Fahsteth

Interlude 5B – Fossor (Heretical Edge 2)

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Four Years Ago

Jefferson Coalbright missed his family. Yes, the trip up here to fish and camp in the Canadian wilderness with his buddies was important. It was tradition, one they had kept alive for the past twenty years, even through the deaths of a few of their close friends. And now, not taking the trip would feel like dishonoring that memory. To say nothing of how much he’d hate himself for letting his living buddies down. But still, two weeks was a long time to be away from his wife, his father, and all six of his children. He missed them more than he could say. 

Still, this trip was just about over. Then, he supposed, he would spend most of the year looking forward to the next one. That was how it always went. The grass was greener, and so on. 

At the moment, Jefferson was washing his hands in the restroom at the edge of the campgrounds he and his friends had chosen this year. Hearing the squeak of the door, he glanced up at the mirror, only to smile at the reflection. “Well, hey there, Freddy. You haven’t gone home yet, huh? I thought you were taking off yesterday?”

“Oh, not just yet,” the slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a soft, inviting expression that made him look like that friendly uncle everyone knew replied easily. He crossed the restroom with something in one hand, setting it up on the sink between them. “Just can’t bring myself to leave this beautiful place.” ” He inhaled and exhaled with pronounced satisfaction. “It was Astrid’s favorite place to come, you know.” A lost, faraway expression crossed the man’s face. 

Biting his lip, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “I know, buddy.” Fred was a man he’d only met a few days earlier, yet the man was so friendly, so full of wonderful stories of his late wife (who shared a name with Jefferson’s own lost mother), that he felt as though he’d known the former stranger for a much longer time. “She’d be glad you were still coming up here, I know she would.”  

Changing the subject then, he gestured to the object that had been placed up on the other sink. It was a white-red rose in a flower pot. “Now that’s just gorgeous, where did it come from?” 

“Hmm?” Glancing to the flower as though he’d forgotten about it for a moment, Fred paused. A somewhat sad smile crossed his face briefly. “Oh… there’s a grove of them a few hours’ hike from here. Astrid… Astrid loved them, so I always make sure to take one to her grave after one of these trips.” Shaking his head, he noted, “And then I went and forgot I’d already picked the one for her earlier. Took a second one and didn’t even… notice…” Trailing off, he seemed to lose himself in memories (happy ones, Jefferson hoped) for a few seconds before coming back to the present. “Ah, actually, I’m glad I found you. You’re heading out this morning, aren’t you? Why don’t you take that one home to your own wife? Let her know just how much you missed her.” 

After briefly considering, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “You know what, I think I might take you up on that. Here, let me buy it off you.” He reached for his wallet. 

“No, no, no, don’t be ridiculous.” Shaking his head, Fred took the flower pot and pressed it against Jefferson. “You take this and make the missus happy, you hear me? It’s plenty enough payment just thinking about the feelings this little plant here is going to give your whole family.” 

Thanking him again, Jefferson Coalbright took the flower, sniffing it curiously before the sound of a familiar horn honking drew his attention. “Right, that’s the guys. I’ll see you next time, Freddy! Maybe next year.” 

Watching the man leave with the flower under one arm, ‘Fred’ slowly straightened. His cheerful expression remained, but it seemed decidedly less friendly in that moment. “No, Mr. Coalbright,” Fossor murmured under his breath while standing on the ashes he had magically spelled to be unnoticeable by the humans around here. 

“I don’t think you will.” 

*******

Three Years Ago 

 

Clipping the badge that identified him as a doctor onto his white coat as he strolled out of the elevator onto the children’s wing of the psychiatric care hospital, Fossor gave a polite wave to the woman behind the desk who knew him as Alvin Carver. She barely looked up from the phone, too busy with her own work to even say hello as he passed by. She certainly didn’t notice the ashes that sprayed out of the canteen he held in one hand and coated the floor in front of him before just as quickly vanishing after he had stepped on them. 

It was late enough in the day that things were pretty quiet, save for the rapid babbling coming from the nurse’s station, as Fossor neared the room belonging to Dakota Coalbright. One quick visit, in and out, just to continue fulfilling his end of the bargain with the creature known as Kwur. The plant-being had grown particularly fond of this girl and wanted her checked in on now and then. 

Fossor, of course, could sympathize with growing somewhat attached to a child that he saw as his own. Young Felicity, of course, would be… fourteen now? Just entering high school. He’d have to pay her another visit soon. It had been a couple years since that time in the dentist’s office, and he was certain her mother would appreciate some new pictures. 

The things he did to show his affection for that woman, honestly. He was clearly growing soft. 

Just as he reached out for the door to see how Dakota was doing, it opened on its own. The old necromancer was taken slightly by surprise, stepping back as two figures emerged. One was a very heavy-set, round-figured beachball of a man with a broad smile. The other was a young blonde girl. Both emerged from the room together in mid-conversation. 

He hadn’t heard them before. Magic. There had to be magic involved. It had kept their presence in the room as well as their conversation secret, likely to avoid being overheard by nosy nurses. And now, they both looked up to see the man who had just been about to go into the room. 

The girl was nothing. She simply smiled absently, starting to excuse herself with a polite apology. She didn’t know him, had no idea that anything was wrong. She would go on without another thought about it. 

The man, however, was a different story. The moment their eyes met, Fossor knew. This was a man who knew him, one who recognized him. He too, vaguely recognized the other figure, though the specifics were escaping him at the moment. But that hardly mattered. What did matter was that the man knew who Fossor was. And that was something that couldn’t be allowed. He’d seen Fossor about to walk into Dakota’s room. That was a story that would get out, and the entire point of this charade was that when the time came, people couldn’t know that Fossor had any connection whatsoever to the girl in that room. Otherwise, the whole game would be ruined. And it happened to be a game that Fossor was determined to win. 

Yes, this was definitely a problem. One that he needed to take care of now. 

The fat man was already reacting, recovering from his own surprise as he reached for something in his pocket. His mouth was open, starting to blurt a warning while his other hand moved to shove the blonde girl behind him for protection. 

But Fossor had been doing this for a long time, and had been reacting even before he fully understood the situation. A thought manifested several ghosts surrounding the pair. One yanked the door into Dakota’s room shut before the girl could notice anything wrong. Another covered the blonde girl’s mouth and yanked her up, while two more covered the fat man’s mouth and held his arms down before he could grab whatever he had been reaching for. 

The ghost who appeared next was different from the others. He was larger by over a foot, and purple rather than blue-gray, with burning red eyes. His name was Ahmose, and both hands covered the fat man’s eyes. The resulting scream of agony from the man as the torture-spirit used his power was only barely muffled by the other ghost’s hands over his mouth. Within a few seconds of that, he had collapsed. 

Gesturing for his spirit troops to gather up the fat man, Fossor gave a look toward the blonde girl, who was giving her own muffled scream while struggling against the ghost holding her. The scream, at least, stopped as Fossor waved a hand, focusing his flesh-crafting magic to seal her mouth. He’d have to kill her, of course. But he’d first like to at least… wait…

Frowning, Fossor looked up and down the hall. Something about the girl was off. Things still looked clear, so he directed the ghosts to carry the unconscious fat man and the still-struggling (even more now that her mouth had been temporarily sealed) girl into one of the other rooms. The patient in that one was safely asleep, knocked out every evening by a very strong cocktail of drugs, so Fossor was quite certain they wouldn’t be interrupted. Giving one last glance toward the nurses station, he waited until he was also certain that no one had noticed anything. Then he crossed the hall. Near the door, he glanced toward Ahmose. “Watch for intruders,” he ordered. “Stay out of sight.” 

That said, he stepped into the other room, where the ghosts were just depositing the fat man on the floor. Ignoring him, Fossor stepped up to the struggling blonde girl, extending a hand to touch her shoulder before frowning. “Hmm… someone… very powerful is keeping a bit of an eye on you, aren’t they? Well, that makes this a little more complicated. You see, I would simply make you disappear. But… that would attract this person’s attention, and attention is a bad thing for me.” 

His frown turned to a smile. “I suppose we’ll just have to make sure neither of you remember any of this.” 

******

Several Weeks Ago

 

The door of a small hole-in-the-wall bar in the Alter-filled town of Strangefield swung open as the blue reptilian-skinned man known as Azlee Ren strolled out. On the way, he called over his shoulder. “Now don’t you even think about staying out too late, Minnsy! We’ve got that brunch date with Carolina in the morning and if you make me listen to the old lady’s stories all by myself, you’re gonna wake up with a shaved you-know-what, I swear to Pete and his dragon!” 

Whistling, the only member of the Gehenna guard who actually spent a fair amount of time in the town their outpost was near (there was a reason he was put in charge of interacting with outsiders) strolled off around the corner of the building to the small parking lot. On the way, he plucked the communication device from one pocket. To outsiders, it would look like a cell phone, but was actually capable of much more. For the moment, he simply used it to compose a quick message for his sister. She was stationed at one of the other outposts, but the message would be sent along through the Gehenna intergalactic communications network and she would get it within a day or two. He had to let her know that they’d both been wrong about who had written that book they were both obsessed with as children. It was the Benestean, Tuuv R’ken. 

“So… I… guess… we… both… owe… each… other… dinner.” With that typed out, Azlee clicked the device shut, dropped it in his pocket, and reached out to grab the door of his car. He could have called for a teleport in and out of town, of course. But Azlee preferred to drive. It gave him time to think. Or not think, and just let his mind wander. Besides, the scenery was gorgeous here on Earth. Much better than the place Tala was stationed. He’d have to send her more pictures. Or would that be considered rubbing it in her face? Hmmm… it was a fine line. 

Stepping down into the car, he hit the button to turn it on while shutting the door. For a moment, he fiddled with the radio to find a station playing something he could groove to. Then the man shifted the car into reverse and turned to look over his shoulder to back up out of the lot. He was met with the sight of a man in his back seat holding a small spray bottle up. Before Azlee could react, the man triggered the spray into his face. Instantly, he felt his throat close up, his heart bursting. As darkness filled his vision, he collapsed sideways into the passenger seat with a violent spasm, blood gushing from his mouth while Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight played. 

