help distract and annoy it.

Clearly enraged by that point, the snake lunged for Vanessa as she crouched near the right-hand side of the hall. She let it come, then leapt to the left while mentally summoning her orbs. One flew right under her outstretched foot, acting a brief step for her to push off of before finding the other with her opposite foot. Now just above the snake’s head, balancing on her two orbs, she lashed out with the whip, smacking the wall just next to the serpent before it could recover, creating a fire rune that exploded essentially in its face.

That really pissed it off. The snake whipped around, tongue lashing out to catch Vanessa in a way more like a frog than the animal it was supposed to be. It came close to managing it, but Vanessa was faster, barely. She flipped up and backward off her floating orbs, letting the grasping tongue strike the air where she had been before landing a few yards back. Her whip lashed out to create three quick lightning runes along the floor. As the snake rushed over them to get her, the triggered electricity coursed into its body, making it seize and spasm for an instant.

That instant was long enough for Vanessa to trigger another quick wind rune to once more clear the area of gas before she darted forward. Her whip created yet another rune then, this one ice. It exploded into a freezing mist centered directly on at the creature’s extended tongue as it spasmed from the electricity.

Resistant as the summoned snake was, the ice rune only managed to freeze a very small part of that tongue. But that small part was enough. As the snake recovered and lunged, Vanessa threw herself backwards, using her super-leap to travel further horizontally that time. While in mid-leap, she snapped that pistol up and triggered several quick shots. Each landed perfectly right at the small spot that had been frozen by the ice rune. That was enough to sever it, cutting the tongue in half. And the snake, well, the snake was beyond pissed off. It made a furious, horrible shrieking sound and thrashed its head from side to side briefly before narrowing its eyes at Vanessa.

“That’s right,” she murmured softly. “Come get me.”

Whether it understood or not, the snake obliged. Suddenly, it was tearing after her even faster than it had been before, a speeding train with an open mouth rushing down the corridor at her.

With a thought, Vanessa was back in her bird form, pivoting in the air to fly straight out away from the creature. Now she could be pretty sure that it wouldn’t lose interest and go after Doug or one of the others. It was solely focused on her.

To an outside observer, it might have looked as though Vanessa were flying wildly and frantically with no plan. But she knew exactly what she was doing. While the others may have memorized the exact path to the vault they were looking for, she had memorized the entire layout of the floor. She knew exactly where she was, and exactly where she had been.

Weaving her way through the corridors, Vanessa took a long, yet purposeful route back around in a wide circle. Eventually, she was flying over the same spot that she had left Doug at. The snake was right on her tail feathers, in no mood to let her get away no matter what form she took.

By that point, Vanessa was starting to get tired. But she pressed on. Two more quick turns, and she leveled out in a long hallway. Straight ahead of her, about halfway down, was the contraption that she’d convinced Doug to make. It looked like a wall with a single hole in it just large enough for a human to crawl through. As requested, it was stuck between the doorways of the vaults, and was thick enough to take up that entire space.

In mid-flight, Vanessa shifted back to human, lashing her whip out behind her as she landed. The whip swung in a wide arc, creating a half dozen lightning and ice runes, just enough to slow the snake for a second or two.

As the creature hit the debilitating effects and powered through them, Vanessa gave one last snap of her whip. Or rather, two. These were not to lay runes, however. Instead, as her whip touched the wall, Vanessa used her weapon’s original power to copy the material. Then, with the backswing of the whip, she cracked it against Doug’s creation. Immediately, it became the same metal.

The snake was almost on top of her, and Vanessa felt exhausted. But she moved anyway, forcing herself to use her boost yet again while diving toward the hole that Doug had left. Hearing the snake hiss furiously, she crawled on her hands and knees as quickly as possible through that little tunnel.

But the snake wasn’t going to be dissuaded that easily. Though it could have taken the time to use its acid to melt through the thick wall, Vanessa and Doug might have gotten away in that time. Especially now that it was made of the same material as the nearby walls. And there was a much quicker way to chase its prey.

Before she was even all the way through the tunnel, Vanessa heard the snake behind her. It had shrunk down once more to throw itself through the hole as well. And it was gaining fast. That was how much she had pissed it off. It didn’t care what it had to do, or what size it had to be, it was going to eat her.

Reaching the end of the tunnel finally, she threw herself bodily out of it while screaming out loud, “Now, now, now!” Her voice echoed loudly through the hall.

The snake was right behind her, and lunged, just as she did, for the opening. But Doug was there. The instant that Vanessa was clear, he appeared, holding something in front of the hole. Vanessa scrambled around on her knees, grabbing onto the thing as well to help keep it in place, just as the snake flew out of the tunnel.

It was the extradimensional bag that she had given the boy a few minutes earlier. He had already dumped all the extra stuff out of it to make room. Room for the snake.

The two of them held the bag in front of the hole and let the snake rush right into it. Then they closed the bag and cinched it tight, trapping the creature within. As long as the bag wasn’t opened, there would be no way for the snake to escape. Unless it was simply de-summoned, in which case it still wouldn’t be their problem anymore.

As soon as the bag was closed, Vanessa turned and collapsed, falling backward before staring at the ceiling while panting heavily.

Doug collapsed next to her, turning his head to look to Vanessa. “You okay?”

It took her a moment, but Vanessa nodded. She was breathing hard, eyes wide as she came down from the panic high of the last few minutes. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Peachy. No more snakes for a while, okay?” Her voice was a bit squeaky from her own rush of adrenaline.

“I’m not sure if the bad guys will listen,” the boy replied, “but I am totally on board with that rule. And hey, good job calling that it would shrink down to chase you if you pissed it off enough.”

“Like I said,” she replied, “path of least resistance. It didn’t need to take the time to melt the walls if there was another opening. One we wanted it to go through.”

The two of them laid there like that for a few moments, just catching their breath. The snake bag lay between them, completely still and silent, of course. But that didn’t stop either of them from keeping half a wary eye on it.

“It definitely can’t get out of that, right?” Doug pressed. He obviously just needed to hear a little reassurance that they weren’t about to be ambushed by the worst game of Jack-in-the-Box ever.

Vanessa’s head shook. “Definitely not. As long as we keep it shut tight, there’s no portal for it to come through.”

With a soft side of relief, Doug nodded. “Good. Somebody else gets to check and see if it’s gone later.”

He paused, before asking, “How do you think the others are doing?”

Vanessa took a moment before answering. “We should probably go find out. This is too important to lie down on the job.”

Doug winced, but nodded, picking himself up before offering a hand to her. “Right.

“Let’s go see what we missed.”

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Interim Incursion 43-04 (Doug)

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As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.

And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.

That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.

Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”

“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”

“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.

It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.

Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.

What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.

At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.

“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”

Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.  

The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’

The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.

Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.

Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.

“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.

“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”

Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.

All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.

Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.

More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.

All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.

At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.

Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.

The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.

Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”

“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.

“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”

“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”

That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”

Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.

The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.

He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.

“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”

His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”

Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.

In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.

“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”

“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.

Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.

Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”

At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.

“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”

Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.

Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”

“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.

“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”

“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”

Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.

They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.

“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”

“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”

“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”

“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”

Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”

There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.

“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.

“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”

The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.

But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.

Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.

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