Douglas Frey

Learning Days Daze 2-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Abigail wanted us to have a well-rounded education. Which meant learning both Heretic and Bystander lessons. Wait, we had Alters in school now. So it really wasn’t ‘Heretic’ lessons. Supernatural lessons, maybe? Either way, she wanted us to learn both that stuff and the regular old lessons like Math, English, and so on. Just like back at Crossroads, though with fewer classes, since we were only going to them in the morning. To that end, they’d made up a system of having one day where we would have two mundane classes and one magical-type class, then the next day we’d have the opposite, two magical-type classes and one mundane class. 

Today, Tuesday, was a two mundane, one magical class day. Specifically, my schedule for the day consisted of Calculus first, then Trials of the Sea, and finally History of Africa. Though they were apparently going to teach us about both mundane and supernatural-type stuff in that last one, so maybe it counted as both. 

I had no idea what Trials of the Sea was, to be honest, but it sounded awesome. Although I was a little sad that we wouldn’t get to have Blackbeard as a guest speaker. The Committee members who were sympathetic or totally on our side still couldn’t act openly like that. The word that they had come to talk to us would somehow get out and then there would be hell to pay. 

The Committee were also still missing Elisabet. The last I’d heard, Jophiel had managed to work out through help from Sariel that her lover wasn’t on Earth and hadn’t been since the moment she disappeared. They knew she was alive, and not on Earth. That was about it. What had happened to her, where she went, what kind of condition she was in, all of that was blank. 

Jophiel wasn’t taking it too well. But, to her credit, she wasn’t letting that stop her from teaching us. Yeah, Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had some lessons with her over the summer. Even without Elisabet around for demonstration purposes, Jophiel still knew a hell of a lot about working together in a possessor-possessed partnership, and she taught us as much as possible. She’d set time out of her schedule looking for the woman she’d loved for hundreds of years, a woman who was now missing and could be anywhere in the universe, to teach us. She’d even worked as much as she could on teaching us that power-sharing spell, though it was slow-going. It was a very powerful spell, and it turned out we had to cast it ourselves. 

I had my issues with the way Jophiel did some things, but I had to respect that she was doing all this. The thought of focusing on… anything while Avalon or Shiori might have been missing like that was… impossible. Hell, I didn’t know how they had done anything back when I was missing. 

In any case, Jophiel taught us a lot. Even if every time we’d seen her, she looked more haggard, and not at all like… well, like I was accustomed to her looking. She was tired, emotionally wrecked, drained of almost everything she had. And still, she taught us for hours. She was patient, she didn’t yell or curse at us. At least, not outwardly. In short, she was a great teacher.

Which made the fact that we still had no idea where Elisabet was somehow even worse. 

Sighing as I shook that thought out of my head and walked the rest of the way through the connecting tube (filled with visions of the solar system from somewhere around Saturn) leading from the elevator room to the classrooms, I found myself stepping into what looked like any old high school on Earth. Seriously, there were lockers along the walls, kids getting stuff out of those lockers, a janitor mopping up some spilled milk or yogurt or something, and more. There was even a sign on the nearby wall above the lockers welcoming students to our new school. Hell, this looked more like an ordinary public high school hallway than Crossroads had. 

Well, except for the fact that some of those students were obviously not human. Nor was the janitor. He was an Orc of some kind, though one with four arms. Two of those arms were being used to hold the mop he was wiping up the milk with, while the other two steadied the bucket. 

Oh, and the sign welcoming all of us was some kind of projected magical hologram or something. As I watched it, the words changed from a generic welcome message to a room number and directions. It was telling me where to go for my first class. Along with a reminder note about which locker number was mine, and a countdown before school would start. It just knew all that and was able to change for each person looking at it. 

I had six minutes. Plenty of time to get to the lockers. Thanks to Abigail, I knew that Shiori, Avalon, and I all had them next to each other. There were benefits to being related to the principal.

Doug and Ruckus split off to find their own lockers, while Avalon, Aylen, and I went for ours. Aylen’s was directly across from Avalon’s, with a female Menmeran (the really muscular frog-like people) already standing at the next locker over from that one when we arrived. Aylen gave a little curtsy-bow and said something to the Menmeran girl. Apparently she was greeting her by name, calling her Pret. I only knew it was her name because Pret responded by saying Aylen’s name and doing the same kind of half-curtsy thing that Aylen had done a moment earlier.  

“She lives in the house on the other side of theirs,” Avalon informed me. “The one on the corner. We were talking for awhile last night.” 

Nodding thoughtfully, I asked, “Man, this school really is different, huh?” 

Avalon snorted once, glancing to me before replying, “Gaia would like it.” She swallowed very faintly then. 

“She will,” I corrected. “When we get her out and back here.” My hand found Avalon’s, squeezing briefly as she returned my smile silently, but clearly gratefully. Then we separated to get our stuff. 

Which was right when a pair of hands covered my eyes from behind, as a voice whispered, “Guess who.” 

“Uhhh…” Pretending to think about it, I offered, “The girl whose clothes and pocket contents my item-sense is almost as familiar with as my nose is familiar with the exact soap she uses?” 

Sulking just a little at that, Shiori took her hands off my eyes and pecked me on the cheek. “Powers make games like that too easy. I’m gonna take you by surprise someday, I swear.” 

With a smile, I turned and put both hands on either side of her face. “Shy,” I said quietly, “not being startled is not the same thing as not being surprised. And believe me, you surprise me every single day just by being the ridiculously amazing person you are.” With a little smile, I leaned in and kissed her gently, shivering as she gave a tiny whimper and clutched at me. 

Finally stepping back, I moved to the nearby locker while asking, “So is Choo back at the house?” As I spoke, my thumb pressed against the reader. It wasn’t just reading my fingerprint. Apparently it read some kind of magical signature or… something, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Either way, the scanner went from red to green after I held my thumb against it for a couple seconds, and the door clicked. I opened the locker, finding all the books I was going to need for the semester already stacked neatly in there, as they were for everyone. My finger moved along them until I found the one for Calculus, pulling it out before tucking the book under my arm. 

Shiori was nodding, finding her own locker to open it. “Uh huh, he’s in the back yard with Salten. I think he really likes it here.” With a little smile, she glanced toward me while adding, “He liked it at the camp too, with all the kids. I can’t believe how much he likes being around people.” She had her own calculus book out by then, shutting her locker with a quiet, “Maybe it’s because he had to hide for so long before, back at Crossroads. He got really lonely in his pocket world.” 

Reaching out to catch her hand, I assured the girl, “Well hey, he’s here now. And I think he and Salten are really getting along.” With that, I glanced over to Avalon, who had closed her own locker to join us. “Though we should probably put some stuff out in the yard for them to do.” 

The others agreed, and we walked toward class with Aylen. Sands and Sarah were just outside the room, talking to Eiji Ueda and Gordon. The big (huge, he was six and a half feet tall and built like a truck) Canadian-Asian boy looked over as we approached. “Oh hey, I ahh, hope you guys don’t mind. Rebecca said it’d be okay if Raphael chilled in your backyard with your buddies.” 

Raphael, of course, was Eiji’s cyberform rhino. As far as I could tell, he and Eiji were almost perfectly matched. Both were enormous, but also incredibly smart. Eiji read very nearly as much as Vanessa did, and was just about as likely to know the answer to any given question. And, as far as I knew, he was a totally normal Heretic-born student. Aside from the fact that he was from Canada, which apparently was some kind of big deal. There was a so-called ‘King of Canada’ there that Heretics stayed away from. Even the Committee left him alone, which… yeah, that confused, intrigued, and worried me all at the same time. I’d been promised that we’d learn about the King soon, and that was something I was definitely looking forward to. Just who and what was this King of Canada that he could make all of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden too afraid to challenge him? 

Avalon told the boy it was fine and that Raphael could visit any time. The more those guys were entertained, the better. Porthos, who was riding on her shoulder, make a sound of agreement before using her hair to swing over to the opposite shoulder, landing there while pointing to the classroom with a trumpeting sound. 

“You know this is math class, right?” Avalon dryly asked the cyberform gecko while heading in. “Not dueling class.” 

Shiori went in behind Avalon. But before I could follow as well, Sarah spoke up, taking my attention. “Brom says he’ll meet us in one of the magic testing labs up here tonight right after dinner for the next session. If you’ll be settled in enough by then.” 

Right, Sarah had actually been working with Brom too. Necromancy was a lot harder to learn without inheriting (or stealing) an actual power for it, but it was still possible. At least, learning the basic stuff was possible. Sarah had said that she wanted to learn as much as she could, because knowing how to do something was a big step toward knowing how to undo it. That and she had this whole thing about being prepared for every eventuality. 

It was that thought that made me glance toward her left arm. Even though it had been almost two months, the thought that it wasn’t a real arm at all, but a magitech solid hologram of one still made me do a double-take every now and then. It looked real. It felt real. I tended to forget the truth unless I was actively thinking about it, or whenever she shifted it to one of its other forms.

