Doxer

Most Dangerous Game 22-02

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There was no question about what happened next. Even as Trice abandoned his own partner with a scream of the kind of bottomless rage I would’ve felt if anything happened to any of the people that I loved, Avalon left my side to meet him with a clash of an energy-blade summoned from her gauntlet against his pike.

And as much as I wanted to, I didn’t move to help her. That was part of our deal. Avalon wanted Trice. That much hadn’t been up for debate while we had been planning this. If all three of them had shown up, we’d had a slightly different plan that we would’ve gone with. But in this case, with two of them, the plan was clear. I was supposed to keep Doxer busy while she and Trice… had it out. That was my job. If things went wrong, there were contingencies. But the truth was, our plan really depended on me being able to pull this off. Fight Doxer, keep him busy. Keep him off-balance so he couldn’t work on the shield. And so that he didn’t notice… anything else.

Two things quickly let me know that Doxer wasn’t playing around this time, that he wasn’t going to let the fight go on as long as he had back during our first encounter when he’d mostly been playing with his food. First, there was the look in his eyes. It was a look that said he was going to finish this as soon as possible. Probably because he figured we’d have back-up coming. Plus, he probably remembered the last fight. So he knew he couldn’t outlast my stamina. The longer the fight went on, the better off I’d be, because I wouldn’t be getting tired like he would.

Meanwhile, the second reason I knew he was actually taking it seriously came as he stalked toward me. After the third step, he reached into the pockets of his jacket and withdrew two small, silver-white… mice. They sat in the palms of his hands long enough for me to see that both were made of metal. They were robots, like Sean’s Vulcan, Aylen’s Sovereign, or Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi.  

“What do you say, boys?” Doxer announced with a smirk, “should we show our cute little blonde friend here that she should’ve just made us a sandwich while she had the chance?”

As he spoke, the robot mice transformed, growing into his actual weapons. One became a short-sword with a wicked blade that was jagged on both edges. Meanwhile, the other mouse turned into some kind of gauntlet that covered his left hand. There was a small blade sticking out of the end of the thing with three slightly curved pointed ends, like a grappling hook.

The purpose of that latter weapon became clear an instant later, as the boy extended his left hand. The hook, connected by some kind of energy wire, shot out at me so fast that it would have gone right through me if it hadn’t been for the enhanced reflexes from that second werewolf kill. As it was, I just narrowly managed to jerk myself aside, letting the hook shoot past. Not that it completely saved me. The hook seemed to ‘catch’ on nothing but air, and an instant later, that energy-wire retracted. Doxer was yanked forward off the ground and came hurtling toward me like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He closed the distance between us almost instantly. Even as I realized that he was suddenly there, that jagged shortsword of his was already lashing out at my head with the speed and decisiveness of a snake lunging for the living version of one of those mice.

And yet, I was ready. Not that I’d known about the grapple, but I’d seen the teleportation trick that he’d used in the last fight enough that I’d been prepared for him to abruptly erase the distance. Which meant that even as his sword went for my head, my staff was already snapping up to intercept. Our weapons met with a terrible crash, and the force actually sent me backward.

That was why he hadn’t bothered with the teleportation, because he wanted the additional force that being yanked toward me that fast would create. And it very nearly worked. Between the boy’s own strength and the momentum that he’d built up with the grapple-lunge, I was almost knocked off my feet. As it was, I stumbled a bit, barely stopping myself from falling into the dirt.

Even as I recovered, Doxer pressed his advantage, sweeping my staff down and to the side with a swift motion before driving the hilt of his sword up against my chin in a blow that snapped my head backwards. At the same time, the sense that let me know where every object in my immediate area was gave me a short warning that the grapple was coming back my way from behind. Which probably meant that he was trying to wrap that energy-cord around me.

Before that could happen, I triggered a quick blast from my staff. The end of it was pointed down and to the right from Doxer smacking it out of the way, so the blast knocked me to the left.

Sure enough, I just managed to avoid the energy-cord from the grapple as it tried to snake its way around my blast-propelled body. Doxer had meant to stun me with a quick blow to the chin before wrapping me up in the solid-light cord from his grappling hook. Which would have ended the fight. And probably would’ve ended me as well.

Even as I landed, catching myself on one foot, Doxer’s body was replaced by what looked like a statue made of dirt and rocks. Which could only mean one thing: he teleported. I remembered that shit. Whenever the bastard teleported, he left behind a brief earth, fire, air, or water copy of himself for a second or two. And if he teleported, that meant he was– The thought came to me in time to twist, catching the incoming blade on my staff just before it would have run me through.

Unfortunately, just as I caught the teleporting dick-head’s sword and tried to follow-up, something interrupted by slamming hard into my shoulder with enough force to knock me forward a step.

It was his earth-duplicate, the one that had been left behind when he teleported. Even as I swept my staff back that way, it fell apart. Yet the thing had lasted several seconds longer than the things had when we had fought before. Which either meant he had killed more of whatever gave him that power to begin with, enough to actually hold onto them longer. Or he was just better at using it. Either way, now I had to worry about the son of a bitch making copies that could actually get off an attack or two. Which was just… perfect. Because this whole fight wasn’t hard enough already.

Luckily, it took the earth-duplicate long enough to reach me that the only thing it had been able to do was hit me with a glancing blow before falling apart. And now, at least, I knew about the threat.

