Eiji Ueda

Exodus 44-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

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

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

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

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

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

But Great Whites can jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough of this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”

The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.

Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.

The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.

She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”

A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.

The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.

Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.

Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.

“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”

‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”

“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”

“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”

Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”

Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.

“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”

Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.

Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.

A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.

No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.

“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.

Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”

“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”

“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”

“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”

She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.

“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.

Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–

Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–

A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.

It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–

A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?

Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”

Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”

Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”

Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”

“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”

“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”

“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”

Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.

“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.

“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.

Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”

The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”

He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.

The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.

“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”

“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”

“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”

“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”

The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”

They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.

So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.

“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”

Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”

Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”

Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Enji?”

The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and  Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.

Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.

“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.

“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”

“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”

“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”

Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.

“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”

So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.

A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.

To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.

“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.

“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”

“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”

She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.

Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.

Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.

“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.

“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”

“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”

The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”

“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.

They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”

“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”

“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”

“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”

“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.

And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.

“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”

“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.

“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”

They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…

“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”

“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.

“I know I am!”  

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Mini-Interlude 46 – Harper Hayes

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the the bubbly and cheerful student Harper Hayes, whom Flick interacted with when she was partnered with Doug during the hunt for the Aswang known as Hyde. 

“Wheee!” Harper Hayes, the bubbly young woman whose pigtailed hair would have been blonde if she hadn’t dyed it bubblegum pink, held both hands out to the side like she was an airplane as the motorcycle she was on all-but flew along the road and down the hill.

“Damn it, Harper!” the boy in front of her, who was actually driving the motorcycle, cursed. “I told you before, hold onto me!” He brought the motorcycle to a stop at the base of the hill. “You wanna fall off and break every bone in your body or something?”

“Sorry, Eiji,” Harper recited in a sing-song voice, still smiling at her teammate. “But I just had to do that one more time, we were almost here. Come on, we have regeneration, you know? And all kinds of powers. I’m not gonna break just by falling off a motorcycle. I got punched in the face by that ogre the other day and I was okay!”

The boy grunted, then stepped off the motorcycle and gave her a long look, which she returned with a bright smile. Eiji Ueda was a Heretic-Born boy who was Japanese by way of Canada. Not that he spent much time there. Harper still wasn’t clear on the whole situation, but there was something about some powerful Stranger basically ruling most of Canada, who didn’t take kindly to Heretics being around. They were very much a minority up there.

Standing slightly under six and a half feet tall and built pretty much like a linebacker, Eiji was also one of the smartest people that Harper had ever met. The only person their general age she had seen who was better at the regular school stuff was Vanessa Moon. Sometimes, she thought that at least half their grade had a crush on the boy, male and female alike.

Stepping off the motorcycle as well, the girl turned to pat it. “Thanks for the ride, Raphael.” In turn, the lights on the front of the motorcycle blinked on and off twice, while the engine made a noise that sounded like a purr.

The motorcycle wasn’t just Eiji’s personal transport. It was also his weapon, a cyberform with the ability to transition between four separate modes. He could be the motorcycle he was now, a large hiking backpack that let the boy carry him around, a suit of power armor that he could wear into battle, or a massive rhinoceros that fought alongside him.  

Harper had been the one to suggest naming him Raphael, after finding out that the Japanese word for a rhino was sai. She thought it was cute.

“And thank you!” she chirped then while bouncing over to hug the boy himself. “You know, for the ride.”

He nodded easily. “Of course, I wasn’t gonna leave you stuck taking the bus to get home for your birthday. Eighteen, huh?”

Her head bobbed eagerly. “Uh huh! But not til tomorrow, technically.” That was one of the rules that Crossroads had. As a Bystander-kin student, you were allowed to go home for a day or two on your birthday. It was easier than trying to have Bystander parents visit the school. Which would… yeah, that would be pretty hard to explain.

Eiji was already turning to look around. He paused, squinting at the nearby wrought iron gates and the sign above them. “You live next to a cemetery?”

She laughed, giggling merrily as her head shook. “Don’t be a silly goose. I live in the cemetery.”

The boy had been starting to nod, before making a slight choking sound. “You what in the who now?”

“Come on!” Pivoting, Harper started to skip to the gate. “I’ll introduce you to my mom.”

“Uh.” Eijin’s feet stayed firmly planted where he was. “This, this mom of yours, is she of the breathing type?”

If anything, Harper laughed even more. “You’re goofy, Eijin,” she informed him while pushing the gate open. “C’mon!”