“Sure,” I finally replied, shrugging. “I’ve gotta ask him some questions anyway.” Questions about getting a certain ghost back so I could talk to her and get some actual help with my own increasingly pressing necromancer problem. It was clearly time to think outside the box with this whole thing. 

“Sorry, guys,” Sands informed us, “I still think the whole necromancy thing is creepy. I mean, I get it. Useful, gotta know it to fight it, don’t throw away any potential advantage. I just… yeesh.” 

“Does this mean Sarah doesn’t get to store her rodent practice corpses in your house?” I teased, watching Sands turn several different shades of green before snickering. 

“Outside,” she informed me (and Sarah, probably). “All necromancy stuff has to be done outside. And especially nowhere near the kitchen.” 

All three of us shuddered, collectively remembering the fact that Crossroads’ chef had, for some time last year, been a zombie manipulated by Fossor. That was… an unpleasant thought, to say the least. 

“Okay,” I started with a quick headshake. “Now that we’re all thinking about something we really don’t want to, how about we get into class? I hear Calculus is really fun.

“Of course, it was Vanessa who told me that, so…” 

******* 

“Welcome!” a voice called grandly, its deep baritone filling the air, “to the Trials of the Sea!”

The place for our second class wasn’t technically an actual ‘sea’, though only because it technically wasn’t connected to an ocean. Size-wise, it almost might as well have been. It was a lake located within the station itself. Only in this case, the lake was about the size of Lake Superior back in the US. In other words, it was three hundred and fifty miles long and about a hundred and fifty miles wide. 

It was a lake… on a space station… three hundred miles long. I just… I couldn’t even fathom the size of this place. I really couldn’t. Someone back in Calculus had brought up how much room the station was taking up in the sun and Eiji had reminded them that over a million Earths could fit in the sun. It would take one point three million Earths to fill up the entire sun. This station, even with a lake this size in it, only amounted to a drop in the bucket if that bucket was the size of Texas. 

The point was, there was a lot more to the station than just the areas we were generally staying in. We’d had to take a portal to get down here, and I was sure there were more parts of this place that other teachers would have us use at some point. That or we’d end up around them for one reason or another. 

We were also on a boat. A ship. Right, ship was the proper term. I knew that much. It was an old wooden sailing vessel floating along in the middle of that lake. The portal had deposited all of us out here. And by all of us, that was about thirty students. Not everyone had every class at the same time, of course. There were way too many students for that. Of the ones here with me, I had Shiori (Avalon was in a different class this time), Jazz, Jason, Tristan, Triss, Miranda, and Koren. 

The man who was talking stood just a hair over six feet in height. His frame was muscular in a lean sort of way. His black silk pants were loose, billowing slightly in the artificial breeze. He wore a white and gold silk shirt with some ruffles to it, and the exposed skin of his arms (the shirt was sleeveless) and chest (the top few buttons were undone) was heavily tanned over skin that was already a natural Middle Eastern dark. His black hair was long, falling just past his shoulders, and he had both a goatee and a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes were the only openly unusual part of him (aside from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous in every way), considering they were a deep, striking gold color. 

Koren had her hand up. When the man looked that way, she asked, “Err, why is it called that? Why are we on a boat? And who are you?” Ticking them off on her fingers, she paused before nodding definitively. “I guess that’ll work for the first three questions.” 

Giving her a smile that was a mixture of gold, silver, and ruby teeth, our instructor casually replied, “And a good first three they are, Miss Fellows. I’m not just saying that because your mother’s the principal either.” With a wink, he started, “As for why we’re on a boat, that’s because every class we have will take place here or right down in the water. Or under it. Be it in this station’s water, one of the Earth’s oceans, or even the seas of a whole new world, our classes this semester will always take place there. Not in a classroom. In my experience, you learn by doing. And we will be doing a lot.” 

With a broad (very metallic) smile, the man waved a hand. “And we’ll do it in style! While having fun. Because I promise you all, having lived as long as I have, if you’re not having fun, then why the hell even bother?” 

Turning, he grabbed the nearby rope and used it to haul himself up onto the nearby railing. The man stood there, staring out over the water with a heavy, contented sigh. “The oceans are a great mystery, boys and girls and everything in between. They are rough and harsh and gentle and loving. They are dark, they are open, they are cold and they burn with the fires of a thousand, thousand, thousand mysteries. Monsters and creatures beyond your wildest imaginations and your deepest nightmares lurk there, along with wonders you could never conceive. Entire civilizations lay beneath the waves of all the oceans of the Earth. Worlds of mystery and fascination, of monsters and fables are all out there. And we will find them. We will see them. We will seek them out, explore them, and learn all the secrets I can teach you. You stay with this class and I will take you beyond all of your dreams. We will find the monsters and our fortunes in the world far beyond the land. Beyond both in distance, and in mystery.” 

“You asked who I am, and that is your answer. For all the times I have put the ocean behind me, it has never lasted. Because its power and mystery will forever call to me. The danger and wonder of what lies beneath the next wave, or beyond the next island, is one that I can never truly ignore for long. It is everything I am. It is everything I will ever be. 

“I am Sinbad, and I am here to show such wondrous things.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next morning, just as the simulated sun came up (if it was the real sun poking through, we’d all be dead), I was out jogging around the neighborhood. There were others who were up and moving around already, some of them waving to me or talking a bit. But mostly, I was left with my own thoughts. Which was how I wanted it. We were going to be busy in classes soon enough. For this short time, I really needed to clear my head somewhat so I could focus. Running helped with that. I could mindlessly jog along the sidewalk, letting my mind wander.

The night before, Tabbris and I had tried again to summon or contact Rahanvael’s ghost. But it hadn’t amounted to anything. We put the call out and she didn’t answer. I’d try again until she did, but I had to admit that it was a little disheartening to get absolutely no response for so long. 

It didn’t matter. I’d keep trying until we pulled her in again. If she was for real, and judging by everything the best magic-inclined people I could find could determine, she was, then she was the biggest chance I had to find out something useful about Fossor before the time limit was up. 

I was going to look for more necromancy books, and ask Brom where I might find some that were useful as far as calling to ghosts from other worlds and possibly anchoring them here on Earth went. It was yet another project to work on, but a really important one.  

Pretty soon, it would be time to head to breakfast with the others. So, I started looping back around to head for home. As I plucked the bottle of water from my belt and took a sip, a nearby whistle caught my attention. Turning while slipping the cap back on the bottle, I saw a tall, caucasian boy with long, bright red (clearly unnaturally dyed or magically colored) hair. He was leaning against a tree. Nearby on that same tree, a cyberform owl perched, head turned toward me. The boy waved, making it clear I was the one he was trying to get the attention of. 

As soon as I took a step that way, he started with, “Holy shit, I am so sorry. That was stupid. Whistling, I wasn’t… I mean, I wasn’t trying to… you know, whistle like that. I was trying to get your attention, but not with the–you were running and all and it wasn’t–shit. Yeah. Sorry.” 

Blinking at that, I shook my head. “It’s okay, I can kinda tell the difference between ‘hey, you’ whistles and… that kind of whistle. Don’t worry about it. Um. I don’t think we’ve met, though.” 

“We haven’t,” he confirmed. “My name’s Gambol. Well, that’s my Garden name anyway. Not sure if we’re still supposed to use them or… whatever, it’s better than my real name, trust me.”  

“Gamble?” I echoed curiously. “Where’d that come from, are you really into cards or Vegas or something? Or are you from Vegas? Cuz I have a lot of questions about that place.” 

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No, not that kind of gamble. Gambol, b-o-l. And… why do I always correct people on that? The version they assume is so much cooler.” With a sigh, he informed me, “Gambol, it means to… eeeehhhh… frolic around. You know, skip and play.” 

Covering my mouth, I coughed while giving him a look. “Your Garden name is basically ‘frolic’, and you actually correct people who think it’s the betting money version?” 

He raised his arms, spreading them out helplessly. “I know, right? You’d think I’d learn at some point.” Sighing once more, the boy rolled his eyes exaggeratedly before adding, “Anyway, now that you know my cool warrior name is all about dancing around in a field of flowers, possibly with a crown of daisies on my head, you’re Chambers, right? The girl that ahhh, Flick, was it?” 

“The girl that Flick, yup,” I confirmed. “That’s me. Why, what’s up?” I added the last bit curiously. 

“Well, first of all,” he started after a brief hesitation, “you totally helped erase that damn spell that made everyone forget genocide might be a bad thing. So thanks for that. It’s actually… kinda nice to know that there’s good people out there besides humans. Cuz the other way is ummm, pretty lonely if you think about it for a second. Size of the universe and everything else is evil?”

“There’s plenty of evil things,” I murmured before nodding. “But yeah, everyone besides humans being monsters who want to kill us all does seem like a pretty lonely way of thinking. But really, it was Gaia who did most of the work. She had the idea, she set up the spell and everything. All I did was follow her instructions. Hell, I didn’t even remember doing it at the time. She took it out of my memory so I wouldn’t think about what I was doing and give it away.” 

“She uhh, she’s still a prisoner, right?” He sounded hesitant. “The old Crossroads Headmistress? That’s what people keep saying anyway. Some people said she died back during that escape, but mostly they say your Committee is keeping her locked up somewhere.”  