And yet, brief as the distraction was, Doxer took advantage of it. He’d already retracted the line on his grapple, and as my staff whiffed through the air where his earth-clone had been, he shoved his gauntlet-covered fist at me. I twisted desperately aside, but grapple blades still drew blood as they sliced along my stomach. An inch closer or a second slower and I would’ve been skewered.

Smiling at my hiss of pain, Doxer taunted, “So, you ready to fall down and beg for a little mercy?”

“Depends,” I retorted. “You ready to fight, or would you like to play some more cheap tricks?”

His response was a swift stab of his short-sword at my already-bleeding stomach. But I managed (barely) to bring my staff vertically into its path, smacking the blade out of the way. Before he could recover, I gave the high end of the staff a quick thrust up toward his chin. His head snapped back out of the way, however, leaving the staff to whiff up an inch from his face. A face which abruptly disappeared.

No, I realized a nanosecond later. He didn’t disappear. He just teleported again, leaving behind an air copy of himself that time. Reacting instantly, I hit the button to trigger the blast from the end of my staff that I had been trying to hit him with, while releasing my hold on the weapon itself. The force of the blast threw the staff backward over my shoulder, and I twisted around even as I was rewarded with the sound of a grunt. The flying staff had smacked into Doxer’s face as he had appeared behind me. It rebounded, and I quickly caught hold of it before hitting the button that would fill the air with sand. I wanted him blind, and preferably choking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even as the sand filled the air, the dark-skinned older boy gave a quick wave of his hand. As he did so, all of that sand that I’d propelled at him abruptly flew sideways. I felt my control of it yanked away as the boy exerted his own, apparently stronger power.

“You really think we wouldn’t know what your powers are and be ready for ‘em?” he taunted me before whipping that grapple-line at my face from the side. I narrowly managed to duck as his foot went right up into the spot where I had moved, nailing me in the stomach.

He tried to follow up with a forward stab from that short-sword, but at the last second I yanked my staff into the way. It was a bit awkward, and I felt pain from the strength of his blow reverberate back through my arm while nearly tearing the weapon from my hand. But I managed to hang onto it, and the blade itself was narrowly deflected.

Right. He was clearly stronger than I was, even if it wasn’t by as much of a margin as it had been before. He could control sand as well, taking away from my own control. So I couldn’t use that for an advantage. Which meant I was going to have to try something else.

With that in mind, I gave a quick feint with my right foot toward his side, drawing his attention that way. Then I spun in the opposite direction to build up a little momentum.  Gripping the staff in both hands, I brought it around into a swing at his side while the boy was still catching himself from going for the feint. As it got close, I triggered all the power that it had left, sending a massive blast of kinetic force right into the bastard.

At the last second, he saw it coming. Rather than teleport away, however, he took the blast of energy right into his… wait. The kinetic blast had nearly hit him. It should have hit him. But just before it would’ve, the energy had simply… disappeared, vanishing into nothing.

I’d just had time for the W part of the WTF to appear in my head before the boy made a sharp gesture. Suddenly, I was the one hit by a wave of kinetic force. It smacked into me like a runaway train, driving the air out of me as I was thrown backward and into the air like a ragdoll, coming down hard on the ground. That time I couldn’t quite catch myself, rolling in the dirt with a pained grunt. Oww. Okay, that hurt. That hurt a lot.

On the other side of the domed arena that we had set up, I caught a glimpse of Avalon and Trice. Like their fight before, it was obvious that Avalon had to work hard to keep up. There was a deep cut in her left arm from the boy’s pike, and her face was smeared with blood from another cut along her forehead. It obviously wasn’t that deep, but cuts along the head bled so much that seeing her face smeared that way immediately made my heart reflexively drop into my stomach.

This time, however, Avalon was giving about as good as she took. While she had those two cuts, Trice was bleeding from a blow to the nose that had already darkened the area under his left eye. Plus, I could see more blood dripping down one of the boy’s legs through a cut in his pants.

As I hit the ground, Avalon pulled free of Trice, driving the boy back with a quick kick at his face that made him fall back a pace. She followed up not by attacking, but by backing up two or three quick steps herself before sparing a quick glance toward me. She’d heard me fall and took the time to buy herself a little distance before checking on me. Even as her eyes met mine, I gave her a quick shake of my head. No, I thought. Focus on Trice. I’ve got this. I didn’t want her to try to intercede on my behalf. That would just get her caught between both of them. I could do this. If this was going to work, if she was going to have a chance against Trice, I had to do it.

“Oh,” Doxer’s voice was mocking. “Sorry, did I forget to mention that new trick? C’mon, I did say ‘ready for every power you’ve got’. You’d think even a silly little blonde like you could work that much out.”

His amusement was positively grating. “You wanna see it again? Throw some more of that staff energy at me. I’ll give you a better look.” As he spoke, the boy lazily came toward me, clearly stepping more heavily than he normally would just to taunt me with the sound of his approach. “Or you could just lay there and let me have a–”

Once again, I sent a cloud of sand from my staff up and toward his face. Again I was treated to his mocking laughter as he easily tossed the sand out of the way. But that wasn’t the point, the point was to distract him for a second. While he was distracted, my hand moved. With a grunt, I slapped it down on the ground, where a small, almost invisible circle of wood poked very slightly out of the dirt. As soon as my hand touched the wood, I used the Relukun’s power to throw myself into it.