Sighing, Fossor set the spray bottle aside. He listened to Patsy’s song for a few seconds while waiting for the poison to finish its job. About halfway through it, he felt the death complete, and sent a bit of his power into the body. Immediately, Azlee sat back up, and Fossor gestured. “Let’s go get you cleaned up, my friend. And pick up the pace, hmm? There’s much to do, and we can’t have anyone notice you going missing yet. Not until you acquire a few things for me.” 

Without speaking, the dead Azlee pulled the car out of the lot before starting to pull away from the bar, all while Fossor casually hummed along with that old song.  

*******

Several Days Ago

 

Back when he was alive, the man known as Randall Puzler had been a detective for the Las Vegas police department while secretly working for the Three Ruling Families of Akharu, Oni, and Vestil. For months now, however, he had actually been a dead man being puppeted by Fossor toward one end: becoming friendly with the Vestil man who was, at that very moment, punching the wall of the precinct on his way out. 

“Hey!” the puppeted zombie called out toward the glass-like man full of colored smoke and liquid. “Something wrong, Bol?” 

Bol Sampson sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Puzler. Turns out your people can’t really help me after all.” 

“Well, what happened?” Adopting a concerned expression to the zombie’s face, Fossor directed it to hold a hand out. “Maybe I can do something, you know? It’s not… the Oni acting out?” 

“Not yet,” Bol confirmed darkly. “But they will soon enough. It–” He sighed once more. “Princess Rowan’s missing, and none of our people or your people have any idea how to find her.” 

“Hmm.” Pretending to consider that, ‘Puzler’ snapped his fingers. “Hold on, what you need is outside help. You heard of that Heretic rebellion thing, right?” 

Bol sounded doubtful. “Something tells me they have their things to deal with.” 

Offering his ‘friend’ a smile, the zombified police officer shook his head. “Trust me, they will if you have the right thing to offer in exchange. See, I was ahhh… I was angling to get some help of my own from one of those vampires who works for them. I hear she’s pretty good. Asenath?” 

“Heard of her too,” Bol confirmed. “But she’s got a direct connection to the Akharu, Tiras. Which means she is not going to have happy feelings about my people.” 

“She doesn’t have to have happy feelings,” ‘Puzler’ pointed out. “Not if you’ve got something to trade for her help. Like I said, I’ve been looking for a way to get some help from her myself, but if it’ll save that little girl and stop what’ll happen to this place if you don’t get her back, it’s all yours.” 

“You really think you’ve got information that could get her to drop everything and bring the cavalry to save Princess Rowan?” Bol asked, curious by that point. 

The dead man smiled encouragingly. “Oh…

“I’m pretty sure she’ll trade just about anything to find out where her father disappeared to.” 

*******

Four Hours Ago

 

The unmarked yellow van pulled to a stop in front of an ordinary-looking suburban house on the edge of Las Vegas. The man standing by the fence watching the van arrive raised one hand in greeting, while the doors slid open to allow a handful of Gehenna agents to hop out. Their leader addressed the man waiting for them. “You’re the representative of the Three Families?” 

“Nah,” the man drawled, not moving away from the fence. “I’m the dead guy making sure you end up right on top of the spell the stunningly handsome and brilliant necromancer who made me his puppet set up for you.” 

“Wh–” That was as far as the Gehenna agent got, before the promised spell abruptly ignited. All six of the van’s newly-emerged occupants were engulfed in white-blue flames that reached ten feet into the sky and stayed that way for a full ten seconds before fading. The men looked outwardly unharmed. But their vision was totally vacant, and all six collapsed lifelessly to the ground a moment later.

Once they were down, Fossor emerged from the house. A cloud of ash sprinkled the ground ahead of him as he casually ambled his way out to stand on the sidewalk, watching over the dead bodies. “Well,” the necromancer announced while rubbing his hands together, “we should get busy. 

“So much to do before someone notices that you’re late to saving the day.” 

 

********

Present

 

In one of several dungeon-like rooms deep within his own home, Fossor watched several projected holographic images against the wall. The one he focused on showed the view through the eyes of the leader of the Gehenna field team he had ambushed and… prepared. 

“I can’t tell you how much I hate those motherfuckers.” The announcement came from the Akheilosan mercenary Fahsteth, who stood behind Fossor with his arms folded. “You sure I can’t have some popcorn for this?” 

“I’ll send you a copy,” Fossor assured him. “Feel free to enjoy it on your own time with any snacks you like.” 

That said, he turned his attention away from that particular projection, allowing things to proceed mostly on what the humans would call auto-pilot as the field team leader and his companions made their way toward the Gehenna outpost. In the meantime, Fossor focused on the other two projections. One showed the view through Azlee Ren’s eyes as he was escorted by the Seosten with the phoenix tattoo, while the other revealed one through the eyes of one of his other zombies, a slaver who was already working with his companions at the junkyard to line up what they thought would be a delivery of fresh cannon fodder for Fossor’s battle arena. 

Hearing Fahsteth snarl, Fossor glanced over to the first projection. Azlee was looking at the girl, Hannah. Or Avalon, as she went by now. “You’ll have your turn,” he calmly told the man. 

A couple of things happened almost simultaneously in two of the projections then. Up at the Gehenna base, the one called Prelate came into view as the group entered the lobby, approaching at a brisk pace. “Kwur’s escape attempt has been halted, then,” the Gehenna outpost leader declared, a smile touching his blue-scaled face. “Good. Things can get back to normal. What else do you have to report? Where is Azlee? And what of this potential alliance with the Heretic rebellion to track down our other wayward prisoner?” 

“Well,” Fossor began, his voice traveling through his power to make the puppet in front of Prelate say the same thing. “Turns out we have two things to report. First, we really shouldn’t let ourselves get so distracted. And second, we are shit at identifying when people are already dead.” 

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Azlee had looked at Felicity. And Felicity had looked at him. In that moment, Fossor saw the recognition in her eyes. She knew. She knew the man was dead. And she proved that by immediately taking control of him. She made him stop. She made him sit down. And then, then she started to shout a warning. 

In the Gehenna base, the field team leader and the other five members of his team all moved as one to yank their shirts open. This revealed the intricate spellwork that had been carved into their chests. A single spell that continued through all five men. Prelate had time to see that much, his eyes widening and a shout coming to his lips. 

But Fossor was faster, reaching out to touch the nearby wall while speaking the single command word. Instantly, all of the slaves and slavers in the junkyard shown in the third projection were killed. Their life forces went to power two spells. The first half of the energy went to the spell carved into the flesh of the men in the Gehenna base. The resulting explosion would annihilate the entire Gehenna outpost and leave a one mile wide crater in every direction.

Meanwhile, the other half of that energy went to Las Vegas, into a very different spell that had been etched into the skin of Azlee Ren’s corpse. As with the others, the result blew the man apart, literally making him explode in a burst of white energy. But the point of the spell was not destruction. Instead, the energy that erupted from the dead man literally enveloped its single target, Felicity herself. And in the next second, she was gone. 

As all three projections went white and faded, Fahsteth’s laughter filled the room. The man could barely keep himself upright, he was so amused. And obviously delighted by the destruction of the Gehenna base on Earth. 

“Well,” Fossor announced happily. “That’s over with. Shall I lead you out?” 

“What–hey,” Fahsteth muttered, “What about the girl? Isn’t she about to show up?”

With a chuckle, Fossor started out of the room, shaking his head. “We have some time to wait. Remember, thanks to my… agreement with dear Joselyn, I cannot allow harm to come to her daughter until she is eighteen years old and no longer a child. That’s not for another month.” 

Fahsteth paused, looking back into the room they were leaving. “Uh, sure looks to me like you jumped the gun a bit.” 

“Nonsense,” Fossor insisted. “I have not allowed any harm to come to her. In fact, she will be safer through these next few weeks than she could ever possibly be.” He smiled faintly. “Considering she will not experience them.” 

Squinting at him for a moment, Fahsteth got it then. “You sly motherfucker. You’re using time travel. You’re cheating, jumping the girl straight to her birthday. Why the hell didn’t you just do that years ago?” 

“You know as well as I do that time travel magic is expensive, particularly done against one’s will,” Fossor reminded him. “Besides,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m not entirely certain the oath spell will actually work this way. There’s always the chance that it will read from her physical age, not the calendar date. In which case, holding her without harming her for a few weeks will be much easier than it would be to hold her for years without being able to harm her. Like trying to raise a child without ever being able to resort to physical discipline. This way, if the oath works off the calendar date, everything will be just fine. And if it works off her physical age, well, then I just wait a few weeks while she sits here nice and safe. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and give Joselyn the good news. 

“She’ll be so excited to know that her daughter is on her way.”

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Mini-Interlude 34 – Fahsteth and Fossor

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The metal cup, stained from decades-worth of liquid sloshing down its sides, came down on the the wooden bar with enough force to have added more of those stains if it hadn’t, only a second earlier, been emptied into the mouth of the man holding it.

“I liked that bartender, graverobber,” the creature who had been known for so many centuries as Fahsteth spoke flatly, without looking over his shoulder or looking up. His gaze remained centered almost mournfully on his metal cup. “He really knew how to mix a good Pasca. You know how hard that is to find?”

The being in question, a gray-skinned humanoid with squid-like tentacles at his mouth and three eyes, had been standing ramrod straight for the past few minutes. At those words, he collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, hitting the floor like so much (literally) dead weight.

“How did you notice?” the man standing behind Fahsteth asked while crossing the room of this alien bar on a world far from Earth. Rather than walking directly to where the mercenary sat, however, he crossed behind the bar and bent slightly to take out a bottle of dark green liquid.

Fahsteth regarded the necromancer briefly. If he squinted a little bit, he could almost see the skinny, terrified little kid that he’d known back in the prison they had shared for so long. Himself assigned the number of Fah-Steth, or thirty-seven, while the boy then known as Merakeul had been Fah-Seur, or thirty-four. Fah-Seur, a title that he had eventually taken as his new name. Thirty-Four, Fah-Seur. That had later been misheard by the ancient humans as Fossor, which had literally become their word for a gravedigger as the ghost-wrangler made a name for himself on their world.

Honestly, he couldn’t understand the necromancer’s obsession with the humans. The Seosten, sure. He could understand why they stuck around for so long. They wanted to keep molding the weapons that they had essentially stolen from Fomorians who had created them. But Fossor’s insistence on spending so much time on Earth was just… strange. There was an entire galaxy out there, but he remained focused primarily on that one world seemingly simply because the humans had tried so hard to kick him off of it.