“Unfortunately,” I replied with a slight nod. “They’re working on it, but… the Committee’s got her locked down pretty tight. Obviously. Especially after that attack we made on the prison a couple months ago. I mean, she wasn’t there to begin with, but after that they really went hardcore in keeping her secure. Last I heard, they had her prison off-planet and it keeps moving around.”

“Shit, they really don’t want anyone getting her out,” the boy muttered before shaking himself. “Err, yeah, sorry. Probably none of my business. Hope you get her back though. And not just because she’d be really useful.” Again, he hesitated, looking awkward for a moment before heaving a sigh. “Right, the real reason I wanted to talk was to umm, to apologize for my sister.”  

Well, that was unexpected. Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry? Who’s your sister and why are you apologizing for her?” I was trying to think of any girl Garden student I had a problem with. The only one who came to mind immediately was Pace, and that was before we knew she was possessed (and we’d even settled things with Theia). Plus, she was Latina and he was white.

“Oh, right, you haven’t… I mean I don’t think you…” Wincing, Gambol gave a vague gesture. “It’s actually your friends… or… whatever they are who met her. Miranda and Karen?” 

“Koren,” I corrected. “So your sister did something to Miranda and Koren? I don’t–wait…” Something was tickling my memory when he mentioned that, something I tried to repress.

“Yeeaaaah,” he drawled reluctantly. “But trust me, you’re the one who deserves the apology. My sister’s name is Josie. She and her boyfriend and his other girlfriend Kumiko were sort of…” 

“Oh my God.” My face was red by that point. “They’re the ones that–I mean she was the one that– Oh God.” Right, I knew who Josie was now. Koren and Miranda had mentioned that there was some trio at Garden, the jackass named Weston (whose Uncle had nearly killed Pace before Roxa finished him off) and his two girlfriends. Two girlfriends who happened to be very deliberately fashioning themselves to look like parody versions of Shiori and me for… reasons that made me seriously want to saw open my head and fill my brain with bleach for thinking of.

Wincing when he saw that I’d realized what he was talking about, Gambol offered, “Yeah, like I said, sorry. She used to be a pretty good person, I swear. Then she fell in with that Weston creep and keeps getting worse. I don’t know how he convinces her to do half the shit he does, it’s just… it’s dumb and I’ve tried to talk to her but she won’t listen. Which… I know people have to make their own choices, but she’s sort of my twin and I feel responsible for the shit she does.”

My head shook. “Don’t worry about it. Yeah, it’s pretty freaking gross. But I seriously have a lot bigger things to focus on. So… whatever. I’m gonna guess that she didn’t come with you?”  

“Hell no,” he confirmed. “Believe me, we had a whole fight about it and everything. I tried to drag her away, which… in retrospect, was pretty stupid. She’d never have stayed, and they probably would have sent her back anyway as soon as they realized they couldn’t trust her. But still.” His voice trailed off at the end, as he looked to the ground with a sigh. 

“She’s your sister and you wanted to get her out of there,” I finished for him. “Not to mention getting her away from Weston. I get it. Maybe you’ll be able to talk her into it later.” 

“Here’s hoping,” he agreed before waving a hand. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that. You know, before anyone else happened to bring it up. So yeah, I hope you can get Gaia out of prison.” 

“And I hope you can talk your sister back to her senses,” I replied. “Not only because her cosplay bullshit makes me feel super, incredibly, unbelievably gross, but also because she’s your sister. So good luck.”

“Thanks.” Giving a little wave, he stepped back. “I’ll let you get back to your run. And ahh, probably see you in class at some point, I guess.” 

With a wave, I headed off once more, moving a little faster than before. Yeah, I needed to shower before breakfast. 

And not just from the run. 

******

After cleaning up and having breakfast with some of the others in the kitchen, I headed out with Tabbris. The two of us got to the elevator before I squeezed her hand. “You ready for this, partner?” Even though I’d known it was coming, the idea of separating to go to different classes only really struck me just then. This was more than just doing separate things for awhile like we’d done during the summer. This would be the first time since I was a kid that I would regularly be going to school without someone riding shotgun in my head. Even if I hadn’t actually known about her for most of that time, there was still something big about that. 

It wasn’t just me, either. Tabbris looked my way as we stood by the elevator and gave a hesitant nod, gulping. “I umm… I think so?” she offered weakly, clutching my hand tightly. “I kept thinking it was a long time away, y-you know? Even yesterday. I was thinking it’d never get here. This morning, it felt like… it felt like it’d never really happen. But it did. We’re here, and… and…” 

“Don’t worry, sis,” I assured her. “You’ll be great. And then we’ll have stories to share.” Offering my fist for her to bump, I added pointedly, “Besides, it’s not fair for me to hog all your awesome for myself. Hell, I’m pretty sure it’s not even physically possible, you know? That’d be like trying to hold all the heat of a volcano. And, well, it’s not like you’ll be alone up there.” 

Her head bobbed a bit. “I know. There’s the other kids up there. Like Richton and Meley.” 

“Well, them for sure,” I agreed before reaching into my pocket. “But you’ll also have someone else to help make sure everyone’s safe.” Producing Herbie, I held the rock out for her.  

Eyes widening, Tabs shook her head quickly. “What? I can’t take him. You–he’s yours.” 

“He’s ours,” I insisted. “And he can take turns keeping us safe. This is your first time going to class by yourself. If I can’t be there with you, he can. Trust me, he’ll make sure everything’s okay. You carry him this week, I’ll carry him next week.” Smiling, I pressed him into her hand. 

Hand closing around our incredible, handsome, daring and brilliant bodyguard, Tabbris gave me a solemn nod. Her voice was a very quiet, somewhat shaky whisper. “Thanks, Flick.” 

In response, I embraced her. “I love you, little sister. We’ll meet at lunch, okay?” 

Returning the hug as tightly as she could, Tabbris nodded against my shoulder. “Uh huh,” she murmured before adding a quiet. “I love you too, Flick.” 

We separated, just in time for the elevator we were waiting on to arrive. And it wasn’t empty. The forcefield lowered, revealing two people whose ears were probably burning right then. It was Richton and Meley. Plus, Kisea and Demeas were with them. The four young Seosten blurted both our names, before Meley sprang over to embrace Tabbris with a happy meep. 

“That’s funny,” I teased the others, “I didn’t know you guys had your classes down here.” 

Demeas, who somehow looked even more like a miniature viking than he had before (despite being too young to have a beard) by apparently putting on a little more muscle over the past few months, shook his head quickly while retorting, “We came to bring Tabbris to class!” 

“And what class is that?” I asked while giving the boy a look up and down, “How to train a dragon?” 

The red-haired boy’s eyes widened dramatically as he blurted, “You know how to train dragons?!” That, of course, got the attention of the others, as well as some people passing by to use the elevators. 

Feeling a slight flush touch my face before using my power to shift it away self-consciously, I corrected, “No, no, it was just a joke. I was referencing a–never mind. We’ll show you the movies later. Shouldn’t be that hard now that we’re on Earth. Or, well, close enough.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “You all set then, Tabs?” 

She gave me a brief, hesitant look before nodding. “See you at lunch?” Her voice was hopeful. 

“Definitely at lunch, partner.” Giving her a thumbs up, I waved them off. “Go on, have some fun, learn things, do whatever you’re supposed to. I’ll muddle through school all by myself.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Jaq and Gus to each crawl up out of my backpack. They perched on either of my shoulders, shooting me betrayed looks. 

“Ah, hey boys.” Reaching up carefully with either hand to rub their heads, I pointed out, “I know you’re here, but you can’t cheat and give me the test answers inside my head.” 

Indignantly, Tabbris blurted, “I never did that!” 

“And see where we are now?” I primly retorted before winking. “Go on. We’ll be fine. You and Herbie go show everyone else how awesome you are.” 

With a still-hesitant but somewhat better wave, Tabbris set off back up the elevator with the others. I stood there, waving up at them for a few long seconds before pausing with my arm up. Head tilting, I squinted after the departing elevator. “Wait, shit, I’ve gotta use the elevator too. What the hell am I doing?” 

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice called, “why are you waving at the elevator?” 

Turning, I looked over as she, Doug, Aylen, and that Ruckus guy (the Alter who looked like several metal slinkies all stuck together, with eyes that were glowing red orbs poking out of the head slinky) approached. “Oh, sure,” I sniffed, “I’m Flick when we’re being all friendly and stuff, but Chambers when I look ridiculous.” 

“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” she replied coolly, though she was unable to stop the slight smile that quirked her lips upward for a moment while trying to keep her voice flat.

One who didn’t make the slightest attempt to keep his voice flat was Ruckus, who basically launched himself my way. He didn’t literally crash into me, thankfully. He just bounced forward, practically flying into the air from his slinky-like feet and legs (which apparently acted like springs), traveling the fifteen feet or so that separated us in an instant before landing in front of me. The metal coils that were his arms popped up, some kind of metal fingers that amounted to smaller, tightly wound springs extending to take my hand with both of his. He was shaking it up and down rapidly. When he spoke, it all came out in a rush. It was like every sentence came as one word, with breath pauses only between those sentences. “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! It’ssogoodtomeetyou! Iknowhoyouare! You’reJoselynAtherby’sdaughteroroneofthem! That’sawesomemydadusedtobepartoftherebellion! NowheisagainIguessandIgettocomehere!” 