Because we hadn’t just prepared this place with the spell to keep these guys trapped here. Gaia had also created an intricate network of wooden pipe-like structures underground that were connected via various small bits that stuck out, bits that were almost impossible to see unless you knew what you were looking for. They blended very well into the ground. But as a result, I could touch any of the exposed parts and zip through the underground wooden pipes in order to pop out anywhere else.

I used that right then, sending myself into the wood just as Doxer finished throwing the sand out of his face. His eyes had time to see that I wasn’t where he expected me to be, just as I popped up out of one of the exposed wooden bits a couple steps behind him. Before he could do more than curse, my staff slammed into his back as hard as I could swing it.

Yeah, it was still like hitting a brick wall. But that time, the wall gave a little bit. With a grunt, he stumbled forward, before his body was suddenly replaced by a figure made of water. The figure threw its hands up, spraying me in the face with a torrent like a firehose.

It blinded me momentarily, but I didn’t need to see to know what to do. This was an old trick by that point, and he really needed to learn some new ones. Spinning, I barely managed to knock Doxer’s incoming sword out of the way with one end of the staff before snapping the other end up toward his face. His head jerked out of the way, and I quickly followed up by triggering another kinetic-blast from the end of my weapon. That time, however, I didn’t direct it at the boy himself. Instead, I used the blast to launch myself up and forward, providing momentum and force as my feet lashed out to slam into his chest.

The essentially rocket-propelled kick staggered the bastard, making him stumble back. Before I could press the advantage, however, the energy coil from his grapple shot out to wrap around my legs. A second later, my back screamed out in pain as I was slammed into the ground so hard I swore I could feel bones crack. Far worse than that pain, however, was what I felt as the energy-coil crushed one of my legs. The femur  in my right leg snapped, sending a wave of blinding agony through me.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move, especially my leg. But move I did. Rolling to the side, I narrowly avoided the sword that Doxer drove into the ground where I had just been. He was mad now, not playing anymore. Standing over me, he retracted the grapple before launching it down. It shot out, straight down at my stomach. But I managed to ignore the pain long enough to jerk my staff up and into the way, catching the grapple against the end of it just before the thing could skewer me.

“Okay, bitch,” Doxer panted a little bit. His foot came down on my stomach hard enough to drive the air out of me, and he raised his sword. “No more tricks. No more games. You’re done.”

“You,” I retorted despite the pain spread throughout… pretty much my entire body, “should really learn…” I coughed, spitting blood. “… to put your toys away.”

He blinked once, sword held high above me even as I brought my staff back up. The end was pointed at his face. And yet… it wasn’t alone. When I had smacked the grapple out of the way, it had gotten tangled up with my staff, until the grapple sat haphazardly on the end of it, almost like a three-pronged blade that had been lazily and poorly fastened to it.

“Wh–” the boy managed to get out before I triggered the last of the charge the staff had. The kinetic blast burst out of the end, shooting the grapple up and forward… straight through the bastard’s throat.

Doxer had time to look surprised, staggering back as his own weapon nearly took his head off. Blood poured from his throat as he clutched at the grapple, trying to tear it free even as he made a  terrible sound that would haunt me forever.

But I was on my feet. Well, on one foot. Ignoring the pain in my other leg, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could. It slammed into the back of the grapple just as the boy was trying to yank it free of his throat. The force of that blow sent the thing forward, knocking it from his already-limp hands as the blades tore the rest of the way through his already horrifically injured throat.

He fell. Hands dropping to his sides, the boy collapsed, his head barely still attached. He was on the ground, blood pooling all around him as the light left his eyes.

In the background, I heard a scream from Trice. But I was already collapsing. Pain filled my body, and I couldn’t stand any longer. My staff fell from limp fingers to roll away along the ground.

But it was pain that was abruptly replaced by the greatest, most unbelievable pleasure I had ever felt, as the glow of my golden aura flooded the surrounding area, brighter than I had ever seen it. And in the end, the glow and the pleasure only reinforced one thing, one thought that rose above all others. 

Doxer… was… dead.  

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come find out.”

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First Hunt 4-06

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Using the staff to push myself up, I kept a wary eye on the far-too-casual Doxer. The older boy was simply popping the knuckles of one hand all in a line, then the other while watching me stand up. He wasn’t concerned in the least. In the background, I saw Columbus and Sean having a pretty bad time trying to lay a finger on Pace, who evaded them with perfect ease. She was giggling like it was a game.

“It’s funny,” Doxer began, his tone calm and even. “They go on and on about how dangerous you Crossroads kiddies are and how we shouldn’t underestimate you. Gotta say, right now? Not impressed.”

“That’s funny,” I replied while moving to the left away from Sands. Hopefully we could make this guy focus on just one of us. Not that it was likely to make that big of a difference, but every little bit helped. “Because I was just thinking pretty much the same thing about you guys. The unimpressed part.”

The big guy’s response was a sneer. “We’re kicking your asses pretty thoroughly, little girl.”

Nodding, I took another step to the left, forcing him to turn slightly as his eyes continued following me. “Yeah, that’s the part I’m talking about. Or was I supposed to be in awe of your stunning ability to win a fight against a few teenagers that’ve been training for all of a month? That’s so unremarkable, they don’t even make a trophy for it, and they have trophies for coin flip event participation. Fifty-fifty shot, lose, get a trophy anyway. Still a more genuine victory than you assholes throwing your weight around.”

His chuckle was low, dangerous and without humor. “I like you. I think I’ll make this one last.”