He was dangerous, to be sure. But Fossor had too much of a one-track mind sometimes, for someone as old as he was. The humans and the Seosten had tried to kick him off of Earth, and he still hadn’t moved on even hundreds of years later. He could’ve conquered several other planets in that time, brought entire species to heel the way he had the Meregan and his own race. Yet he chose to focus his attention almost exclusively on Earth.

At the heart of it all, the necromancer was still that little kid that had been thrown into one of the worst prisons in the galaxy. In some ways, despite all his power and strength, he was still that boy who had vowed that no one would ever stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.

“How’d I know he was dead?” the shark-man eventually answered his uninvited guest’s question. “I told you, he made the best Pasca in this part of the galaxy. You’re a good necromancer, but you can’t mix Pasca for shit. Not even while you’re puppeting someone that can.”

Pausing then, he glanced over his shoulder, taking in the sight of the rest of the bar, where bodies lay slumped over their tables or collapsed in the middle of the floor. “And did you really have to kill everyone in here?” he complained. “I actually liked some of those guys.”

“Come now, Steth,” Fossor replied while carefully pouring himself a glass of the green liquid. “I asked them a simple question earlier: whether you had been here lately. They lied. I can’t have people out there thinking that it’s okay to lie to me. What kind of example would that set?”

Fahsteth grunted. So he’d been right. Fossor had killed everyone in the bar and then puppeted them for the past few minutes while he had come in and ordered his drink. “I didn’t touch your precious Heretic-kid, even when she really had it coming, so what’re you bothering me for?”

Taking a long pull from his glass, Fossor set it down before answering. “Call it curiosity. You’ve come face-to-face with my next project, and I want to know what you think of her. I can’t exactly speak to our angel-friends about the subject, after all.”

Snorting, Fahsteth shook his head. “Pah. Angels. Seosten. Between them and the Fomorians, the whole universe is one big fucking toilet, just waiting for someone to flush it and start over.”

“They are an annoying obstacle at best, yes,” Fossor confirmed. “And yet, you were working for them.”

“Nothing wrong with their money,” the shark-man retorted. “At least there wasn’t while they were still handing it out. Second I’m a little inconvenient, do they pay me off and ship me off world like any decent employer? Nope, straight to cutting me out, literally.”

“You never should’ve trusted them,” Fossor informed him while pouring another glass. He slid it across the bar toward Fahsteth, and then poured one for himself. Together, they downed the contents.

For a moment, it was like the two of them were back at that prison once more. Not quite allies or friends, but neighbors through happenstance. Interacting amicably solely because there was little else to do, and with a shared adversary. Then, it was the guards who held them prisoner. Now, it was the Seosten who had so effectively manipulated one of the galaxy’s most adaptable and potentially powerful species into becoming their lapdogs.

“Can’t really argue with you there,” he admitted in a slight grunt. “Can’t see you being all that torn up about that little falling-out, though. After all, it means they don’t have me to ask about my old prison-mate once you make your play to go from nuisance to threat.”

Fossor gave a small, humorless smile at that. “My friend,” he replied simply, “If you were still working with them when the time came for me to take the next step, the angels wouldn’t have a chance to ask you anything before you were dead.” He ran a finger along the rim of the glass absently while adding, “Just business, I’m sure you understand.”

Fahsteth shrugged then. “What’s a little threatened-murder between old prison-mates?”

Rather than respond to that directly, Fossor simply gestured toward the bar that separated them. “Your encounter with my next project didn’t go so well for you, I hear.”

Ah, he wasn’t pointing at the bar. He was gesturing through it and toward the stool that Fahsteth sat on. Or rather, that his mechanical lower-half was seated on. His replacement parts had fashioned themselves into fairly rudimentary hips and legs by that point, since it would take awhile for even his regeneration to repair the damage biologically.

“Your sources are pretty quick,” he replied in an even tone. “That just happened yesterday.”

Smiling faintly, the necromancer lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “What can I say? Angels or humans, they still haven’t figured out how to tell when one of their own people is already dead.”

The words made Fahsteth snort. “You’ve got a dead meatpuppet walking around that island of theirs and they don’t even know it? How’d you pull that off?”

“Uh uh.” Fossor wagged a finger. “My secrets. Let’s just say that magic can accomplish many things. The Seosten have their spies and I have mine. It just so happens that mine happen to die before they become useful. And don’t change the subject. What do you think of my girl?”

“She has shit taste in girlfriends,” Fahsteth replied shortly. “At least as far as life-expectancy goes.” He gave the necromancer a long look. “Unless you think you’re gonna stake a claim on that one too.”

Fossor gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I don’t care what happens to the Bosch heir. As long as my girl stays out of the crosshairs. And, well, I would suggest that you ensure that your revenge keeps the Merlin Key out of danger too. Let sleeping dragons lie and all that. But that’s just a little friendly advice.”

“No one’s stupid enough to touch the Key of Merlin,” the shark-man retorted. “Even the Seosten aren’t gonna hurt that kid. Too much chance of… well, you know.”

The two of them nodded slightly. No need to say it out loud. They were both well-aware of what could happen if the one they called the Merlin Key was put in enough danger.

After another moment of that, Fahsteth pushed himself up. His metal legs found the floor. “Anyway, nothing for me here, since you had to go and kill my bartender.”

“My girl,” Fossor insisted, his eyes shining with what looked like a strange, demented pride. “She’s something, isn’t she?”

Staring at the man for a moment, Fahsteth finally gave a grunt of acknowledgment. “She’s only been there a few months, hasn’t she? Normal human before that?” When the necromancer nodded, he coughed. “The Seosten already noticed her. She’s progressing faster than they thought. And they can’t figure out why they can’t possess her.”

Fossor raised an eyebrow at that. “They can’t, hmm? I suppose that means they tried.”

“More than once,” Fahsteth confirmed. “Figured you had something to do with blocking them.”

The man chuckled at that, head shaking. “I confess, I’m as baffled by that revelation as they must have been. Pity, I was almost looking forward to ripping out any of them that tried to claim my prize.”

“Yeah,” Fahsteth shrugged before starting to walk out. “Well, it’s got nothing to do with me. As long as you don’t mind me teaching the bitch that did this a lesson.” He gestured toward his lower half as he walked.

Behind him, Fossor reply reached the shark-man just as he stepped out of the bar. “No problems here, old friend.

“In fact, I look forward to comforting my girl and offering my condolences for her loss.”

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Sharkhunt 23-07

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Yeah, okay, we really all should’ve seen that coming, to be honest. Avalon had no reason to hold back anymore. After all, this was the guy who had literally killed her mother and then tried to kill her. He was one of the people directly responsible for destroying her family. Honestly, the fact that she’d waited long enough for him to get all the way through his story and give us the cure for Tangle was more surprising than her eventual (inevitable) attack should have been.

Still, despite all that, somehow I still felt surprised in that moment. As the glowing energy blade sliced straight through the shark-man, literally cutting his top half from the bottom, he let out a bellow of rage that filled the room, echoing off the walls almost painfully loud. His lower half, standing there unsupported, collapsed to the floor with a gross, meaty sound.

Things seemed to happen incredibly quickly at that point. There were three sudden, thunderous roars, each so close together they might as well have been one, accompanied by a loud snap-hiss and a bright, focused light that I only caught the slightest glimpse of as something blew right past me. The sounds were followed by three quick, loud clangs, an explosion of shattering glass, a heavy thud, a low humming that was matched almost immediately by a high-pitched whine similar a squealing tire, and finally a sound like tearing, crumpling metal.

Only belatedly, seeing things after the fact and taking it in, did I realize what had happened in what seemed to be about a quarter of a second. First, the three loud roars had been three different shotguns that had snapped out in three of the room’s corners as soon as Avalon drove her blade into Fahsteth. They had all somehow automatically opened fire on her.  

Meanwhile, the snap-hiss sound was a fourth weapon that had come to life. That one was a turret of some kind that had dropped out of the ceiling to shoot an actual laser at Avalon as well. All four defensive measures had centered on the other girl as their target and started shooting.

The thing that had rushed past me was Gabriel. He had interceded. The three quick, successive clangs had been the shotgun rounds impacting and rebounding off the head of his shovel (which looked just fine), and the exploding glass was the rebounding shotgun rounds taking out a couple of the windows simultaneously. After that, the thud had been Avalon hitting the floor as Gabriel yanked her out of the way of the incoming laser (and probably away from any further counter-attacks too). The humming sound was the small portal he had opened up on the floor where the laser struck, a portal that opened up directly in front of the laser turret itself. That was where the squealing tire-like sound had come from, as the turret literally lasered itself in half.

Finally, the tearing metal sound had been the shotguns being ripped from their housing by an invisible force, which then crumpled them all into little balls as if they were made of paper.

Yeah. In an unbelievably short time span, Gabriel had deflected three different shotgun blasts from three different angles, tossed Avalon out of the way, created a portal that made the laser turret destroy itself, and telekinetically tore the shotgun turrets out of their housing to destroy them. And it was nothing to him. Nothing at all. He had probably expended about as much effort to do all that as I spent on a single swing of my staff. And even that much was debatable.

Oh, and then there was the fact that Fahsteth wasn’t dead. And not only was he not dead, he hadn’t even fallen down. His bottom half had fallen, of course. But his top half hadn’t dropped.  Instead, while Gabriel had been protecting Avalon, a metal tentacle-like coil had already shot from the shark-man’s  innards, catching itself against the ground to support the figure while a plate of some kind extended to cover the rest of his exposed wound so he wouldn’t bleed out.

“S’kelstva!” Fahsteth bellowed a word that was clearly a curse of some kind. Probably an insult. As he spoke, a second metal tentacle extended itself from the plate covering his exposed lower torso, hitting the floor to steady him. “Think I’m that easy to kill?! Wouldn’t’ve lasted this long if some little kiver could take me out like that.” Despite his words, he still looked angry. Even if Avalon’s attack hadn’t killed him, it had hurt the bastard. And it had forced him to reveal that he was a… what, a cyborg? I still didn’t know what the hell that was all about.

Avalon, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what the guy was. She just wanted him dead, regardless. And she was already back on her feet and moving that way, her expression hard.