Stepping up beside him, Doug put a hand on the coil-boy’s shoulder. Or what there was of one. “Easy, Ruckus. Remember what we said? Slow it down a little bit.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured them, looking back to Ruckus. “Your dad was part of the old rebellion?” 

His head bobbed up and down very fast, creating the sound of metal coils rapidly clanking against each other before he added a quick, “Heremembersyourmomnowandwantedmetosayhehopesyoufindher.” 

Swallowing, I offered him a little nod. “I hope we find her too. Tell your dad thanks, and I’m glad he made it back. Does that mean Alters are remembering the rebellion too?” The spell from Gaia hadn’t specifically targeted them. Targeting Heretics through the Edge had been hard enough. 

It was Aylen who answered. “When the Rebellion eraser spell was broken for the Heretics, it damaged it enough for everyone else that it’s been fading for months.” 

“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured. “Asenath and Twister started remembering things right after they interacted with me. So it must’ve been kind of flimsy that way.” 

The elevator arrived, and we stepped on to head up for breakfast. On the way, Sovereign, from his spot on Aylen’s shoulder, made a soft, pointed noise. 

“Oh yeah,” the half-Reaper girl started, “I got word from my mothers. They’re finally on their way back from whatever they were doing. They should be home in a couple days. So if you guys are ready to meet them…” 

“Ready?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow toward her. “Of course we’re ready to meet your family.” 

She met my gaze while the elevator reached the top of its ascent. “No, you’re really not,” the girl informed me. 

“But it should be fun anyway.” 

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Fusion 1-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: check the first comment after the chapter for some fantastic new character art by Coshiua. 

We rode the elevator (well, I called it an elevator, it was more like a mobile forcefield with glowing walls that surrounded us) down toward the living areas in groups of about ten or so. The people who would be living together in each house. In this case, our group consisted of Avalon, Shiori, Rebecca, Miranda, Columbus, Doug, and me along with that Jason/Danuja guy (the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic), the Relekun Kersel, and the cat-girl Triss. Not to mention Salten and Choo.

Tabbris was here too. She’d be living with us, while going to school in her own group. It was a deal we’d come up with. Our dad and a few others thought that Tabbris should have a chance to be with people closer to her own age some more. But they also knew that separating us would be a bad idea. So we came to an arrangement that she would live with us and also attend some of our classes and training (as well as participating in missions she could help with), but attend most of her classes with the younger groups. She was basically far beyond what they would be learning, of course, but Abigail and Dad both said she could benefit from being around people her own age at least for a semester. After the semester, if she really didn’t like it, they’d revisit the situation. 

Staring down through the forcefield floor, Rebecca murmured, “Holy crap. There’s a whole town down there. Look at all those houses. And… wait, are those other places over there more living areas?” 

“It’s like the spokes of a wheel,” I explained, watching as we descended toward the hill in the middle of the area gradually (I was pretty sure the elevator had been purposefully slowed down to give each group a chance to see where they would be living). “Each spoke is a different general city type. See those cliff dwellings over there to the left of the human area with the giant… uhh, bug people flying around?” I indicated the mosquito-like beings with humanoid faces. “They’re called the Teun. They helped build this whole place. They’re like… really good at architecture and design. And to the right, that place that looks like the volcano area of a video game with the red canine-people? Those are the… umm… Tabs?” 

“Lupera,” she reminded me. “They’re miners from the same world the Akharu and Vestil come from.” 

Right, the Akharu (the original source of vampires, like Senny’s dad), Vestil, and Lupera all came from the same world, along with one more sapient race. There was something about a war on their world between all of them, the Akharu won some kind of ‘throne’ or something that made them unbelievably powerful, but then the Vestil cursed them so they had to replace all their blood constantly or they’d freeze up and become paralyzed. It was a whole thing. 

The elevator was almost down by then, and I quickly pointed before it was too late. “Anyway, we’ve got the modern Earth neighborhood right over there. See, each block is rectangular. Sixteen houses per block. Two next to each at either end for four on the ends. Then six more down each side, back to back, with a little walking park or garden area in the middle. There’s six blocks, all arranged in a hexagon, with the streets along both sides and a bigger park in the middle. See that big building right in the center of the park area? There’s a gym there, and a theater for watching movies and stuff.”

Six blocks with sixteen houses per block. Ninety-six houses. Roughly ten people per house, equalled nine hundred and sixty people in this school. Well, that many that were considered old enough to live in separate housing rather than the younger student dorms. And it was closer to a thousand. A thousand college-aged students, divided between Alters, Natural Heretics, and Crossroads or Garden students. This was… gonna be a trip and a half. 

By then, we were down. As we all stepped away from the elevator, Triss spoke up. “Wow, did you live here before or something?” There was a faint Russian accent to her voice. When I looked that way, her ears flattened a bit against her head and she took what seemed to be a reflexive step backward. She didn’t pop her claws or anything like that, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t take all that much. Whatever had gone on in her past, she was incredibly wary of Heretics. Which I didn’t blame her for, even if it made me wonder exactly why she had agreed to come and live with us. Maybe it was just part of getting past those fears or finding out if we were serious about making things right? I wasn’t sure. 

I did, however, know that I needed to be careful about how I acted around her. And around Kersel too, for that matter. The Relukun boy was watching me just as suspiciously. So, I simply nodded. “Yeah, I ahh, spent some time out in Seosten space. A few weeks or so. It’s a long story, believe me.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Jason asked, “Wait, so you just… lived in Seosten space for awhile? You weren’t a…” He looked me up and down, clearly trying to come up with the best word for it. 

“A slave?” I shook my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that. Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is that me and some others ended up out in Seosten space, then Tabbris and I got separated from them, Athena found us, and we stayed here while waiting for the rest of our group out there. Eventually, we made it back here to Earth.” 

Shiori piped up, “And by eventually, she means after years and years and years–” 

“Or a couple months,” I corrected with a little smile, taking the other girl’s hand briefly. “Months that felt like years.” 

“Felt like centuries,” she retorted, giving me a look that made me blush. 

“I… ahhh…” I coughed, trying to collect myself. Glancing to the smirking Avalon didn’t help. Nor did the sound that Salten made, which sounded awfully suspiciously like an outright snicker. “Um. Anyway, Tabs was there too.” Gently nudging the smaller blonde girl at my side, I prompted, “She’s the one with the perfect memory, if you ever need to know where anything is.” 

Bouncing a bit beside me, Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, it’s a really big space station. We have to take that elevator up to go to class every day. And for food, if you don’t make it in the house. Chef Gisby is a super good cook. He’ll make anything you want.”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “Gisby likes it when you make things a challenge. His memory is just as good as a Seosten, and he’s put basically all of it toward memorizing every recipe in the universe. If he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, just describe it and he can get close.” 

With a chuckle, Jason spoke up. “Sounds like a Natural Gordon Ramsay Heretic. Wait, is he…” 

“He’s–” I started before pausing. “I don’t know what species he is. But he’s definitely not human. Don’t worry, you’ll see him pretty soon. Probably for dinner tonight, I’m sure he’s got his people busy getting ready for that.”  

“He does, indeed,” Professor Dare agreed. She had teleported down ahead of us rather than use the elevator, and now approached with a raised hand. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s go see your new house and get you settled in while the next group comes down.” 

That was another reason for the elevator to be moving slowly. Not only did it give the group aboard a chance to see what they were coming down into, it also gave the group that had just arrived time to be taken to their house and shown where to go. Dare wasn’t the only one showing us around (there were a couple other elevators full of students that were also being escorted by staff), but it spread out the arrivals just enough. 

Glancing up as we started to watch, I saw the next forcefield lift start to descend. Sands and Scout would be on that one. Err, Sands and Sarah. Yeah, she was trying to go by Sarah more nowadays, even if it was hard to remember. She preferred Sarah in a normal, casual setting and Scout on missions or in official training, but still answered to either whenever. Mostly it was interchangeable, which was still a pretty big step for her from the way she’d been when we first met… a year ago (Jeez that still felt weird to think). I was trying to remember to think of her as Sarah whenever possible, because that was what she wanted to go by. And I understood that. 

Not only was Scout going by Sarah, but both the twins and their mother weren’t going by Mason anymore either. They were using Larissa’s maiden name of Lucas. Yeah. Scout Mason was now Sarah Lucas. Weird, I know. Sands, of course, was still Sands. I was pretty sure nothing in this universe would make her start going by Sandoval more often. 