At the last second, with a look straight into my eyes that was as mocking as any I had ever seen, the boy pivoted away from Sands’s strike that would have nailed the back of his head. His hand lashed out, snatched the length of the mace, and then he yanked her forward off balance while bringing his knee up. A cry of pain escaped the other girl even as I leapt that way, the air driven out of her by the blow.

She hit the ground hard, mace falling beside her as Doxer dismissively dropped it. His foot lifted to kick at her, but he pulled back to avoid my staff as I lashed out at him. “You know what I really hate?” I asked while using a wide swing of the weapon to force the boy to step back quickly. “You know what really pisses me off? People who think they can do whatever they want to. People who think they have all the power, so they can get away with hurting others that don’t have as much power as they do. Like you. You’re not avenging anything. You’re not protecting anyone. You’re not a warrior. You’re not a hero. You’re no better than the Strangers they’ve been teaching us about. Only in this case, you don’t have the excuse of the whole monster thing being part of your DNA. You’re just a dick.”

“Aww, your opinion makes me so sad,” he retorted before pantomiming writing in his palm. “Mental note, be sure to reevaluate my life after I’m finished beating this bitch to within an inch of hers.”

Flipping the staff around in my hand, I aimed it out and down toward at an angle toward the ground. “Start now,” I suggested flatly while triggering the concussive blast. It shot out of the staff and into the ground, spraying a thick cloud of dirt and light debris into the air directly toward the boy’s face.

Doxer reeled, grabbing at his eyes with a cry while I followed up with a quick strike toward his unguarded stomach, twisting my body into the swing to put more force behind it as I swung.

The blow took the boy hard in the gut, but it hardly seemed to matter. It was like hitting a boulder. I probably did more damage to my own hands than to myself. Christ, what was this asshole made of?

Blinded but still quick, he grabbed for the staff. I reversed it, spinning away from his grasp just in time. Before he could recover from the lunge, I lashed out with a quick series of blows, running it the way that Avalon had taught me. Two quick jabs at his face with the right end of the staff, then a low strike on his left side toward the knee with the opposite end. Quick step back, reverse the staff, and bring it up in a rising blow toward his exposed wrist as hard as I could. Each move, by that point, was quick and effortless. They came without conscious thought, the way Avalon had insisted they would. That was why we had drilled through them over and over so many times, so that they would be instinctive. Two strikes at the face to distract and make them reel back, hit the knee to hopefully disable or at least make move their guard that way, then use that exposed guard to hit their wrist hard enough that they can’t hit you back. One, two, three. The second that I stopped thinking and just acted, the motions were easy.

Except I was pretty sure that I’d gotten more of a reaction out of the training dummies that Avalon had made me practice with. At least the reinforced wood there had reacted as if my hitting it repeatedly actually did something. With this guy, I might as well have been attacking a chunk of granite.

I kept going anyway, hoping that I’d hit something weaker than a brick wall before he recovered. With a grunt, I twisted around into a spin to put the full weight and strength of my body behind the next blow.

The staff whiffed through empty air. Wait, no, not empty air. Water. Where the big guy had been before, water in the shape of his body remained. It stayed in place and retained that shape for a split second after my staff had passed through it, before collapsing into a puddle at my feet.

Abruptly, before I could finish looking around, a voice from nearby whispered urgently, “Drop!”

I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the tone, similar to the way Avalon instructed me when we were training. Whatever it was, I listened to the voice, instantly dropping into a roll. As I did so, Doxer’s hands swept by overhead, narrowly missing his grab for me. If I had waited a second longer, he would have had his arms around my throat. Given his size, I was positive that the fight would have been over.

Instead, I was able to escape, rolling back to my feet and lashing out with my staff before my brain had time to catch up with what had just happened. Whose voice was that? It didn’t seem to belong to anyone that I could see. The whisper had just come from nowhere. Was this the Amarok’s ability? Wait, did that even make sense? What kind of inherited super power was ‘voice in my head?’

He might have followed up the attack before I could recover, but Sands was back up. Her mace swung out, colliding with his shoulder with enough force to finally draw a grunt from the boy. In retaliation, he grabbed for her with speed that seemed at odds with his size. Still, Sands managed (barely), to escape by conjuring a wall directly between them that slowed the big guy down for a couple seconds.

Don’t just sit there and gawk, get up and help her.” That voice in my head, somehow familiar yet not at all, ordered. “Keep him turning back and forth. Don’t let him deal with only one of you at a time.”

I still had no idea where this voice was coming from, but it had the right idea. Before Doxer could corner Sands, I came in at his back, dropping low so I could plant the full weight and force of my staff in the back of his knees as hard as possible. At the last second, I triggered the staff’s concussive blast.

That, finally, was enough to knock the son of a bitch down. He stumbled, grunting in pain. Before hitting the ground, however, flames erupted where he had been in the shape of the asshole himself.

Okay, it was fire instead of water this time. Still, I knew what was coming. Even as the voice in my head whispered an urgent warning, I was already throwing myself in a (still somewhat awkward and ungraceful, but hey) dive out of the way. I half-rolled and half-sprawled, rolling in the dirt to escape.

“Well now,” Doxer announced while looking from Sands to me and then back again. “Looks like I might have to put a tiny bit of effort into this after all. Unless, you know, you girls just wanna call it quits.” His grin widened. “I’m a fair guy, easy to please. Tell you what, we’ll have a little contest. Each of you make me a sandwich. The babe that makes the best one, well, I won’t hit her anymore. Sound good?”