Behind her, she heard the boy mutter, “Didn’t actually answer the question…” But he followed after her anyway, slipping through the gate before pulling it closed after himself. Then she led him along the path next to the perfectly trimmed grass, leading her friend and teammate to a simple brick building off to the side. It looked like a small church there at the front of the cemetery.

The two them had barely reached the entrance before the door opened and an older woman in her late forties with styled blonde hair and a pair of very jangly earrings that made noise with each motion of her head rushed through to scoop Harper into a hug. “My baby’s home!”

Giggling, Harper hugged onto the woman tightly. “Hi, Mom!”

Somewhere in the background, Eiji muttered what sounded like an excessive amount of gratitude to whatever deity was listening.

Finally letting her daughter down, Harper’s mother beamed at the boy. “And is this your boyfriend?”

“Mom!” Harper blushed, still giggling as she shook her head. “Eiji’s just my friend. He gave me a ride.”

“Well,” the woman gestured. “Thank you for that, Eiji. Would you like to come in for some lunch? I made fried chicken.” She winked then. “It’s super fresh. And I promise, there’s nothing strange or creepy inside. Our family may own the cemetery, but we try not to fall into those kinds of cliches.”

“Ah, no thank you, Mrs. Hayes.” Eiji shook his head. “It sounds great, but I’ve really gotta get back on the road. I’ll be back in a couple days to pick up Harper though.”

“Ms. Hayes, actually,” the woman corrected gently. “I’m afraid it’s just Harper and me.”

“Oh, uh, right. Sorry, Ms. Hayes.” Eiji blanched a little, clearly curious about what had happened, but too polite to ask.

After another minute of brief small talk, the boy apologized again for not being able to stay and made his way down the walk and back out of the gate. As he disappeared,  Harper watched him go. Her smile remained. “I like Eiji,” she announced. “He’s a good friend.” For a few seconds, that smile held. Then she turned to the woman beside her. “And so are you, Karlee.” Her voice, once bright and chipper, had softened, taking on a maturity it had lacked before.

The woman who had been posing as her mother gave a little curtsey. “You know I’d do anything to help. We all would. Have you… have you had any luck?” Her voice was tentative.

“No.” Harper’s head shook. “They’ve hidden the pieces rather… thoroughly.”

“You’ll find them.” Karlee gave a confident nod. “We know you will. But I was serious about the chicken. It’s waiting inside, my–”

“Thank you, Karlee.” Harper touched the woman’s arm briefly, smiling faintly. “I’ll be right in. I just… I need to visit him.”

Nodding in understanding, Karlee moved back inside the house, leaving the girl alone there.

Harper stood there, taking a deep breath before she started across the cemetery grounds, picking her way around the headstones. Eventually, she reached a large stone crypt with a heavy steel door. In the center of the door was a simple engraved circle. She put her hand out, laying it flat in the middle of that circle. After a couple of seconds, the circle began to glow. Then, with a low, grinding rumble, the door slid open. Not outward or inward. Instead, it slid sideways into the stone doorframe, revealing the tomb inside, where a single heavy sarcophagus lay on a stone altar.

She stepped inside the crypt, waiting until the door had rumbled shut behind her. Yet, the room remained brightly lit, through an unseen source. The sarcophagus lay in the exact center of that light, and the girl approached it reverently.

“I’m very close, my love,” she whispered, reaching out a hand to place tenderly against the elaborate coffin. “So very, very close. The Seosten have no idea that I’m there, or that I’m looking for the pieces they stole. I’ll find them. And when I do… when I do, I’ll bring you back.”

It was strange, talking like this after spending so much time adopting the personality she had chosen to convey while pretending to be a simple Heretic student. But then, that was the point. If she was going to remain under cover, no one could suspect she was anything special. She purposefully kept herself around the middle of the pack as far as both grades and their combat training went. She had chosen weapons that would give absolutely no hint as to her true identity. Every move she made was carefully calculated not to give the Seosten any reason to suspect that she was more than she seemed to be.

Thankfully, she had more than enough experience when it came to adopting different personalities. Throughout her long, long life, the girl who now called herself Harper Hayes had worn many identities. Even from the very beginning, from the start of everything, she had been two people: the person others expected her to be, and the person she chose to become. And though there were many differences between the two, one thing had been constant. She was, and would always be, loyal to the man she adored and loved with every ounce of her soul.

After all, whether she was Guinevere or Lancelot, both served their king.

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