Either way, Sands and Sarah were in the group behind us and would be taking the house right next door. Vanessa and Tristan were living there too, for two sets of twins, along with Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, and Harper’s old teammate Eiji. The tenth member of their group was a boy called Ruckus, an Alter who seemed to be made entirely of hundreds of metal coils, like a… like a Slinky. Or several of them. Yeah. His legs were a pair of big slinkies, along with his arms, with a slinky in the middle for his body and a head that was basically a slinky set onto its side with the ends connecting. His eyes were two glowing red orbs that seemed to peek out from between the vertical coils of his head. 

Jokai was there too, making their house one of the ones that had eleven people. Mostly because Jazz wasn’t going to live anywhere without him.  

As for our group, we followed Professor Dare through the street, passing a couple other houses where students who had already been brought down were looking over their new places and getting settled in. A few looked over as we passed, calling out greetings or just watching. But most of them were busy moving in or just getting to know each other. I could see Alters and humans alike staring at one another. Some were more comfortable than others, but it was even more clear that this whole thing was going to be a big… adjustment for everyone. 

Eventually, we reached the house we would be staying in. It was the third house down from the corner on the second block. The place was a two-story Colonial-style house, painted white with a dark red front door. There was a wide, spacious front porch lined by a knee-high white railing, set between taller pillars both at the corners and on either side of the front door to leave an opening. The same was duplicated above on another porch that wrapped around the second floor, though there was no opening in the railing there. There were four large bay windows in the front, two on the first floor on either side of the house, and two right above them. The roof was slanted, with several spots that stuck out from it with rectangular windows. The attic. 

Dare was already walking up to the front door, waving for it to open. As we trooped up the steps to the porch after her, she explained. “Four bedrooms on the first floor. See the two big windows there? There’s the same thing in the back. Two bedrooms in the front, two bedrooms in the back. That goes for the upstairs too. If you come in here…”

We followed her in (Choo and Salten waited outside along with most of our bags that we left sitting there), and found ourselves all standing in an entrance hall. The floor was wood, the walls pleasant but simple white, with a couple of nondescript paintings. To the left and right were doors to the front bedrooms. The corridor itself continued on past two more doors on either side. Those doors were open, and looking in as we passed revealed bathrooms. Big ones. 

“As with the bedrooms,” Dare explained, “the two bathrooms are repeated upstairs. Four total.”

Then we reached two open archways on either side rather than doors. The left archway led into a large living area with TV and game stuff. The right archway lead to a pleasant-looking kitchen and dining room with a window overlooking a small garden and the house next door. 

Just past the two archways was a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, with a door next to them. According to Dare, that led to the basement, where a laundry room and small gym were. 

“On the second floor,” she explained, “there is a library of sorts above the living room, and a magic testing room above the kitchen. It’s heavily protected, but it is still only to be used for relatively minor magic practice. Anything bigger or more extensive must be done in the designated training area upstairs. And by upstairs, I mean through the elevator into the rest of the station.”

Finally, we reached the doors leading to the back bedrooms on either side, and the rear door. It led to the rear side of the porch, just above a fenced off back yard. 

With an uncertain voice, Triss raised a hand. “I don’t understand. There are ten of us, but you have only pointed out eight bedrooms. I mean, I’m not the best at math, but eight is fewer than ten.”

Dare nodded. “Yes, there are two more bedrooms in the attic. The living space up there is slightly more limited, but with only two bedrooms, they’re about the same size as the ones down here.”

Doug raised his hand. “So, are you guys assigning bedrooms, or what?”

With a smile, Dare gave a slight shake of her head. “Nope, figuring that all out is part of your first job as housemates. We’ll step in if we need to at any point that people in a house can’t agree, but let’s try to work it out amongst yourselves. Similarly, we will not be patrolling who stays in what bed. You’re all either over eighteen or very close to it.” Her eyes flicked briefly to me with a certain tenseness before she pushed on. “You are all essentially adults, and we will treat you as such so long as you do not give us reason not to. Everyone gets a bedroom. What you do with that bedroom is up to you.

“Now, I believe you all have some exploring to do to can stake out what rooms you want. I need to go get the next group. If you have any questions, let us know. Otherwise, there is food in the kitchen for lunch and we’ll see you at dinner. Good luck.”

With that, she left, and the eleven of us stood there in the corridor looking at each other for a few long, quiet seconds. No one really seemed to know what to say first. Which was weird, considering most of us knew each other pretty well, except for Jason, Triss, and Kersel. 

Finally, Miranda clapped her hands. “Right, okay. So, unless anyone else has any better idea, I was thinking we’d write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat or something. Then we can walk by each room and take out a name. That person gets that room.”

Kersel lifted his wooden head a bit. “Sure you don’t have some kind of paper manipulating power to get anything you want?” It sounded like one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke at all, but more of a challenge. Yeah, this was going to be interesting. 

Before Miranda could say anything to that, Rebecca quickly spoke up. “The rooms are all the same, no one’s going to care enough to start cheating or anything. We’re just dividing them up faster.”

With a broad smile, Jason put a hand on the Relukun boy’s back. “Yeah, buddy. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fair. So let’s do this, I’d kinda like to stow my stuff.”

We did. Following Miranda’s suggestion, we pulled names from a pot that we found in the kitchen, matching everyone to a bedroom. In the end, the four downstairs bedrooms went to Rebecca and Shiori in the front, and Columbus and Miranda in the back. Upstairs were Avalon and Jason in the front, and Triss and Doug in the back. Kersel and I were in the attic. 

The stairs leading up to the attic were in the middle of the second floor corridor, basically right as you came off the stairs from the first floor. You just kept walking up the next set. The attic had a large open area at the top of the stairs, with only two spots set out for bedrooms, one at the front and one at the back. They were apparently more narrow than the other bedrooms, but wider, taking up the whole front or back wall respectively. There was also a single bathroom directly between the two rooms, but other than that, it was all empty. I wasn’t sure what this large open space in the rest of the attic was for, considering it was big enough to have a whole dance competition in. Maybe we were supposed to figure out what to do with it ourselves, or something.

Either way, Tabbris and I nodded to Kersel, who gave a polite, yet clearly dismissive bow of his head before heading into his own room. Which left the two of us standing there. 

“Well,” I started, “let’s go in and check out our new room, huh?”

I opened the bedroom door and stepped inside what turned out to indeed be a pretty spacious room, though one that was, again, much wider than it was deep. There was just enough room from the entrance to the wall for the large bed to be set in (with the head against the wall and the foot facing the door) while leaving space to walk past it to reach either side. On the other hand, as promised, there was plenty of width to the room to make up for the lack of depth. To the left of the bed was a dresser and a desk with a computer already waiting, along with a smaller dresser to the right. There was room on that right-hand side for Tabbris’s bed, once we let Dare know where she was staying. So, she’d have furniture of her own. And I was going to see about getting a couple of those privacy screens installed like they had at Crossroads so we could both have our own me-time. I wanted Tabbris to know this was her room too, as much as mine, and that she had every right to her own privacy. 

“Huh, not bad, huh?” I asked while stepping over to look out one of the three windows spaced along the width of the room. We were in the back, so the view looked out over the yard, and leaning over a bit allowed me to see next door. Eiji’s cyber-rhino was already there, making noises at Salten and Choo, who were investigating him through the fence. 

Tabs bobbed her head quickly. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. And umm… tonight, we try the thing again?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “tonight we try again. 

“And this time, hopefully I can keep Fossor’s sister here long enough to get something useful out of her.”

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Fusion 1-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

This is the first chapter of Year Two of Heretical Edge. If you need to see the first year’s table of contents, check right here. To start with chapter one of the Year One, go here

The bruised, battered, yet still handsome man smiled through the blood that coated his rugged face. His voice was worn and haggard. “That’s the thing. See, a gun’s like a politician. There’s good ones, bad ones, they should all be kept away from children, and… just when you think they’re completely empty…”  Abruptly, his hand snapped up with the pistol, slamming it into his attacker’s face hard enough to knock several teeth out. “They still make an impression.” 

The thug fell backward, while Lou Devereux caught the pistol that fell from his hand, spinning with this actually loaded weapon to begin firing at the men surrounding him before they could react. At the same time, he was hurling himself up and over the nearby counter, taking cover even as those who were left frantically began to shoot back. The music, which had quieted for the long-time action hero to give his line, suddenly launched into a pounding, frantic rock song for the scene. 

It was really too bad there was no one in the theater who was in any condition to enjoy it. I’m sure it was a really great action scene. But we were… sort of stuck in the middle of our own. 

“Flick!” Sands shouted from one side of the theater near the entrance. Even as she called out, the brunette girl was hurling a rock up and over the seats, down toward the screen. 

“I got it!” I shot back, using a very small burst from my staff to launch myself up on top of the seats from where I was. Landing with one foot on the back of one seat and the other foot on another, I threw myself that way, leaping from seat to seat to catch up with the thrown rock as it arced lazily up and over. It descended, too far away from me still. But my staff lashed out, and I extended the length of it to about twice normal, hitting the rock like it was a ball to send it the rest of the way toward a figure running for the emergency exit. The rock passed just over their shoulder, crashing into the door before the spell on it triggered, expanding the rock into a full, huge boulder blocking the exit just in time.