Maybe she could have beaten him, considering the damage she’d already done. We’d never know, because the one figure everyone had stopped paying attention to during all that suddenly made himself known again. The purple-skinned, red-haired teleporter abruptly appeared directly behind Fahsteth. Grabbing onto the shark-man (or the top half of him anyway), he blurted something that sounded almost like an apology at us. Then he, and the shark-man, vanished from sight with an audible pop of energy that set my hair standing on end once more.

“No!” Avalon was there, right where Fahsteth had been. Her foot kicked the ground where his metal… tentacle… thing had been holding him up even as the blade of her gauntlet cut through the nearby wall. She didn’t say anything else, though I see the litany of curses behind her eyes as she whirled back, looking at us with an expression that showed her frustration. That in itself, the fact that her emotions were that plainly visible, gave me some idea of how upset she was.

Shoving my staff into its slot at my belt, I moved that way. I didn’t exactly run to her because… well, Avalon. But I did go right up to the girl, biting my lip. “Are… you okay, Valley?”

Her mouth opened, and it looked like she was about to reflexively snap something. But she stopped herself, hesitating slightly before taking a visible breath “I’m fine,” she stated flatly, repeating it. “I’m fine. But he–he should be–I had him right–he was–what the hell?”

It was Gabriel who spoke up. “Fahsteth is dangerous all on his own. But he’s much more dangerous because of the people he’s worked for. He doesn’t just take money for jobs, he takes enhancements, things that make him stronger or better. Unique weapons in some cases, or special magic, or, well… you saw the result of one of his jobs. Cybernetic enhancements that keep him alive long enough for his regeneration to kick in. I’m pretty sure he’s lost more body parts than the entire Star Wars saga put together by this point. Took a couple off him myself.”

Avalon’s voice was hard, her emotions clearly getting to her. “So he’s going to survive that.”

“Unfortunately,” Gabriel confirmed with a slight nod. “Which means you need to be careful. Because now he’ll know not to underestimate you. And you’ve hurt him, which he tends to take a bit personally.” Gaze softening, he added, “The point is, be careful out there. He’ll be back.”

“Next time I’ll finish the job,” the other girl promised, only belatedly blushing a little from getting the direct attention and focus of her childhood hero. She glanced away, looking back to the floor.

Biting my lip, I stepped over to examine the remains of one of the shotgun-turrets that had been ripped out of the wall and crushed. I didn’t know anything about what I was looking at, of course. But it gave me something to do other than grabbing onto Avalon, a display I knew she wouldn’t appreciate right then. Instead, I picked up the metal remains before looking back at Gabriel. “I guess he had these things set to interfere if he was attacked? But why didn’t they shoot at me?”

“You mean when you came in the room?” Gabriel shrugged. “My guess is that he had them set to react to direct aggression or an attack against him. Did you actually hit him directly?”

I thought about it before shaking my head. “I blasted that purple guy away from him… then Fahsteth came after me. I dove away from him… and held the purple guy hostage.”

“That could be it,” the man mused. “Or he might have disabled them from targeting you because of what he said about Fossor’s claim. It doesn’t sound like he was willing to risk annoying the man. Either way, they only popped on when Avalon became a direct threat.”

“I’ll show him a ‘direct threat’,” the other girl muttered darkly, arms folded over her stomach.

Belatedly, I remembered the much more important subject, suddenly spinning back that way as my eyes widened. “Oh my God! The cure, the one for Tangle! Do we–do you still have–”

“Right here.” Avalon’s hand came up with the vial of blue liquid. “Funny how he just happened to have it on him, ready to go.” Frowning, she squinted at it. “I’d say it was fake, but that stone…”

“He couldn’t have lied with the stone in his hand,” Gabriel confirmed. “Which means that really is a cure for what he did to your teacher.”

“Right, and for the record,” I informed the man, “that truth stone is probably my second favorite rock in the world right now.” Magic truth-revealing powers were great and useful, but they’d never beat Herbie.

Smiling faintly, Gabriel continued. “My guess is that he had it ready to go for a situation like the one he was just in, a bargaining chip to get himself out of trouble if need be. He’s a survivor.”

Avalon muttered something about not surviving the next time before looking back to me. “We’ve got more than the cure. We also know she’s innocent. And so was–” Stopping her face fell a bit.

“… Torv,” I finished for her, flinching. “Valley, I’m so sorry about your friend. I’m sorry you–”

“They’ll pay for it,” she interrupted, voice hard. “They’ll all pay for it. Every last one of them.”  

Straightening, I swallowed before murmuring, “At least we know a lot more than we did before all this.” Looking over to the other girl, I went on. “Not just that Torv and Tangle were innocent, but we also know why the Seosten want into that vault so bad. A spell to make every Heretic immune to them? That’d screw up their entire… everything. It’d completely fuck them over.”

“We also know the names of the other three Seosten besides Manakel,” she pointed out. “Charmeine, Paschar, and Lies. Charmeine must be the one that you saw at the beach.”

I nodded then. “Sounds right. Four of them. It could be worse. But then, I guess they can still do plenty of damage even with only a couple at each school, when we don’t know who they are.”

“And there are definitely more of them around,” Gabriel pointed out mildly. “These four will just be the ones involved in this particular mission. They’ll be the ones that are connected to each other, so if you attack one of them before you know where and who the other three are…”

“The others will know about it,” I finished, grimacing. “We either have to get all of them at once, or be prepared for some kind of retaliation if we can only get one of them. But if we can get that collar off of Pace, we’ll know–wait, wait a second.” I paused, frowning to myself thoughtfully.

Avalon looked at me then, squinting a little as I continued to remain silent. “What is it?”

Slowly, I looked up again. “The choker that Pace is using, we already know it can identify Seosten. What do you think the odds are of them allowing something like that to be used by someone that isn’t already under their control? Even if they were really allies. And as… uhh, let’s call it unstable as Pace has been, does she really seem like the kind of person the Seosten would leave with something that could identify them that easily? Hell, when they found out that we were trying to set up a meeting with one of their allies, they went straight to trying to kill him, a guy they’d been working with for like… at least twenty years, off and on. Knowing all that, do you really think they’d let Pace have that choker if she wasn’t already–”

“Already possessed,” Avalon finished for me, lifting her head with a thoughtful look. “I suppose that would make sense. But why does she act like–uh, why doesn’t she blend in more?”

“Has she always been erratic?” I asked then. “Or is this new behavior?”

The other girl shrugged helplessly. “She was older than me and not in my tribe, so I didn’t really know her until all this started happening. Torv mentioned her a couple times. I think he had a crush. That was before…” She hesitated, face falling a bit as her shoulders slumped. “Before.”

Flinching, I reached out to put a hand on her arm. “They’ll pay for what they did, what they’ve been doing.  I promise. They’re already panicking because of what we know. We’ll get there.”

Taking a breath and letting it out, I added, “The point is, Pace is probably one of the possessed people. It just makes too much sense for her not to be. That’s the only reason they’d let her keep something that could identify them. Plus, you know, they went to all the trouble of stealing it out of Litonya’s vault. The only reason I could see for doing that would be to let–hold on…”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow, looking at me curiously. “Something just occurred to you?”

I nodded. “If the Seosten went through all the trouble of stealing something like that out of the vault just to make sure the Committee didn’t have it, that would be one thing. But they stole it specifically for Pace to use. Why? I was thinking that they gave it to her so that she could keep being a host body for them after she was turned into a werewolf. But that only makes sense if-”

Avalon interrupted once more. “If the Seosten that’s possessing her can’t let her go, because she’s the one that’s crippled, Lies. The one that Fahsteth said couldn’t stop possessing someone until they died. But she’s also a werewolf, so they stole the choker because it was the easiest way to keep their host without killing her and let Lies continue to be in on things. Plus, having Pace right there with Trice and Doxer must’ve made it a lot  easier to manipulate them. Only… now we have Trice, and Doxer’s dead. So what good is the Pace body to them?”

My head shook. “I’m not sure. We’re probably missing something. Either way, I think all that fits. Pace must be possessed, and she’s probably possessed by the one that can’t let her go. But we still don’t know who any of the others are yet. And–” Abruptly, I coughed. “Wait, wait, wait. Shiori and Seth. We should really check on Shiori and Seth.”

“They’re fine,” Gabriel informed me. “Already finished dealing with the Alters that were brought over by the teleport-misfire and are waiting for us in the parking lot, if you’re ready to join them.”

I nodded, half-expecting the legendary Heretic to teleport us straight to the lot or something. Instead, he simply turned and walked to the circular hole that had been made in the metal wall. A flick of his hand literally erased enough of the metal to leave a doorway-shaped hole in it, which he moved through while continuing out to walk to the stairs. Which I really should’ve seen coming, considering everything I’d witnessed already.

Before following after the man, I reached out to catch Avalon’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to kill the bastard yet,” I murmured while watching her expression.

She bit her lip, hesitating a little before looking at me. “You’re not upset that I went after him even though we promised not to hurt him? It wasn’t  very… heroic. I just wanted him dead.”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Trust me, Valley, I get it. I do. If I had a chance to take a free swing at Fossor, I… I’d probably do the same thing. And it’s not like you could’ve warned us ahead of time. You took the shot you had right in front of you. Now he’s pissed off, but… but we’ll deal with that, okay? All of us. We still got a lot out of him. We’ve just gotta use it right.”

“Use it right…” Avalon echoed my words before giving a slight nod. “Yeah, we will.” Her gaze went back to me then. “Now let’s go check up on your other girlfriend.”

“Wha–that’s not–I didn’t–I mean she–that–” My face was pink, which only got worse as I saw the smirk on her face. “You did that on purpose.”

“What, made you blush just to make myself feel better because of how cute it makes you look?” Valley breezily replied before brushing it off with a calculated flick of her hair. “Nah.”

She started out then, forcing me to sputter a few more times before I hurried to catch up.

******

“Wait, so we can just wake up Tangle?” Shiori asked a few minutes later, once we had joined her and Seth. “You think she’ll know who the other Seosten is–oh. Right, even if she does remember, he’s probably switched bodies by now.”

“And that’s a big ‘if’,” I replied. “Considering their love of memory spells, I wouldn’t count on it. But still, she might remember something we can use. And we do know that whoever Manakel’s been possessing, it’s an adult at Crossroads. That’s something.”