It took everything I had not to throw myself at the son of a bitch in a blind rage, swinging wildly. That’s what he wanted. He was trying to piss us off, make us stop thinking and just go at him in a rush. If we did that, I had no doubt that he’d knock us both on our asses in about two and a half seconds. He wanted us to fight on his terms, so he could end the fight on his terms. Quickly and decisively.

Instead, I glanced toward Sands, lifting my chin. “The boy wants a sandwich.”

She nodded, breathing hard. “Yup. Think we should give it to him?”

“Oh yeah,” I nodded. Unlike Sands, I was breathing easily. Mostly I just felt pissed off. “We should.”

“Now girls,” that infuriating smirk was back. “There’s lots of things you could both give me that I wouldn’t object to. Especially if you work together. But before you do anything rash right now, I–”

Before he could say anything else, I pointed my recharged staff back at the ground and triggered it. The force, as I had been warned, nearly tore the weapon out of my hand. Somehow, I managed to retain my grip on it as I was launched into the air, flying up a good ten feet and forward to pass over the big guy’s head. Just beyond him, I dropped, spun in the process, and swung that staff at the back of his neck.

An outline of dirt appeared in the air where he had been, my staff whiffing through it even as I landed. Rather than remain standing, I continued my fall, dropping down while the large figure reappeared behind me. His foot was raised into a vicious kick. My quick roll meant that he only barely clipped my arm. Even that was enough to send spasms of pain down it. It felt like something had cracked.

Before he could follow that up, Sands was on him. His focus on me had taken his eyes off of her. She came in at him with another wide swing that made the boy jerk his head back away from the mace.

Unfortunately for him, he moved it directly into the path of my own swinging weapon. The staff collided with the dickface’s recoiling head so hard I thought that one of them was going to break.

Duck to your left, then jump right and swing at his leg the second you land. Wait for it… now.”

Still failing to understand why, I instantly followed the voice’s instructions. Ducking left, I saw Doxer’s vicious backhanded swing narrowly miss me. He was turning defensively, but my quick jump put me right at his blindspot, and gave me a brief second of opening. I took advantage, lashing out with my staff at the side of his leg as hard as I could. I was gratified to hear the hard thunk of my weapon striking home, followed by a grunt of actual pain from the arrogant piece of shit himself.

Sands was already moving to take advantage of the very slight stumble even before I’d finished hitting him. Her mace came up and around, bashing into the side of the boy’s shoulder so hard that she actually managed to draw some blood, as well as a genuinely surprised gasp. She’d hurt him. We had hurt him.

A sudden blast of air in my face replaced the boy. I saw him appear behind Sands, grabbing for her with a look of rage that had replaced his former cocky and dismissive expression. Before I could yelp a warning, she was already reacting somehow. Dropping into a side-roll, she barely escaped his grasp.

That voice returned. “Count to five, then swing as hard as you can six feet to the left of his head.”

Shrugging inwardly, I did so. After reaching five in my head, I lunged up and forward, lashing out with my staff at what still looked like empty air to me. In the meantime, Sands had been lashing out with a quick series of strikes mixed with wall construction to slow his counter-attacks. She struck hard and fast, not letting up for a second to give him any chance to regroup. It didn’t seem to do much damage, but she had been steadily driving him back a couple of steps through sheer ferocity.

Those few steps made all the difference. Just as I swung at what had been empty air, Doxer took that last step back that put himself directly in my path. The staff collided with the side of his head, and he bellowed in pain, staggering to the side while lashing out blindly and fruitlessly.

In retaliation, the big guy spun toward me while grasping with his hand. He caught my shoulder, squeezing so hard that I couldn’t help the cry of pain that escaped me. It hurt. His fingers dug into my muscle, and I heard something else crack while he tried to jerk me toward him.

But Sands was there. She brought her mace down hard into Doxer’s back, and he bellowed in pain once again. When she tried to follow up that blow, another statue of water briefly replaced him before collapsing with a splash, sending water everywhere.

That particular teleportation or… whatever he was doing carried Doxer behind Sands. But it was a trick he’d done too many times already, and I didn’t need the voice in my head to warn me before I was already leaping forward. Sands dropped the instant she realized the guy had disappeared again, giving me a clear path over her. I was already swinging, the staff connecting solidly with Doxer as he reached for Sands.

We continued that way. Sands and I did our best to keep the son of a bitch between us. We’d manage to hit him and he would disappear, but because she and I were both facing each other, one of us always knew where he teleported to and would press the attack while the other evaded his counter. A couple of times, the voice in my head whispered advice, warning me when the guy was out of my line of sight. We never let up. We never gave him a chance to recover or press any kind of advantage.

Finally, Sands all but collapsed. She doubled over, gasping for air almost desperately. She was openly panting, glaring at the bloodied, bruised guy between us. “I’m gonna…” She breathed in and then out heavily between her words. “Shove this… mace… up your… urethra.”

“Keep… wasting your breath… babe.” Doxer retorted in between pants of his own. He spat a bit of blood onto the ground before sneering. “You two can wear yourselves out with this pointless shit all you want. But you can’t keep going forever. You’ll slow down. And when you do, you’re mine.”

The boy wasn’t panting as heavily as Sands, but his breathing was clearly heavier than it had been. We were wearing him down. If we weren’t, he would have pressed the advantage already rather than taunt Sands about being tired.