In the next instant, still recovering from that swing as I balanced on the back of two seats, my head jerked backward to avoid the wild swing of a massive glaive. My attacker, springing up from where he had been crouched, snarled and spat angrily. He, like the figure I had just blocked from leaving, were Glerhns, which looked like a cross between a wolf, a pig, and a man. Shiori said these guys looked like furry Gamorreans, something from Star Wars. 

Whatever they looked like, this one was really pissed. He snarled something in his own native language and stabbed at me with his enormous glaive, trying to run me through. Or, more likely, trying to make me dodge backward right into the path of the second glaive already being very quietly swung at me by his buddy behind me. Even his snarled threat or curse or whatever was clearly intended to cover the sound of the other guy so I wouldn’t know he was there. 

But I did, thanks to the power that allowed me to sense items within my range. I sensed the weapon, the figure’s clothes and armor, all of it. I knew he was there. 

So, instead of dodging the way they wanted, I jerked my staff up and back with one hand, shrinking it back to normal size to intercept the glaive coming at me from behind. At the same time, my other hand snapped forward, conjuring a portal in front of myself. The glaive from the first Glerhn went through the portal and out the other end… right behind me. He stabbed his buddy right in the chest, both figures giving grunts of surprise (one with far more pain and blood involved). 

With one hand, I used my staff to smack the glaive out of the second Glerhn’s faltering grip after catching its swing. At the same, my finger found the button on the staff to send a cloud of sand out, which I directed straight into the first figure’s face. And not just any sand, this was suddenly superheated. Thousands of tiny grains of sand hot enough to burn through wood were hurled into his face, and the wolf-pig man lost any and all interest in attacking me for the moment. 

While he squealed and fell backward, I was already spinning around the other way. In mid-motion, I hopped backward off the top of the seat and landed smoothly on the sticky floor. My staff was already lashing out, the bladed end (thanks to Jaq, one of my cyberform mice) cutting straight through the stumbling figure’s throat to finish him off entirely. My gold aura flared up, but thanks to my Seosten partner and adopted little sister riding shotgun, I wasn’t fatally distracted by a rush of pleasure. 

At the same time, just as the blade end cut through that Glerhn, I triggered the grappling hook (also known as Gus) at the opposite end of the staff. The hook shot out, attached to an energy cable as it was driven through the chest of the stumbling first Glerhn, who was still screaming from the burning sand attacking his face. The hook went through him before retracting to yank the figure back toward me, Scorpion-style. As he stumbled and half-fell, my hand caught his arm and I was suddenly possessing him. 

He was panicked, terrified from the grapple sticking through his chest. Yet I also sensed everything he and his friends here had intended to do to the innocent Bystanders. They’d intended to do far worse than simply kill the humans they found here, so my sympathy for him was somewhat muted. Still, I shut him down, shoving the figure into unconsciousness while Tabbris scanned his mind for what we needed. He might’ve deserved to die for the things he did, but there was no need to be evil about it. He could just go to sleep and not wake up again. 

Hopping out of the figure a moment later, I finished him off for good with a quick slash of my empty hand as my fingernails grew as hard as steel to tear through his throat. He fell and wouldn’t get up again, bleeding out quickly from his throat just like his partner as my gold aura flared once more.

Then I sensed him, the last Glerhn lunging up from the seats behind me. Already, he was in mid-lunge with his glaive coming down in an overhead swing, moving too fast for me to turn or raise my weapon. 

So, I didn’t move at all. Instead, I focused on the first dead figure on the floor, sending a single command of defend! In response, the deceased Glerhn lunged back to his feet while lashing out with his own weapon. The sudden attack from his dead friend took the living figure completely by surprise. He’d been focused on lunging at me right up until the glaive went through his chest. He collapsed to the floor, and I released my necromantic control over the other body, allowing him to fall as well. 

Hey, you’re getting pretty good at that, Tabbris informed me excitedly. Mr. Bones is gonna be happy. Oh, and uhh, you got really, really minor strength boosts from those first two guys. Nothing too big. And that third guy made it so you can uhh, call back anything to your hand no matter how far away it is as long as you were holding it in the past… like, two or three seconds. 

Thanks, I sent back. I’m pretty sure that’ll end up being really useful at some point. 

My guys taken care of, I looked around quickly, just in case. But things seemed to be under control. The Glerhn who had been blocked from fleeing out the emergency exit by the magic boulder had tried to run for the exit on the opposite side of the room. Unfortunately for him, he’d been met by Avalon, who put him down, along with two others who had been waiting there for fleeing Bystanders back when they’d set up this death trap for innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, Sands was standing over another body near the entrance, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Doug at the opposite entrance, panting as he pulled the sword conjured from his pen out of the back of yet another Glerhn, who collapsed to the floor in a heap while the boy’s light turquoise aura flared to life. Finally, a glance up toward the projector room showed me Columbus giving a thumbs up to show that he’d dealt with the guys up there. 

“We’re good,” Avalon announced as she approached, pausing to touch her communication badge just to make absolutely sure of what she had just said. “Gerardo, we’re good?”   

There was a very brief pause, during which I held my breath. Then Sean’s voice came back (still sounding oddly old even after all the time that had passed since we rescued him from the Crossroads prison). “We’re good,” he confirmed. “All civilians are safe and accounted for.” 

His reply made me breathe out in relief. It had worked. This theater had been set up as a trap to let the Glerhn capture and… do very bad things to innocent civilians. We’d had to fight them, but we also didn’t want to get a bunch of civilians caught in the crossfire. So, I’d used the fact that I didn’t register as a Heretic until I used my powers to safely enter the theater without being noticed. I’d pretended to be looking for someone, making my way through the half-full theater while depositing dozens of coins that had been enchanted by Sean. On activation, they had transported everyone with a coin out of the room, sending them to a nearby park where head been waiting to make sure they arrived safely and without any unwanted visitors. Thanks to the Bystander Effect, their confusion would be quickly forgotten. I wasn’t sure what it would tell them, but hopefully they would eventually get to see the movie they’d come for.

Either way, they were safe and the Glerhn were down. So it was a win. And a bigger win than that, considering–

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts as she, Sands, and Doug approached. “You get it?” 

Smiling a little, I stowed my staff away with a nod. “Yup, we got it. Right, partner?” 

My hair turned pink briefly as Tabbris spoke through me. “Uh huh! We know exactly where these guys took the people they kidnapped last week. And they’re still alive. Um… most of them anyway.” At the last bit, my borrowed voice grew slightly less happy. 

“Hey,” Sands put in, “most is better than it could have been. Good thing these guys wanted money for selling their prisoners more than they wanted them for food or whatever.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, gesturing to me. “You should call it in.” 

I nodded, my hair returning to its natural dirty blonde as I touched my own communication badge. “Dare? We’ve got the address for you.” Once the older woman (and my secret grandmother, though I was one of only four people including her who knew that) acknowledged, I carefully recited the location that Tabbris and I had taken from the Glerhn. 

“Good job,” Profe–errr Miss–err… Dare sent back. “We’ll send a team there right now.” 

“You guys need any help with that?” Columbus asked over his own badge, having descended from the projectionist’s room to join the rest of us in the theater. “We could join up.” 

Dare, however, declined. “You’ve done enough for today, guys. Between you and Scout’s team dealing with their transport truck, I’d say these guys are dealt with. Take a break. Come on home and relax for awhile. Don’t forget, tomorrow’s a big day. Thanks. And again, good job.”

Between the four of us, we started gathering up the bodies. I’d wondered about what happened to the bodies of Alters killed out in the regular world like this, and about just how hard the Bystander Effect had to work during potential autopsies. When I posed the question to Dare, she had informed me that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden both tended to have people whose sole job was to collect the bodies put down in these kind of attacks. The Bystander Effect could take care of the whole identifying monsters thing, but it was easier just to take them and avoid any issues. To say nothing of the fact that Bystanders could contract diseases from poking around dead bodies of species they weren’t prepared to defend against. Which was an issue I honestly hadn’t actually thought about up until Dare mentioned it. 

Anyway, that was the normal situation. But now, with us… not exactly part of Crossroads, we had to collect the bodies and place prepared teleportation buttons on them that would take the corpses to a special building that had been set up for them to be safely disposed of. We were kind of stretched too thin to have a group dedicated to retrieving the bodies manually. 

As we sent the last of the bodies away and started to leave before anything else could happen, I took a second to look at the screen. The movie was still playing, currently in the middle of a car chase scene as vehicles screamed their way through the streets of Los Angeles.

“Hey.” Standing nearby, Avalon watched me. “Are you okay?”  She was clearly torn between concern for me and trying to be professional while we were on an official mission. 

Looking away from the screen, I offered her a faint but genuine smile. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry, it’s just…” My hand waved toward the screen. “The previous Lou Devereux movie was playing in the theater I was working in right before I ended up going to Crossroads. It was kind of the last movie I saw while I was working that night. It… I… wow. Yeah, I guess it has been a year, huh?” 

Sands nodded. “Well, I mean, it’s what… Sunday? Yeah, so it’s September ninth.”