“What about that Grandfather guy?” Shiori asked. “The one that taught Bosch’s daughter how to make the immunity spell to begin with. Who is he? Where’d he come from? Where is he now? How does he know how to do all that? Is he a rogue Seosten like Vanessa and Tristan’s mom?”

Avalon shrugged. “We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. That’s all Fahsteth told us. She called him Grandfather and he was the one who helped her make her family immune to Seosten possession. That’s it, that’s all we know about him.”

“For now,” I added. “Maybe he’ll come up again. But the point is, we can wake up Tangle. We… should talk to Gaia about it, find out the best way to do it… you know, secretly. Because if the Seosten think that we can wake up Tangle and talk to her, they’ll kill her. We have to do it the right way.”

Seth cleared his throat. “Right, if Nancy, Bess, and George are all gonna keep kicking at the tires of this case, I’m gonna take off. Got my own stuff to do. Just got the entire series of both The Munsters and The Addams Family on DVD and I’m gonna alternate off every episode just to decide once and for all which one’s better. So, like I said, you got your stuff, I got mine.”

“I don’t have the rest of the money on me,” I informed him. “Gaia’ll have to get the forty grand to you.”

“I’m sure she’s good for it,” he replied lazily, spinning on a heel. “Catch you later, Zipper and friends.” The vampire strode off then, humming the theme song from The Addams Family without an apparent care in the world.

Shaking that off after a second, I coughed. “Okay, well… besides waking up Tangle, I think we know what we’re doing. First we get that choker, we use it to find out who they’re possessing and kick them out, then when we’re sure there’s no other problems, we’ll get into that vault.”

Shiori hesitantly spoke up then. “Do you think we should go for the vault straight off? I mean, if there’s really a way to stop the Seosten from possessing Heretics in there…”

Before I could respond, Avalon shook her head. “Not until we have a way to identify the ones that we’re already dealing with. We have to make sure everyone we take near the vault, everyone who has anything to do with opening it, are clear. And if we go there, the Committee’s gonna know about it. Which means we’ll only get one shot. If we open it up and the Seosten find out too soon… they’ll be there in force, probably Committee-level force.”

I nodded .”She’s right. We get the small-scale stuff, find the choker and use it and the anti-possession spell to get the spy out of our friends. Once it’s clear, then we’ll worry about the vault.”

“It sounds like you have a plan,” Gabriel put in then. I had a feeling that he’d been deliberately staying out of the conversation as much as possible to let us handle it. “I’ll keep teaching you the spell until it’s time to use it, but you should also practice on your own. Just make sure none of the others see you doing it. They’ll definitely recognize the spell for what it is.”

“We’ll be careful,” I promised, before my head fell back. “I guess that means we’re done here. Which means we’ve gotta get back before those Committee representatives tear the whole school apart looking for me.”

Yeah, I was going to have to talk to those guys and pretend to be surprised and terrified about my dad disappearing. I was going to have to sell it to them until they were satisfied. And after that, I had to talk to Dad himself and find out just what the hell had actually happened, how he had found out everything. I had… well, a lot of stuff to talk to him about.

Staying up all night, learning a spell from a literal living legend, fighting our way up to have a confrontation with an ancient mercenary shark-man, being interrogated by some investigators from the Committee, and then talking to my dad about all the secrets I’d been keeping all year? One thing was for sure…

If I hadn’t inherited the stamina boost from that Amarok, I would’ve died of exhaustion weeks ago.

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Sharkhunt 23-06

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I was under absolutely no delusions. As much as I had improved over the past few months, there were plenty of people who were completely out of my league when it came to a straight fight. And from everything I had ever heard, the shark-toothed man in front of me was solidly in that camp. If we were to fight seriously, he’d probably kill me inside of a few seconds flat.

No, fighting Fahsteth was a bad, bad idea. And from the look on the man’s face, he was just as aware of it as I was. His humorless, toothy smile had grown as he sized me up for a moment.

Holding the staff out in front of me, I breathed out. The power that allowed me to sense objects near me was able to reach as far as the wall that I had come through, and through it I could tell just how much of the metal had been turned to wood. The answer was… not nearly enough. It was going to take Avalon longer to convert enough of it to break through than it would take this guy to take me apart and use a piece of my one of my bones as a toothpick. I had to stall.

“Look,” I started, keeping my staff up between us just in case. “We’re not here to fight you. We want information, that’s all. Information you should be okay with giving us since the people we want you to tell us about are the reason you’re trying to get the hell off the planet right now.”

Annoyed as he obviously was, Fahsteth still gave a dark chuckle at that. “Ain’t here to fight, huh? Doubt your friend feels the same. Speaking of–” In mid-sentence, the man produced a knife from seemingly nowhere. I tensed, readying myself. But instead of attacking, he gave a casual swipe toward the wall where Avalon was working on coming through. I could see a line of wood starting to appear in the outline of a larger circle. Once it was done, she’d be able to just pop that bit of wood out and make the larger metal circle inside fall in to make a hole.

Or she would have. Except that with a wave of that knife, a brand new, slightly thicker metal wall appeared over top of the one that was already there. The knife was like Sands’s construction mace, summoning walls and other shapes out of nowhere. Now it was going to take Avalon even longer to get through. If he didn’t just keep summoning new walls every time she got close.

Yeah, having that used against us really sucked.

Fahsteth pointed that knife at me, smirking. “There we go. Now… you’re brave, kid. I’ll give you that much. But brave ain’t gonna stop me from making you wish you never stepped into this room. The big, bad necromancer might have staked his claim on you, but I ain’t gotta kill ya to teach you a lesson you ain’t never gonna forget. That healing you got–” He smiled once more, cracking his neck audibly. “That’ll get you up and moving again after a lot of damage.”  

Fossor? Fossor had staked a claim on me? I bristled reflexively. It wasn’t really surprising, but still. The thought that he had put out the word not to kill me because he wanted me was… ugh.

On the plus side, if we did get this guy to talk, maybe he could tell me something about Fossor himself. Since they were apparently at least close enough to have conversations about how Fahsteth wasn’t allowed to kill me, there might be something else there. Long shot, but still.

And speaking of long shots, I had one chance to get what we needed out of this guy without letting him tear me into as many pieces as he thought could survive the experience. But I needed him to make the first move. I had to make him come after me, and then pray a bit.

To that end, I lowered the staff just a little bit. It was fractional, and I tried to make it look like an accidental opening, as if I was just a little more amateurish than he already thought I was.

If Fahsteth had been in slightly less of a hurry, or had just a little more time to think about it, I doubt it would have worked. But as it was, he had the Seosten to worry about, along with not just Avalon on the other side of the wall, but Seth and Gabriel as well. So he took the bait.

Without the inherited werewolf reflexes, I wouldn’t have had time to blink, let alone actually react as the shark-man crossed the distance between us. He was so fast, so unbelievably quick despite his large form. It was like he had been fired straight out of a cannon, going from standing still to nearly on top of me in the blink of an eye. Both of his hands lashed out, one clearly intent on snatching my staff out of my grasp while the other grabbed for my arm.

Yeah, fighting this guy was out of the question. Completely out of the question. If I’d had any doubt about that before, seeing how fast he was right then knocked the last of it away. I had to be smart, not strong. To that end, I threw myself into a desperate roll to the side and down while simultaneously releasing what small amount of charge my staff had managed to build up. The blast wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me just enough of a boost that I barely avoided Fahsteth’s grasping hands. I could literally feel his fingers brushing over my clothes as I dove.

Hitting the floor of the room, I rolled forward. Behind me, I could hear the shark-man recovering. He was twisting around, clearly about to be right on my heels (if he didn’t just go ahead and rip my heels right off), a grunt of annoyance filling the room. He was right there. I wouldn’t be able to dodge again. Going under his reach like that had been a one-time thing, almost a miracle.

Thankfully, once was all I needed. Because fighting him was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I continued my roll until I had my feet under me again. As soon as they were down, I shoved myself up and forward into a second dive. That one carried me to the far wall, where I came up onto one knee while spinning around. Fahsteth had already crossed half the distance between us once more, a snarl on his lips that showed even more of those impressive teeth of his.

An instant before the merciless mercenary would have been on me, with no chance of me managing to escape again, I brought my staff down while blurting loudly, “Stop!”

Yeah, in almost any other case, my telling a guy like Fahsteth to stop would’ve accomplished about as much as standing in front of an oncoming train. But in this particular case, the man skidded to a halt. Not because of what I’d said, but because of where my staff was: directly against the throat of the unconscious, purple-skinned figure that my earlier blast had knocked against the wall.The blade of the transformed staff was barely a centimeter from his throat.

“Yeah,” I managed while holding the blade right where it was. “You move, you lose your ride off-planet. And call me crazy, but I get the impression you don’t wanna wait to find another one.”

“Kid,” the shark-man snarled, “if you don’t step away from him right this second, I’m gonna forget about what Fossor said. And trust me, just cuz I kill ya doesn’t mean I can’t make it hurt.”

My mouth opened to say something then, but in the background, there was a clang of metal. I had successfully distracted Fahsteth enough that he hadn’t noticed how close Avalon was to breaking through. Now, she kicked in the circle of metal that she had cut out, and it crashed to the floor loudly even as Avalon herself dove into the room. She came up, arms raised defensively only to stop short at the sight. “Chambers,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “Okay?”

“Oh yeah,” I replied a bit tersely, not letting the blade move a millimeter from where it was. “We’re fine. Fahsteth and me were just having a nice, polite conversation here, aren’t we?”

Inclining his head a little, the shark-mercenary made a noise that sounded like a growl deep in his throat. “You kill my ride, little girl, and I’ll make sure both of you kids die screaming.”  

“Answer our questions and you can leave,” I retorted. “Just tell us what we wanna know and we’ll back out of here. You can take your lift off-world and everything’ll be hunky dory. I would suggest you hurry though, since your former employers seem pretty eager to shut you up.”

Keeping her guard up, Avalon glared at the shark-man. I could tell that she really wanted to go after him. Actually, I wondered briefly if the difference in how our Heretic senses worked would affect that. I’d heard from both her and Miranda that while the Crossroads sense was  a warning of danger, for Eden’s Garden-created Heretics, the feeling was closer to a thrill of the hunt.