Taunt… Sands about being tired. That was my first thought even though he’d clearly meant both of us simply because I wasn’t tired. At all. We had been at this for several intense minutes by that point, so much that Sands was almost dead on her feet, and even Doxer was panting. Both had slowed down over the course of this. I’d thought that avoiding his blows and countering was getting easier because I was getting the timing down. But the truth was that Doxer was getting tired…. and I wasn’t.

I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even breathing hard. I felt absolutely fine, as if I hadn’t been exerting myself at all.

“Cover me,” I murmured. “Try to keep him off my back if he teleports. I’ve got this.”

With that, I pointed the staff at the ground and used it to launch myself forward without warning. My feet plowed into the boy’s chest. As before, it was like hitting a wall. This one, however, felt more like a wood than stone. There was give to it as the piece of shit staggered backwards with a reluctant yelp of pain.

I didn’t wait. Dropping back to my feet, I lashed out as quickly as I could into a rapid series of blows with my staff. Right side low toward his leg, left side up at his wrist, left side higher at his face, reverse and flip the staff around, use the momentum to come all the way up on the opposite side to crack the weapon against his other bicep, jump back and jab inward with the staff to smack off his face.

It wasn’t perfect. He countered, a mixture of flailing and pointed strikes that would have done much worse damage if they had been more patient and collected. Instead, two things were happening. The first was that he was getting more and more frustrated as I refused to fall down and stay there.

The second thing that was happening was that he was getting more tired with each passing moment. And I… wasn’t. At all. The difference was becoming more and more profound. He was clearly stronger, faster, and more skilled than I was. But he was getting tired, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t tired at all. For all my body had reacted, I might as well have been taking a casual stroll to the fridge.

Even then it wouldn’t have been enough without Sands. The boy could have teleported behind me and ended it completely with one quick blow. But the other girl was there, constantly jumping in whenever he tried to do that. And when she wasn’t quite fast enough, the voice in my head warned me in time.

In the end, however, it wasn’t my sudden inexhaustible energy that finished the fight. It was a gunshot, followed by a squeal of pain.

Heads snapped that way, and I saw the girl, Pacer. She was on one knee, holding a hand against her shoulder where the bullet had gone through. In front of her, Columbus was on the ground, clearly unconscious, while Sean half-lay and half-crouched in front of him. Vulcan was between them and the bitch herself, growling menacingly in spite of half a dozen dents spread over his metallic body.

And behind them, Scout stood with her rifle raised. She waited another half-second, then pulled the trigger again.

Doxer vanished with a puff of fire, reappearing next to Pacer before both of them vanished, leaving twin clouds of dirt behind that time.

“Trice!” Doxer bellowed. “Time to get out of here!”

“Not… yet.” Trice retorted. Blood covered the right half of his face from a deep cut, and he couldn’t quite stand up straight. “We’re not finished.”

Avalon, meanwhile, wasn’t doing so hot either. She was holding her arm at an odd angle, which considering how much I knew about the regeneration, and how many more of those peridles she had killed compared to me, said a lot about how much damage she’d taken.

“Sniper’s up!” Doxer retorted, vanishing in another puff of air along with the injured girl. “And Pacer’s in trouble! If the shooter’s up, the blocking spells are gonna fail soon. You-know-who can’t distract the staff for long.” He looked back toward Sands and me. “I’ll be back for that sandwich.”

“Way I see it,” I retorted, “You still haven’t finished the one we were trying to give you.”

Growling in anger, Trice pointed at Avalon. “This isn’t over. I will kill you, cunt. I’ll listen to you beg me to stop. Just like my brother did. But I won’t. I’ll listen to you die over and over again, just for the hell of it..

“Bring it,” she spat the words, hands held up defensively while she glared.

“Later,” Trice shot back. “Just know that you aren’t safe. None of you. With a little help from our friend, we can get you any time, any place.

Then they were gone. With a rush of wind and fire together, the three figures vanished.

Sands collapsed. Sean let himself fall the rest of the way before turning to check on Columbus. Scout ran to check on her sister. Even Avalon slowly sank to one knee, then slipped onto her side with a grunt of pain, breathing hard and shuddering. Her arm hung useless and loose to one side, the bones in it broken almost beyond recognition. I could see it start to knit back together.

Embracing her sister tightly when Scout reached her, Sands looked to me. “Thanks. Good thing that Amarok had some kind of telepathic communication, huh? Couldn’t have have gotten through that without your help. And how did you fight and keep giving instructions at the same time?”

I stared at her for a moment. “You heard a voice too?”

“Of course I—wait, it wasn’t you?”

The two of us stared at one another for a second. Then I shook it off and moved to check on Avalon and the boys. As before, I wasn’t tired at all. None of what had happened even made me yawn.

That was the power that the Amarok had given me. A seemingly endless amount of stamina. I could have kept fighting all night without a single break. That was the ability I’d inherited from the giant wolf.

… so where had that voice in not just my head, but Sands’s too come from? Who had been helping us? Who had been directing us through that fight?

And most of all, which of my new teachers had helped those three make this whole thing happen?

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First Hunt 4-05

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“Does Seller know you guys are pulling this shit?” Avalon’s voice was even as she stared down the guy with the heavy pike, Trice. “Do the Victors? You and I both know they wouldn’t approve it.”