“Just over a year,” I confirmed. “I met you guys a year ago. Where does the time go?” I muttered the last bit just to see the incredulous looks I received from everyone present. 

You’re mean, Tabbris informed me, though she sounded just as amused by the reactions. 

I make my own entertainment, I retorted before gesturing to the others. “Come on then, before we have to explain to some poor usher what happened to all the guests.” Thankfully, we’d timed the fight to take place during one of the loudest parts of the movie, so no one had come to investigate. Not yet, anyway. Leaving was probably still for the best. 

So, we did. Together, we made our way out of the theater emergency exit, without setting off the alarm thanks to the minor and very weak control over technology power Doug had picked up a couple weeks ago. Once in the parking lot, we headed toward a van that was waiting. On the way, Valley caught my hand and our fingers interlaced. I smiled over at her, winking. “Not a bad night.” 

“Getting better every second,” she replied before squeezing my hand pointedly. Then she glanced to the side and nodded that way. “Oh, ah, you should probably take care of that.” 

I looked that way, seeing the small, furry figure poking his head around the side of a sedan. “Right, I’ve got it. Be right there.” Squeezing her hand one more time, I let go before heading that way. 

The figure by the car seemed to reflexively shrink back a bit as I approached. He was about three feet tall, and looked kind of like a teddy bear crossed with a fox, with three tails. He wore a shirt, pants, and jacket meant for a little kid, with bright cartoon characters. Apparently he was known as a Feursel, though this one’s name was Karf. 

“Hey, Karf,” I started as gently as possible. Though I’d interacted with the Feursel before, with Kohaku, the little guy was still pretty skittish. For good reason, of course. “You okay?” 

It took him a second to answer, fearful as he was. But the little guy finally gave a quick nod before hesitantly asking, “Th-the people?” 

I smiled a little. “They’re safe. They’re okay. You did good, Karf. All those people in there are alive, and we sent a lead about where the others that were taken are to our friends.” Karf had been the one to find out what the Glerhn were up to and, despite clearly being terrified, had taken the information to some friends of his who knew about the rebellion. Through those contacts, he’d eventually come to talk to Kohaku and me, and we set this whole thing up. I didn’t care how skittish he looked now, Karf was one brave little dude. 

When I reached into my pocket, he quickly jerked backward reflexively. But I held my other hand up placatingly. “It’s okay. It’s alright, I promise. Here, Ms. Kohaku wanted you to have this.” Extending my hand slowly and carefully, I opened it to show him a couple golden rings and a few gemstones, all of which were apparently fairly valuable. 

Eyes slowly widening, the small Feursel whispered almost reverently, “Shinies.” 

I nodded. “They’re for you, go ahead. You can trade them for things, right?” His head bobbed up and down, but he still hesitated for a few seconds while I held the rings and gems out before finally taking them with a quick swipe of his hand. His eyes snapped up to me as though afraid I’d do something very bad to him for taking what I’d offered. When I didn’t, he smiled before looking down at the things in his paw, speaking very fondly and happily. “Shiny.” 

“There’s this too.” From my other pocket, I produced a necklace with a pearl at the end of it. “But don’t sell this one. Keep it secret. See the pearl? You hold that and say ‘Help me Risa.’ That’s it. Say ‘Help me Risa’ while you’re holding the pearl and she’ll know you’re in trouble and where you are. She’ll come to help you, or someone will. Just keep that safe. It’ll also trigger automatically if someone takes it from you by force.” 

Staring at the necklace, he slowly took it while hesitantly whispering, “Heretics save the Karf?” 

“Kind of surprising, huh?” I smiled and nodded to him. “We’re trying to change things, Karf. Just be careful out there, okay?” 

He met my gaze with a solemn, “You are to be careful also, the Flick. You are to be careful too.”

Promising that I would, and that I hoped to see him again, I headed back to the others. They were waiting by the van. 

“Everything good?” Doug asked, after looking up from his phone. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Little dude’s just fine. Now let’s get out of here. Dare’s right, tomorrow is a pretty big day.

“After all the time she’s spent putting it together, Abigail would definitely kill me if I missed her first day as headmistress of our new school.” 

Next Chapter

Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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The secret Crossroads prison (or this one, anyway) turned out to be located in an old long-since abandoned mining town somewhere in southern Kentucky. Or, to be more precise… under said mining town. Despite the outward appearance of a few broken-down, cobweb-filled buildings, there was, apparently, an entire elaborate underground complex that had been constructed a mile and a half down. And every inch of that one-point-five miles was filled with various magic spells, traps, alarms, and other contingencies to keep the prisoners in and uninvited guests out. 

It was also a god damn hornet’s nest, because the very instant that the group of Atherby/Rebellion aligned Heretics and werewolves moved through the portal and appeared on a low hill just along the side of the ‘ghost town’, they were met with heavy response. Automated turrets appeared both from the ground and from the supposedly empty, broken-down buildings. Drones erupted into the sky and began to open fire as well, and several Crossroads portals opened up, releasing actual Heretics. A few of those had Cyberform partners to mix in with the drones and turrets. It was, in short, absolute and total chaos. 

Which, of course, was the plan. All this group had to do was keep the attention of the prison’s first line of defense. Guinevere and the others involved with the primary distraction would (hopefully) keep Crossroads from sending reinforcements immediately. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but a couple minutes was all they would need. Keeping the guards busy until the infiltration group could break down any anti-transportation powers that were in there and get out with Sean and the rest of the prisoners. That’s all they had to do. They didn’t have to win, just… survive. 

Unfortunately, that ‘surviving’ bit was going to end up being a bit easier said than done. In the mere twenty seconds that had passed since this attack began, it had already become a full-fledged warzone. Gunfire, laser blasts, balls of flame and ice, chunks of electrified sharp metal, bursts of intense gravity, and more were flung every which way. Entire sections of ground, some rather large, simply tore themselves up and went flying toward one enemy, only to be caught by another and returned. A blast of purple-tinted lightning, bright enough to blind one looking directly at it, crackled through the air before being converted into a chunk of frozen ice at a touch. A figure zoomed at super speed across the crater-filled dirt and grass, only to be struck from the side by a powerful wave of kinetic force, sending the figure sprawling. 

On one knee at the edge of a three-foot deep crater, Scout brought her rifle (Nothing) to her shoulder, peering through the scope. She cycled through several possible portals she had already set up in the midst of this chaos before settling on one that gave her a view of the sky. One of the drones flying overhead passed through, pausing briefly to reorient itself in order to open fire at someone else. But Scout took it out first, firing three quick shots through her series of portals that hit the drone repeatedly, sending it flying sideways before it exploded. 

Before she could adjust, she felt the sudden appearance of someone appearing through a portal or teleportation. Their hand caught her arm with a violent curse, and she felt it suddenly grow… hard. Her left arm had turned to stone, and it was already starting to spread up to her shoulder and down over her hand. She couldn’t move it, her rifle simply falling from her grasp. 

Then something hit her own attacker from behind. Scout fell hard onto her side, a shock of pain running through her as she twisted to see. Doug. The boy was about ten feet back, but he’d sent two metal coils from the palm of his hands to wrap around the person who had attacked Scout. 

She was a Heretic, of course, a short woman with fiery red hair and even more fiery eyes. As the metal coils yanked her away from Scout, she jerked her arms and both coils shattered under the force. This was no trainee, but a full Heretic. Strong enough to shatter coils that were made of what amounted to solid steel, and with the ability to turn someone’s arm to stone at a touch. 

Even as the woman spun toward Doug, Scout grabbed for the rifle with one hand. Before she could do anything with it, however, a pair of what looked like metal wings erupted from the Heretic woman’s back. One of the wings lashed out, smacking Nothing from Scout’s grasp and cutting her remaining arm pretty deeply in the process. The other wing moved just as quickly, pushing right up close to her face in a clear, sharp warning. 

“Stay down, girl,” the woman snapped testily, “before you get hurt. And you.” Her hand rose, extending toward Doug before she made a sharp gesture that brought the boy flying helplessly toward her before dumping him on the ground at her feet. “Both of you can cool off in–” 

Cool off was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because in that instant, the woman suddenly spun to the side while bringing her metal wings in front of herself as a shield. Her danger sense had warned her just in time, before a three-foot-wide fist made of ice collided with the wings in a blow that sent the woman stumbling back several feet. 

Gordon. The boy was covered in ice armor that made him much larger than he should have been. The burst of intense cold from the blow enveloped the woman as he sent as much of the power inherited from his father as he could into her. Instantly, the woman’s skin began to turn white-blue, her eyelids frosted over, and a rapidly thickening layer of ice rose around her. 

And then, in a burst of fire, it was gone. The Crossroads woman let out a loud, violent scream as she let loose with the ball of fire around herself, melting the ice and singing both Scout and Doug. Another ball of fire appeared between her hands, before hurling its way toward Gordon. 

“No!” With that cry, a much smaller ball of fire suddenly appeared. It intercepted the large one, absorbing it and preventing the fire from hitting the ice-encased boy. A second later, the ball of fire shifted, transforming into a small, unassuming-looking girl. Rebecca Jameson. One of her gifts allowed her to transform into an orb of either water, fire, earth, or air, and (among other things) absorb/collect any of the same element she directly contacted in that form. 