“Chambers is right,” she said through gritted teeth. “Seems like they want you really dead.”

Inclining his head a little, Fahsteth gave the other girl a look. “Not as dead as they want you, Princess. Maybe if you end up face down in the gutter, they’ll just let bygones be bygones.”

“You could try,” I quickly put in. “But I don’t think you will. One, like you said, they want her dead and I doubt you really want to make them happy right when they’re trying to kill you. And second, you’re trying to disappear right now. You know as well as we do that if you kill Avalon, you’re gonna trigger the spell that’ll mark you. Kinda hard to disappear if you’ve got a big, bright beacon that Gaia can follow straight to you. Cuz believe me, you kill Avalon and Gaia will never let you go. You say you’ll make us scream? I’m pretty sure she can do a hell of a lot worse.”

He knew I was telling the truth. That was the whole reason they hadn’t been able to just kill Avalon and be done with it, after all. Anyone that directly killed her would set off Wyatt’s spell. According to the man himself, it would even mark a Seosten possessing someone to do it. So they couldn’t just jump into a random person, kill her, then jump out again. The tracking spell would follow them no matter where they went, and no matter who they jumped in and out of.

Still, the question was whether he was stubborn enough to ignore that fact. His eyes darted back to Avalon, then to me. He was obviously frustrated at the position that we had put him in, and I had no doubt that given any excuse, he really would have killed us both without blinking.

But in the end, the man just let out a soft, annoyed sigh. “Right, fine. I’ll answer a couple of your questions. That’s it. And when it’s done, you let me get the hell off this planet, you got it?”

“That sounds agreeable to me, yes.”

The voice came not from Avalon or me, but from the corner of the room where Gabriel was abruptly standing. The head of his shovel was stained with blood, as were the front of his clothes. Other than that, he gave pretty much no sign that he had been in any kind of fight.

“How did you–” I started before my head shook. “I thought this place was warded.”

“It is,” the man confirmed as he started across the room to me. To my amusement in spite of myself, Fahsteth took a step back as Gabriel simply walked past him. He reached out to me, fingers dipping deftly into my jacket pocket before he pulled out a small colored marble. “But you didn’t really think I’d send you in here without having a way to keep tabs on you, did you?”

Oh. Well, apparently he’d stuck something on me that let him keep track of what was going on around me despite the scrying wards and teleport straight to me. That seemed… well, useful. Still, I had to ask, “Are Seth and Shiori–”

“They’re all right,” the man confirmed. “Your little friend there,” he gestured to the unconscious teleporter at my feet, “was summoning an awful lot of power. When you knocked him out, it expended itself by summoning a few nasties out there. Nothing too terrible. They’re just wiping it up and then keeping an eye out for any more… interruptions.” He looked toward Fahsteth then. “Which will be coming, so we should finish up here. And it sounded to me like you were just agreeing to tell the girls what they want to know.”

“Yeah,” the shark-man grunted. “Long as they’re quick about it, and–” He paused, giving Gabriel a hard look. “If you think you can just kill me to take what I know, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Nodding affably, Gabriel replied, “Oh, I know. I already told the girls that the same thing you and, well, people like you use to block your thoughts from being read by someone with telepathic abilities also stops someone like me from absorbing your memories upon your death. Believe me, I appreciate the effort. The last thing I want are the thoughts and memories of someone like you swimming around in my head. Still,” he added, “we do need to be sure that you’re telling the truth. So…”  Gabriel dipped his other hand into his pocket and came out with a small red-hued stone before holding it out to the other man. “Why don’t you hold onto this while we’re all talking here.” Glancing over his shoulder at Avalon and me, he explained, “Truth-stone. As long as the person holding it is telling the truth, it stays cool. But if he lies, it burns and glows. Not a very fun experience.” To Fahsteth, he added, “Just to keep you honest.”

If possible, the mercenary looked even more annoyed. His hand snatched the stone and he held it up while squinting at us. “Ask your damn questions, and be quick about it or the deal’s off.”  

Before I could say anything, Avalon quickly put in, “My mother. Were you the one responsible for killing her?”

His smirk only grew. “Wasn’t my idea, but sure. I was the one that… let’s say I did the deed. Pretty nice work if I do say so myself. Always been good at poisoning people, but making it look like an accident in childbirth? That was something special.” He gave a lamenting sigh then. “Too bad you survived the experience, or it would’ve been the perfect job.”

Avalon started to take a step at him then, muscles tensed until I quickly put a hand out to catch her arm. The other hand I used to keep the blade close to the unconscious teleporter’s neck, just in case. “Fine,” I put in. “Let’s go with the big one then. Who killed Zedekiah Pericles?”

Fahsteth chuckled at the question. “Can tell you who was responsible for it, not who did it.” Before I could question that, he continued. “The one responsible for it was a Seosten called Manakel. But you know, all that possession shit, I dunno who he’s riding around in over there.”

Fuck. He couldn’t tell us who the Seosten was possessing. And we already knew the name Manakel from before. “There’s more than one Seosten behind this. How many are there and what are their names?”

The mercenary shook his head, eyes rolling. “Best I can tell you is that I know of four. Two of ‘em at your little school, two of ‘em at the other place. Names, already told you Manakel. The other one at your place is called Charmeine. Then there’s Paschar at Eden’s Garden, and Lies.”

“Lies?” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Wait, the Seosten are named Manakel, Charmeine, Paschar, and… Lies? That doesn’t really fit the theme.”

“Cuz it ain’t her name,” he retorted. “Just the closest thing to a name she’s got. She’s a crippled Seosten. Means once she possesses someone, she can’t get the fuck out of ‘em unless they die. Plus she gets a little too close, if you know what I mean. Most Seosten, they can shut out anything their host feels. Like playing one of those video games you kids like so much. You don’t actually feel what the guy you’re playing as does. But Lies, she does. She feels it. She’s locked in there.” Shrugging, he added, “Or so I hear. Never actually spoke to her myself.”

Four Seosten. Three normal ones, and one that couldn’t leave whoever her host was unless the host died. Thinking about that for a moment, I frowned before asking, “What does all this have to do with Professor Tangle and her mystery lover at Eden’s Garden?”

Fahsteth openly laughed at that for a moment, his shoulders shaking. “Oh, right,” he muttered with amusement, “that.” Still smirking, he continued. “That was what you call a love potion. See, before Manakel and Charmeine showed up, Paschar was the one that was supposed to get into that blood vault.” He started to smile. “Yeah, there’s a blood vault, you know, one that can only be opened by the descendant of–”

“Hieronymus Bosch, we know.” Avalon cut in, frowning at the man. “What do you mean, love potion?”

He explained. “Fine. See, a little under twenty years ago, Paschar found two living relatives, blood connections to Bosch. One of ‘em was your mother.” He nodded toward Avalon. “That was the direct connection, the strong one. The other one was a lot weaker, more distant, but still. It was–”

“Tangle,” I put in quickly. “Tangle’s the one with the weaker relation, the other connection to Bosch.”

“Ding, ding.” The shark-man pointed at me, his humorless smile wide to show all those teeth. “Yeah, Tangle was the other one. So that’s two ways to get into the vault. But see, Tangle didn’t actually know about her connection to Bosch, or any of that.” He nodded to Avalon again. “Her Mommy did. She knew a lot of it. Stories passed down from her mother, you see. So she knew how to protect herself from anything the Seosten might try to get control of her. They already couldn’t possess the bitch–”

“Why?” Avalon cut in. “Why couldn’t they possess her?”

“Same reason they can’t possess you,” he retorted. “Bosch’s daughter, Liesje Aken, figured out her dear old Daddy was being manipulated to start all this shit, so she took precautions. By the time Hieronymus died, she found a way to make herself and anyone in her family, anyone with her blood, immune to Seosten possession.”

“How’d she do that?” I asked slowly. “I mean, I doubt there’s a book out there about how to make your entire bloodline immune to fake angel-possession.”

“No fucking clue,” the shark-man snapped. “If I knew, trust me, I’d never need to work again a job again. I’d just make a billion lifetimes worth of fortunes by selling that shit. All I know is that she had some help from someone she called Grandfather.”

“Grandfather?” I blinked. “I take it that doesn’t mean her actual grandfather.”

“Genius detective, you are.” He smirked at me before waving the hand with the stone in it. “Point is, if you quit fucking interrupting, she made her bloodline immune to possession. So if Paschar wanted to use either of her descendants to get into that vault, he had to use other means. Tangle was easier, cuz like I said, she didn’t know anything about her connection to Bosch. So she wasn’t watching for the… you know, harp-players.”

“So he wanted to use Tangle, but he couldn’t,” I put in. “Because the vault would only take the closest blood relative. Which, at that point, was Avalon’s mother.”

He nodded. “Right. That’s when I got brought in. Kill the mother and her spawn while she’s pregnant. But make it look like she dies in childbirth. The last thing angel-fuck wanted was some Heretic to hear about the bitch being murdered by something suspicious. So I made it look like a childbirth thing. Unfortunately, her little brat survived.”

Avalon’s voice was hard then. “And you didn’t finish the job because…”

Fahsteth shrugged. “Couldn’t get close to you again. Somehow the Heretics found out you had potential to be one of their students, so they were watching you. Paschar didn’t want to run the risk of them finding out what was really going on. So he went for something more subtle, manipulating ol’ Reggie into hating his kid so much that he’d kill her. Domestic abuse and all that. But you know, turns out that took too long. That headmistress of yours found out enough to come find the brat. Paschar couldn’t let that happen, so he sent me in to make sure little Hannah died. Did my best to make it look like I just stumbled across her, victim of circumstance and all that. But you’re just too fucking stubborn to die like you’re supposed to.”

“And she went to Eden’s Garden,” I realized. “So it was even harder to get to her without making everyone realize what was going on. So they used Reggie instead.”

“Had an… ally of theirs turn him into a vampire and sent him after her,” the shark-man confirmed. “Seemed less likely to be suspicious, since he already hated her. But the son of a bitch kept failing. Then it was too late. They were about to start teaching the kid magic.”

“Which would’ve revealed her connection to Bosch,” I murmured. “Right, so… wait, what about Tangle?”