“Fuck them!” Trice shouted back at her. Behind him, the handful of figures that were still in shadows muttered agreement. “You killed my brother. Torv is dead because of you. Because you’re a cunt. Now you’re gonna pay for it, and hiding behind your new bitch mommy isn’t gonna save you. You’re dead.”

“What’d you do to Scout, you son of a–” Sands was trying to yank herself free from Avalon’s grip, the mace in her hand raised threateningly as she glared at the boy who stood over her twin. “Let go!”

Trice glanced to the pair of crumpled figures on the ground before shaking his head. “The girl’s fine. They both are. Or they will be. And they’ll stay that way as long as they don’t get in the way again. We’ve got no beef with them, or with anyone else here except her.” He used two fingers to point at Avalon. “The rest of you little students can run right along home. In fact, you turn around and go back to that cabin where you found the chamrosh and you’ll find the way back to your safe little island.”

The green-haired boy’s eyes were narrow slits as he continued to stare at my roommate, his voice dark. “Only one person needs to die here tonight. And trust me, she’s had it coming for a long time.”

“Fuck you,” Sands shot back, finally wrestling herself free of Avalon’s grip. “You think we’re gonna abandon our teammate? Just because you Garden fuck-ups can’t even spell loyal, let alone define it.”

One of Trice’s companions that was still obscured by shadows pointed a dark-skinned hand while snapping, “You watch your mouth, little girl. Least we’ve got an actual fucking garden. You spoiled little Crossroads Academy shits live on a gods damn island. There ain’t no fucking roads to cross!”

“Shut it, Doxer.” Trice ordered the boy. “We’re not here for that, and we’re not trying to start shit with untrained children. We’re not here to fight or hurt anyone except for little Hannah Owens. That’s it.”

Somewhere behind me, Columbus blurted, “Wait a second, who the hell is Hannah Owens?”

Ignoring him, Trice kept his attention on Avalon. “Torv didn’t deserve to go like that. Not from you. Christ, do you even remember how much shit he put up with for you? He stuck up for you. He went out of his way to get you food, to take care of you, teach you how to fight. If it wasn’t for Torv, you’d still be that scared little runt that couldn’t even raise her voice. He brought you up outta nothing. So what if he wanted a little something for it in the end? You fucking owed him, you selfish cunt. Just cuz you’d rather munch rug than polish the chrome doesn’t mean you can’t pay a guy back for everything he did.”

Anger boiled up in me, but before either I or Avalon could say anything, Sean stepped in. “Okay, look, uhhh, Assface. Can I call you Assface? I’m gonna call you Assface. Mostly because every word that comes out of your mouth just reminds me of one massive flatulence problem. So here’s the thing, Assface. Being nice is not a god damn currency exchange. You don’t get to trade being a decent fucking person for future fun times. You earn one thing from being a relatively good person, just one. And that’s help from other relatively good people when you need it. That’s all you get. Anything else is just blind fucking stupidity, and if your brother thought treating a girl with a little respect meant she owed him anything more than friendship, then he was a piece of shit who got what he deserved.”

“You watch your fucking mouth, you ignorant shit.” Trice pointed the heavy pike toward the boy, while Vulcan growled from beside Sean. “We’re doing you a favor by giving you a chance to walk away.”

The partially-hidden figure on the opposite side of Trice, the one next to Doxer, spoke up for the first time, revealing a high, excited female voice. “Told ya they’d throw it back in our faces, Trice! C’mon, lemme play with ’em! You never let me play! C’mon!” The figure was all-but dancing with eagerness.

“One more chance,” Trice informed us. “I’m gonna count to ten. Then I’m coming after Hannah. Anyone else that gets in the way, Doxer and Pace get to play with. And they tend to break their toys.”

“Take the offer,” Avalon instructed the rest of us, her gaze still not leaving the boy. “Like he said, they don’t care about you. None of you are trained. You can’t match any of them. You’re not ready for this kind of fight, so take Scout and the prick and walk away. This doesn’t involve any of you.”

“Yeeeeaaah see, I could do that,” I conceded with an absent wave of my hand. “But it would involve getting a whole new roommate and well, that’s just not a hassle I need right now. So I think we’ll probably just help you smack these pricks around a little instead and see how that goes.” As I spoke, my eyes glanced down toward my formerly mangled arm. By that point, bare minutes after it had been practically torn to shreds, my arm was just fine again. It was like… well, it was like magic. Duh.

Trice counted slowly, in no apparent hurry to rush things. Each gradually drawled number was followed by a couple seconds of silence. His gaze was locked onto Avalon, the hate and desire for revenge clear in his murderous eyes. There was no nuance there, no sympathy, regret, or doubt about what he was doing. He didn’t just want to kill the girl, he wanted her to suffer as much as possible.

Avalon, for her part, was glaring openly at me. “Chambers, leave. All of you, leave. This isn’t about you. Take Scout. Take Adams. And get the fuck out of here, now. This is not a god damn game.”

“See, you’re right,” I replied. “It’s not a game. Which means we don’t have to follow any rules.”

With that, I shoved the staff that I had been charging ever since the trio had shown up and triggered the blast of kinetic energy. It shot out from the staff in an invisible wave, slamming into the three figures.

Or it should have. Unfortunately, two of the three were no longer there. Only Trice still stood in place, that pike of his twisted at an angle. As the wave of force came at him, he stepped toward it, catching the wave on his weapon somehow. A small tornado appeared around the blade of the pike as the force that I had sent at him was captured, before he gave it a flick. The force shot off of his weapon, slamming into the already-leaping Vulcan to send the mechanical dog flying off to crash into the dirt.