Seeing the girl appear where the fire had been, the Heretic woman summoned some kind of green goo in her hand before flinging it that way. Before Rebecca could move, the goo took her in the chest, expanding quickly to almost completely envelop her. She was yanked to the ground with a yelp, unable to stand.

Scout couldn’t use her rifle right then, unable to reach it from where she was lying (and unable to hold it properly with one arm turned to stone anyway). But she could still help. With a thought, she summoned her Tzentses-given power to conjure small items made of solid energy in order to create a dagger, flinging it at the woman’s shoulder from behind. Nearby, Doug had managed to click his pen to create a spear, which he hurled at her as well. 

Both weapons stopped an instant before they would have struck the woman. The spear from Doug hit some kind of forcefield, while Scout’s energy-dagger was caught by an opposing power. The woman growled, arms rising. With that, part of the ground rose up as well, coils of rock and dirt appearing all around the group. “That,” she announced, “is enou–” 

In mid-sentence, a glowing orb appeared at the woman’s feet, and she was instantly yanked down toward it. The orb was one of Jazz’s gravity-manipulation balls, as the girl herself dropped her invisibility (she’d been moving very slowly to get close enough without being seen), one hand outstretched to keep the orb up while her other hand pointed that way, mouth opening to shout, “Now!” 

With that, the Heretic woman, held against the ground by the orb, was set upon by an army of… rats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other small rodents. Dozens of the creatures, all that Jazz had managed to recruit around the camp using her power to vocally control any non-intelligent animal that met her gaze, and stored in a specially prepared extradimensional bag for just such an occasion. 

The army of rodents swarmed the woman with a loud series of chitters and squeaks. A dozen were instantly blasted away by a single laser from her hand, and several more were vaporized when the woman sent a second laser from her eyes. Their teeth could not even penetrate her skin. They were a nuisance at worst, not a threat. The gravity orb as well became an afterthought as the woman used a power of her own to negate it, pushing herself up. 

But both the rodents and the gravity orb were a distraction. A very effective one, as the woman couldn’t even pay attention to her danger sense anymore considering there were rats attacking her from all sides. She barely saw Gordon’s ice fist rearing back in time to fling one of those metal wings in front of herself, still taking a good blow from it that sent her tumbling. 

The woman ended up on both knees, skidding to a stop after the blow from Gordon. Her eyes snapped up as her power warned her of yet another threat, only to see Rebecca, apparently freed from the goop from before, there with her own weapon deployed. Her backpack, in full enormous cannon-mode, was pointed directly at the Crossroads Heretic, and already in the midst of firing. Once more, the woman was barely able to cross those metal wings in front of herself while summoning a powerful forcefield. 

The cannon blew through the shield and the wings, and even with that much of the shot dissipated, she was still flung a good twenty feet as a long, two foot deep ditch was torn through the ground along the path of the shot right up to the wall of the building she eventually crashed into. Her metal wings were left mangled and partially broken, bits and pieces missing. 

Bloodied and bruised, the woman rolled over, hand flinging out to conjure an eight foot tall, three-foot wide metal wall from the ground, which she sent toward Rebecca. It rushed that way, cutting through the ground it had popped out of as it moved fast as a car (and would probably hit just as hard). Powerful as the girl’s cannon was, it would take another second to recharge even to its least powerful state. The wall would hit her long before then. 

Or it would have. But Gordon was there, his huge ice form intercepting the flying metal wall. At the same time, he flung his hand forward, opening it to reveal Jazz and Doug. Both were sent flying toward the Heretic woman, crashing into her. Doug’s metal coils were back, wrapping their way around her while Jazz simply grabbed onto her arm, gripping tightly with her own enhanced strength. Both held on for dear life as the woman jerked first one way, then the other. 

“When will you kids learn?” the Crossroads loyalist snarled. “You can’t hold me.” With a grunt and a yank of her arm, she broke the coils once more before slamming Jazz and Doug hard into one another, then flung them to the ground in front of her with a curse. 

Her hand rose, but before she could do anything else, a shot ricocheted off of her forehead. It staggered the woman, making her head jerk toward an empty spot in the air just as a second shot from Scout’s rifle came through the portal there, rebounding from her cheek and snapping her head to the side with a sharp curse. 

Scout was laying on her side, using her one good hand to fire the rifle through the portal. She sent more shots that way, but they were caught by one power or another as the woman held a hand up, ready that time. Scout sent another handful of shots through more portals that she had erected around the woman, but none of those hit either. The Crossroads Heretic was ready for each of them, her warning sense giving her time to intercept each shot. 

What she was not ready for, was another shot from Rebecca’s cannon. By that point, it had recovered enough to fire again. As the woman’s danger sense flared up, she spun that way, hand up to intercept another shot from Scout. What she saw instead, was Rebecca’s glowing cannon in mid-firing sequence. 

She tried to dodge, of course. But Doug sent the remains of his metal coils up, smacking the woman in the back as hard as he could. At the same time, Jazz summoned another gravity orb directly in front of the woman. Between both, she was flung toward the orb and directly into the path of the cannon blast. With a scream of power, the blast struck her full on, and she was once more hurtled into the wall of the building. Reinforced as it secretly was, her impact still left a solid dent in the wall, and she fell limply to the ground in a heap. 

Before she could recover, Jazz was there, all-but flinging herself at the woman. She held a rock in one hand, quickly blurting the command word before shoving it against their dazed-maybe-unconscious opponent. The rock glowed brightly before disappearing. A second later, the woman did the same. 

Wyatt had made these rocks. They were all carrying a couple of them. According to him, the spells on the rocks would render the targets unconscious for a number of hours while also teleporting them to some random (relatively safe) location. The woman would wake up eventually, long after the fight was over. The only downside of the spell was that it wouldn’t work against a fully conscious and combative opponent. They’d had to knock her unconscious (or at least close to it) before using them. 

With that finally done, the small group gathered to collect themselves for a brief second. The battle continued to rage around them, but Gordon raised several ice walls around them, and everyone turned their attention to Scout, who stood there with one arm turned to stone. 

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

Scout hesitated before nodding. She hoped so. She really hoped that this rock thing was temporary or fixable. Having to regrow an arm would be hard even for regeneration. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it or be shocked into inaction. They still had a lot to do, even if they’d managed to dispatch one of the adult Heretic responders. One. It had taken five of them to even knock one adult Heretic out of the fight. 

At least there were a lot more here, many far more powerful than Scout and the others. And the group inside… well, hopefully things were going okay there. 

Because she wasn’t sure how long they were going to be able to keep this up. 

********

He knew it was coming. This was the day. Apollo had brought the spell in, and helped him place the very discrete beacon inside a book he was idly scrawling in. It was there. This was the time. They were coming. 

The problem, for Sean, was in not looking like he was waiting or anticipating anything. Because his jailers would definitely notice anything that was off. He had to go through the day like it was any other. Which was part of why he and Apollo had decided it would be better if he didn’t know the exact time they were coming. It could be morning or evening, or anything in between. He just had to play it cool. 

Well, as cool as he could. For the moment, that meant eating his breakfast of quiche Lorraine and skillet-fried potatoes while watching Jurassic Park yet again. He’d taken to watching movies by the year. This week he was up to 1993. 

Speaking in time with Ian Malcolm, he intoned, “That is one big pile of–” 

“–shit,” his mouth finished, as he briefly froze at the realization that there were suddenly a lot more minds inside his head than there had been a second earlier. Luckily, Apollo had quickly taken over to speak for him so any guards paying attention wouldn’t notice the stumble. 

Then there were voices. So many of them he couldn’t keep track, couldn’t hear them all. People talking. It almost made him drop his fork, but Apollo took care of that too, while telling everyone else to stop. 

Voices. People. People besides Apollo. Sean had… well, he’d talked to a few others. Flick had visited him before by possessing Apollo so she could hitch a ride here, just as the group had just done. Vanessa and Tristan both had also done the same a couple of times. But this… the whole group being here, this was new. This was different. 

This was final. His last few minutes in this prison… one way or another. 

The movie continued, as Sean reeled inwardly, trying to collect himself. Apollo kept his face impassive, his body still, even taking the time to have a bite of his breakfast. Outwardly, everything was completely normal. 

You okay, kid? The Seosten man’s voice was gentle, clearly understanding even as he repeated, No one else talk. Not yet. This is a lot. 

I’m… I’m okay, Sean finally managed. He could still feel a lot of their… impulses, their reactions. He could sense their minds. This whole Russian nesting doll thing was pretty shaky to begin with. Who knew how long it would hold up. Let’s do this. 

Apollo took over once more, rising to his feet. His eyes glanced toward the mirror on the wall, and Sean felt the reactions of everyone inside him. 

He wasn’t a boy any longer. For Sean Gerardo, eight years had passed. Eight years. He had come in here a boy of eighteen. He was now twenty-six. 

It was time to leave this prison. Because if he didn’t…

He would be leaving this prison. 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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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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