Smirking, Fahsteth explained. “Two birds with one stone. Paschar was already manipulating Tangle from his place at Eden’s Garden where he was keeping an eye on the situation. Like I said, love potion. Whoever he was possessing, he used what you’d call a love potion to make Tangle be obsessed with him. Had her wrapped around his little finger. She was right on board with killing not-so-little Hannah so she and her snuggle muffin could get into that vault. Still, he didn’t want to be… what you call obvious about it. So…”

“They made sure I was kicked out,” Avalon stated flatly. “You–” Her eyes widened then. “Love potion… wait, obsession. Obsession. They used–”

“Oh and we have a winner,” the man grinned darkly, his amusement obvious. “Yeah, they used the same kind of obsession magic they used on Tangle on that kid. Torv? Yeah, they had him drugged up for weeks. Just got him all sorts of obsessed with you until… well, you know what happened.”

“But now Tangle’s in the hospital with–” I paused, frowning. “Probably your poison in her. So what the hell?”

The shark-man coughed, raising his shoulders in a shrug. “What happened? Well, turns out ol’ Tangle’s got a soft spot for students. Finding out that Torv kid died, it uhh, started taking its toll. Took awhile, but she started snapping out of the love spell. Not a lot at first, but… enough to cause problems. She was starting to figure out something was wrong with her. So she was about to go to that damn headmistress.”

“So you poisoned her,” I realized. “But they didn’t want to kill her, because they still needed her to get in the vault. That’s why you just put her in a coma.”

“Pretty much,” he confirmed. “And sometime in there, those new Seosten showed up and started taking over. Apparently they didn’t like how long it was taking Paschar to get the job done. But like I said, no idea who any of them are possessing–wait, no. One idea. That Manakel guy, he’s possessing some adult out at that school. That’s all I know, an adult. So, we done here?”

My mouth opened, but then I paused, shaking my head. “What about Professor Katarin? Where is he, and why did he disappear? You guys had to have something to do with that.”

“Sure did,” he confirmed without any shame. “I mean, I didn’t. But they did. Apparently the big guy stumbled across Manakel’s host while he was out of it. The host was unconscious, one of those Seosten-enforced comas. Manakel got back, Katarin spotted him and figured out what was going on. So they had a little fight. Best Manakel could do was banish the guy with one of those–”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “The Seosten banishment orbs. They sent him into Seosten space?”

“Kept him away from Earth and out of their hair, that’s for sure.” Fahsteth chuckled once more. “So, that it? Cuz I really need to be going.”

“Not yet.” I shook my head while staring at him. “What the hell is in that vault that they want to get so badly?”

Fahsteth’s smirk grew. “Oh, that you don’t know? Heh, figures. Yeah, they were cagey about it, but I worked it out over the years. You know how Bosch’s daughter made her bloodline immune to possession? Turns out she was working on a way of spreading that immunity to every Heretic. Died before she could put it into play, but all her notes and everything about she did it is in that vault.”

“That’s why they want it so bad,” I murmured. “Because if someone else gets it and manages to make every Heretic immune to–oh. Oh. That really fucks them over.”

“Yup,” Fahsteth confirmed. “So I told you what I know. Now, your turn to repay the favor. Lemme get the hell off this planet.”

“Yeah, we will.” I nodded. “But first, tell us how to cure Tangle.”

“Cure? Right.” Giving me a look, he slowly reached into his jacket before coming out with a vial of blue liquid. “See this? You let me go, and it’s yours. It’ll cure Tangle, put her right as rain. But that’s it. You gotta swear to let me go after I give this to you. Got it?”

Biting my lip, I glanced to Gabriel before nodding. “I swear, I won’t do anything to stop you from leaving after you give us that cure.”

Beside me, Avalon nodded. “I won’t lay a hand on you.”

Gabriel nodded as well. “Neither will I. Just hand over the cure and you can leave.”  

The shark-man held it out, along with the stone while nodding toward my staff. “You mind?”

Slowly, I took the blade away from the teleporter’s throat. The man himself had woken up at some point, and was giving me a fearful look as he scrambled to his feet.

Avalon stepped around me then, palm up as she held it out for the cure. “You helped make my life miserable,” she informed him, her lips tight. “You killed my mother and helped turn my father against me. You were part of manipulating my friend into attacking me so that I had to kill him. You helped make sure his brother kept coming after me too.”

Fahsteth shrugged, dropping the cure and the truth stone in her hand. “Yeah, sorry, kid. No hard feelings though. It was just business, you understand? Besides, not like we can do anything about it right now. You all swore to let me leave. Remember? Can’t lay a hand on me.”

Avalon lifted her chin then, catching the items in her palm before closing her hand. “It’s funny,” she replied flatly… just as a glowing blue energy blade erupted from the gauntlet of her extended hand, cutting straight through the shark-man’s chest, neatly bisecting him even as his eyes went wide with shock.

“… how much you can do without laying a hand on someone.” 

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Sharkhunt 23-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln, Asenath, and Twister posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above. 

My dad knew the truth. My dad knew the truth. Somehow, he had broken the Bystander Effect. He remembered. He knew what Asenath was, what I had been dealing with through the  year. He knew about Mom. He knew all of it. Or enough of it at least. He… he knew. He actually  knew.

I still wasn’t exactly sure which was more shocking to me, that, or the fact that our home had been attacked by werewolves. Lemuel’s pack had actually been pissed enough about Doxer (more likely motivated by Pace) to go after my dad. It shouldn’t have surprised me, honestly. Yet somehow, it did. I’d expected Fossor or Ammon to try something at some point, but the wolves?

Apparently, I’d been zoning out for a few seconds while trying to cope with that particular surprise, because Shiori touched my shoulder as her voice prompted, “Flick? Are you okay?” The girl was standing beside me while Avalon was a bit behind her. Both of their expressions were worried.

Shaking off the feelings as much as I could, I nodded. “I’m fine. I mean, not really fine, but… good enough. I’ll be okay, I promise. It’s just… my dad. My dad knows. He’s still a normal human, but he knows anyway.  How many people have broken the Bystander Effect like that before?”

“A normal human without help?” Avalon shrugged, head shaking. “None, that I know of.”

Behind me, Gabriel cleared his throat a bit pointedly. When I looked that way, the man casually admitted, “Ah, well, your father may not have done it entirely without help.” Before I could do more than open my mouth as my eyes widened, he held up a hand. “It’s not my story to tell, or my secret to give away. What I can say is that someone important wanted your father to learn the truth, so they made it possible. They don’t mean him or you any harm. That much I can promise you. They aren’t a threat to you. They… owe your mother a debt. But, like I said, anything more than that is a secret that I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait until they’re ready to talk.”  

Owed my mother? Someone out there was powerful enough to make sure Dad actually broke the Bystander Effect and they owed my mother a favor? What–was it a Seosten? They’d created the Bystander Effect, so they should be able to remove it, right? There could be other good (or at least tolerable) Seosten out there like Tristan and Vanessa’s mother, couldn’t there?

I shook that off. Randomly speculating wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And I knew from looking at Gabriel that he wasn’t going to tell me anything else. He was absolutely serious about not spoiling other people’s secrets. Which, I supposed, should just make me feel better about all of my secrets that he was keeping. And he was clear about the fact that whoever was behind Dad finding out the truth wasn’t trying to hurt us. I believed that he would’ve told me otherwise.

Still, I was working my way up to argue with him anyway when Avalon simply said, “Fahsteth.”

Fuck. Right, we didn’t have time. Sighing, I looked at the man once more. “I still have questions.”

His head bowed in a slight nod. “And I’ll be glad to answer everything that I can. I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more right now. But I owed you at least that much.  Your father is safe with Asenath and Esevene for now, but I’ll send people to pick them up and get them here before you’re done.”

I started to nod at that, then blinked in confusion. “Esevene? Who’s Esevene?”  .

Gabriel tilted his head before giving a nod of realization. “Right, you only know her as Twister.”

Twister’s real name was Esevene. I didn’t see that coming. Esevene sounded like some kind of Tolkien elf or high-brow noble woman. The girl I knew… Twister fit much more than Esevene.

Again, that was something I had to shake off while looking to Avalon. “Did you get ahold of Gaia?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But she can’t help directly right now. The… a couple representatives of the Committee showed up. She couldn’t really talk, but I’m pretty sure they were there to ask about what happened at your father’s house. They wanted to find you,” she added, “but she’s stalling them.”

“Wh–” My eyes widened. “The Committee is there looking for me?”

Avalon shook her head. “Breathe, Chambers. Not members of the Committee. Representatives from them. Their… assistants, basically. And Gaia’s taking care of it. She told them that you’re out on a training mission with Professor Dare, that since you’re up all night anyway, she wanted you kept busy. So they’re waiting until we get back. We just have to make it quick. Unfortunately, since the Committee’s personal representatives are there, they’re monitoring all transit on and off the island. Which means–”

Blowing out a long breath, I muttered, “Which means we can’t get any help from anyone else there. No calling for Wyatt or anything. And now we have to do all of it and get back before those guys get tired of waiting. Because what this whole thing really needed was more pressure.”

“We already had a time limit,” Avalon pointed out. “Fahsteth won’t be there for long. This doesn’t change anything. We get in, find out what we need, and then get back to the school. You just have to act surprised when they tell you about your dad.”

“Oh, trust me,” I assured her, “I’ve got plenty of surprise left in me. So let’s get this done. Gabriel?”

“Of course,” he replied. “If you’re all ready?” He waited until we nodded before raising his shovel. As he brought it down once more into the dirt, our surroundings abruptly changed. The transport was as sudden as it was completely unobtrusive. One second we were by the lake, and in the next, the scenery had changed. It was like blinking during a scene change on TV.

The place that Seth had told us Fahsteth was holed up in was a broken-down three-story motel on the edge of Seattle. Apparently, the place had been closed for renovations (and pest extermination) for several months, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near ready to open again for quite awhile. Which apparently had made it an ideal place for the shark-man to lay low, until now.

We appeared in a field behind the motel, far enough away to avoid prematurely setting off any surprises that Fahsteth had waiting. And somehow, through either coincidence or intent (considering the source, I was leaning heavily toward the latter), Gabriel had deposited us a few feet away from a figure that I recognized through the glow from the distant streetlights as Seth.