Sands was there, swinging her mace up and around with a two-handed blow. Trice gave a casual flick of his pike, catching the end of it on the handle of the mace to knock it off course before stepping out and around the girl. His weapon snapped back sharply, the long handle smacking into Sands’ shoulder to knock her stumbling past him. A second later, he twisted a little to the side, a motion as casual as if he was simply cracking his neck. The blue-silver beam of concussive force that Columbus had shot from his goggles sailed past the spot where the boy’s head had been an instant earlier.

Then he was in front of me. The blunt end of his pike lashed up and over, and I barely caught it on my own weapon, snapping it up into place just in time to avoid taking the blow to my throat. The force of his attack sent painful vibrations through my hands, nearly knocking the weapon from my grasp.

Before I could even start to recover from that, Trice had reversed the course of his pike, and the pointy end was abruptly coming straight up toward my eye, while my staff remained horribly out of position.

At the last instant, a glowing energy sword interposed itself between my face and the incoming pike. Avalon smacked the blade out of the way before lashing out with a kick that forced the boy to take a step back. Rather than give him a chance to recover, my roommate went after him fast and hard. She lashed out with the blade of energy from her right gauntlet, forcing him to deflect it with his pike. While he was still out of position and recoiling, Avalon lunged in on the other side, her left hand snapping out with a second blade of energy already forming as she lashed out at him.

He stepped in, evading the blade with a quick twist of his body before smacking the other girl in the face with his elbow. She reeled just enough to give him an opening, which he took advantage of by shoving the blade of his pike down toward the girl’s knee. Avalon managed to twist away from it fast enough to deck him across the face with the flat of her fist, back-handing the boy hard.

In the same moment, however, Trice kicked Avalon’s legs out from under her, sending my roommate down hard onto her back. He followed that up by trying to shove his weapon straight down into her briefly prone form. He might even have managed it within the extremely brief second before Avalon recovered, except that she wasn’t alone. Lunging that way, I lashed out with my own weapon, colliding it with his just in time to knock the descending pike off-course so that it struck the ground beside the other girl.

Before he could yank the weapon out of the ground, Columbus shot another beam of force at him, careful to avoid hitting anyone else. But Trice dropped into a backwards roll, letting the blast of concussive energy fly past above him while his foot kicked out to knock his own pike up and over.

The weapon fell neatly into the boy’s hand, and he twisted around while rolling to his knees, bringing it up just in time to catch Sands’s descending mace. Shoving her out of the way with a quick motion of his arms, Trice flipped himself up into a kick that struck Sean across the face, knocking him sprawling right into Columbus’s path before the other boy could fire another shot.

Avalon, back on her feet by that point, had read the incoming situation perfectly. She positioned herself where Trice would have to move, catching him with nowhere else to go and seemingly no time to react or change course. Her gauntlet swung, the energy sword cutting through the air to literally disarm him.

Trice disappeared. As Avalon’s blade cut through the air where his arm had been, the boy completely and unexpectedly vanished for about half a second before reappearing directly behind the girl. The blade of his weapon was aimed straight for her back, and there was a twisted sneer on his face as he shoved it forward.

Then Vulcan was there. The mechanical dog leapt, jaws closing around the long shaft of the pike, tearing it out of Trice’s grip half of an instant before the blade would have hit Avalon.

Sands took the chance to attack the boy from the left while he was left weaponless, while I hit him from the other side. She went high toward his face, and I swung my staff for his knee.

He leapt over my attack, twisting to avoid the swing of Sands’ mace. In the end, he might have evaded both of our attacks entirely. Might have. Except Sands wasn’t just swinging her mace. She also created a circular wall right beside the boy, just in time for my staff to smack into it as I triggered the button that deposited a mine against the magically constructed wall. Then both Sands and I smacked our weapons against the spot where the mine was before simultaneously throwing ourselves in opposite directions.

The mine exploded against the wall directly beside Trice before he could recoil. The boy was knocked to the ground with a cry, sprawling there for a moment before he rolled over.

Sands and I both started to move, knowing that we had to take the chance we had before Trice could recover. Unfortunately, before we could go more than a step, a new figure appeared directly in front of us. “Uh uh,” the tall, dark-skinned guy that was obviously Doxer announced. “Time to let those two sort things out on their own. Trice gets to deal with Hannah. You girls can play with me.”

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the girl, Pace, interposing herself between Columbus and Sean. And a little bit ahead of us, Trice had gotten back to his feet to face Avalon.

Three of them. With Avalon’s help, we had barely been holding against just Trice. Now we were split up. Avalon was left to face Trice on her own, while Sands and I had Doxer to deal with, and the boys had Pace. When it had been five-on-one, we had just barely managed to knock him down.

“Don’t worry, little girls,” the big guy informed us while cracking his neck to the side. “This won’t take long. Unless I start having fun. Then we might be here awhile.”

With that, his fist lashed out. I barely had the chance to notice the blur of motion before the blow took me in the face so hard I hit the ground before I knew what was happening. His punch was like a freight train. I was in the dirt, pain filling my face while Sands yelped my name. A second later, she went sprawling over me to hit the ground as well.

“Oh yeah,” Doxer chuckled, cracking his knuckles as he stood over us.

“This is gonna be fun.”

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