The vampire sensed us immediately, spinning around on one foot while his hand moved to the inside of his jacket. I caught a glimpse of some kind of knife before he stopped himself. “Ah, you,” he announced. “Give a guy a warning next time you decide to drop–” He stopped in mid-sentence as his gaze found Gabriel, and I actually saw him swallow just a bit. Cool and collected as he was, even Seth reacted noticeably to the sight of the former slave. “You brought some company.”

“Good to see you again, Seth.” Gabriel’s voice was casual, giving no indication that he had even noticed. “Hope you don’t mind, I didn’t want to send the girls off on their own. Not with Fahsteth.”

Any reaction that Seth had had to the man was fully suppressed by that point, and he shrugged. “Can’t blame you. He’s a nasty ratbag and those girls seem to like to get into trouble a lot.”

“More like we were born with one of those ‘take-a-number’ machines by our cribs for all the people that wanted to screw with us,” I muttered under my breath, then gestured. “He’s in there?”

“For now,” Seth replied, glancing to the motel in the distance. “He’s waiting for his ride off-world.”

“How’s he planning on getting off-world anyway?” I wondered. “Some kind of Alter or a spell?”

“Alter,” came the response. “He’s got a guy on the way that specializes in transporting people off this rock, and he’s really motivated to leave. So if you wanna talk to him, better make it fast.”

Beside me, Shiori piped up. “Do you know which room he’s in?”

“Oh, hey, sis.” Seth gave her an easy smile. One that, despite the misgivings that Asenath had about him, I thought was genuine. “Almost didn’t see you there. Not exactly. He’s up on the third floor there, but for the exact room… well, you’re gonna have to get up there yourselves.”

“He’s warded the place,” Gabriel announced after squinting at the building for a moment. “Probably to keep the Seosten from finding him. Either way, I can’t see through them.”

He started to say something else before stopping short. Turning, the man held a hand up. “Wait.” He frowned slightly before looking across the field, away from the road. “They’re here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, only to fall silent as it became apparent. Five, no, six massive figures were suddenly tearing across the field toward us. Amaroks. Six god damn Amaroks, each bigger than a city bus, were coming straight at us. Their paws tore up the ground as they charged.

“This,” I remarked, my throat dry, “is not the act of people who give a shit about subtlety anymore.”

Yeah, we should’ve known that whoever was behind this had access to those things. After all, they had managed to sic one of them on the team during our first hunt in an attempt to kill Avalon. But still, throwing an entire pack at Fahsteth? They wanted that guy dead with a capital d.

In the midst of me trying to think about how we were going to have to work together to deal with the damn things, however, Gabriel spoke a simple word. “Go.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Seth, take them inside. Get to Fahsteth and find out what he knows. I’ll deal with these guys.”

I started to ask if he was sure, but stopped myself as the man plucked up his shovel and walked calmly out to meet the incoming giant wolves. He moved not like a man who was about to be in a fight, but like someone who was walking through the store deciding what kind of milk to pick up.

Seth was already moving toward the motel. I started to follow along with Shiori, only to stop and glance back at Avalon, who hadn’t moved. “Valley,” I prompted. “We need to go, he’ll be fine.”

“I know he will,” the other girl replied, her voice almost plaintive. “But I really want to see this.”

Oh. Right, she wasn’t worried that Gabriel needed help. She wanted to watch him kill the Amaroks. That I could… yeah, I could totally understand it. But still, “It’s Fahsteth,” I prompted.

That was enough. As much as she (and I, really) wanted to see what the man did to those poor wolves, the chance to actually find out something about the people who had been trying to kill her (and had killed her mother) was even more important. She pivoted and gave me a slight nod before the two of us bolted toward the motel once more, hurrying to catch up with Shiori and Seth.

At the doorway into the building, the vampire held a hand up to stop us. “Fire-ward,” he explained while giving a nod toward the door. Looking that way, I could barely make out a rune carefully etched into the wood there. It seemed to glow slightly, as if it was reflecting firelight somehow.

“Step past it,” Seth remarked, as casually as ever, “and you’ll spontaneously combust. It’s like the protection line your nursemaids up at that school of yours have around their super-special building. Only instead of making you a bit sick, it turns you into a toasted marshmallow.”

“This guy really doesn’t want visitors, does he?” Shiori put in. “How do we get past it?”

“The twins taught me how to short-circuit stuff like that,” I started. “If we have some electri–”

Before I could finish the sentence, Seth reached back under his jacket, coming back out with the knife that I had caught a glimpse of earlier. Now I had a chance to get a better look at it. The handle appeared to be made out of bone of some kind. Meanwhile, rather than any kind of metal, the blade itself looked like it was dark blue glass. As the rest of us watched, the vampire casually drew the knife across the rune. As that azure blade touched the spell rune, I saw some kind of weird, ghost-like energy sucked up out of the wood before the rune itself turned dark and seemed to fade back into the wood until it was even less noticeable than it had already been.

“There,” Seth announced before reaching out to push the door open. He strode right through, glancing back after sniffing the air. “You coming or what?”

“What… what is–what did you…” I was staring at the strange knife in his hand.

His knowing smirk returned. “This? Just a little toy I picked up off a guy that… wasn’t gonna need it anymore.” From the way he said it, I had a feeling I knew why the guy didn’t need it. “Blade absorbs all the energy from any spell it touches, cuts them off completely. It’s got its uses.”

“That–that kind of thing isn’t common, is it?” I had to ask. The idea of there being a knife out there somewhere, or anything like that, that could just cut away the magic that was used to protect Avalon (or any of the other spells that we relied on) that easily was kind of terrifying.  

Winking, Seth shook his head. “Far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. Took a pretty big chunk out of me to get it too, and I mean that literally. Had to spend a month recovering. So don’t go blabbing about it to all your little schoolmates, got it?” Waggling the blade at me, he slipped it away back under his jacket before turning away. After giving a slight sniff, he started to walk.

Giving the other two a look, I tugged my staff out of its place at my hip and hit the button to charge it while starting to follow. We moved together through the fairly dark motel corridor, illuminated only by a few emergency lights that were positioned here and there. Enough to see if anything was there, but still leave the place eerily dark. Doors leading into various motel rooms lined both sides of the corridor, while I could see what looked like a front office at the far end. It wasn’t just dark, it was also silent. Well, except for the sound of wolves alternately howling and yipping outside.

For a moment, I wondered what the ordinary people out there were hearing when it came to the Amaroks. But before I could dwell too much on that, there was the sound of a loudspeaker crackling to life. A voice spoke up through it. “Now I don’t recall ordering any food for my trip, but if you wanna deliver yourself all gift-wrapped and shit, I ain’t gonna complain too much.”

Turning in a circle, I found the source of the voice in a speaker box that was up in the corner. There was a security camera next to it. My mouth opened to say something, but Avalon beat me to it.

“Fahsteth!” she called, staring up at the camera. “We need to talk to you.”

There was a chuckle in the shark-man’s voice as he replied, “That you, kid? You’ve grown up, huh? Lucky you, I ain’t interested in finishing the job anymore. So take a walk and count your blessings.”

It was my turn to talk then, as I put in, “We’re not leaving until we talk to you, Fahsteth. You don’t owe these people anything. They’re trying to kill you just to shut you up. So why not tell us what you know? What could it hurt at this point?”

“Maybe I just don’t like you very much,” came the retort. “But you know, if you won’t leave, you can play with some of my toothy little friends.”

“Sharks?” I asked, turning to look down the hall. “I don’t see any water. They might have trouble.”  

Another chuckle came then. “Sharks… yeah, me and your sharks have a bit of a connection. Heard you’ve got something of the same. But you’re a bit behind, Barbie. See, you’re limited to sharks. Weak power and all. But me? Well…” As he trailed off for a moment, I heard multiple growls coming from every direction. Up and down the hall, animals came into view through the dim light. Wolves (the normal size kind), a couple leopards, some snakes, spiders the size of small dogs, and more all crowded into both ends of the corridor.

“See,” Fahsteth explained over the PA. “I don’t control sharks, little girl. I control predators. Period. So uh, you all have fun with that. I’ll be–oh look, here comes my ride.”

The animals were coming, and the shark-man was about to leave. We didn’t have time for this, we didn’t have time to deal with them. He was going to be gone, and we’d never find him again. If we didn’t stop the son of a bitch now, we’d lose our chance to find out what he knew.

So fuck it. Holding the staff out, I hit the button to call Jaq and Gus out. “Guys,” I announced. “Time to fight.”

Even as the robot mice ran to either end of the staff to convert themselves into the blade and grapple, Seth was already meeting the leap of one of the wolves. He caught it by the throat, shoved the thing back against the wall before driving his blade into its chest, then sliced straight down to literally gut the thing before hurling it into the body of the next one to leap. “Go!” He ordered. “I got this. Just don’t fucking die before I catch up, understand?”  

Shiori, meanwhile, gave a beagle-sized arachnid a hard kick before throwing one of her electrified discs into the face of an approaching cat that was coming from the other side of the hall. “I’ll stay with Seth,” she said, giving me a quick look. “I’ll watch his back, you guys get to Fahsteth.”

“We can’t cut through,” Avalon muttered with obvious frustration, conjuring a couple blades from her gauntlets. “It’ll take too long.”

“Then we don’t go through them,” I replied simply. “We go over them.”

With that, I pointed my staff toward the ceiling and hit the button to trigger the charge that I had been building up in it ever since entering the motel. The kinetic energy erupted from the staff, blowing a hole not just through the ceiling, but through the ceiling above that one too, leaving a clear shot to the third floor.

As dust and debris fell, and Shiori and Seth fought with the animals that Fahsteth had summoned, I held a hand out to Avalon. “Come on!”

She dismissed her blades and stepped close. As the girl wrapped her arms around me tightly, I pointed the staff up once more. The grapple was sent flying upward through the holes before latching into the ceiling of the third floor. Then the two of us were yanked up along the energy-line, hauled away from the horde of animals below as we flew to reach the top floor in a couple seconds.

Dropping off the line and onto the floor, I retracted the grapple before releasing Avalon. My finger found the button to start charging the staff again, just in case. Below, I could hear the fight continue. Outside was much the same. Gabriel, Seth, and Shiori were all buying us time to get to Fahsteth and find out what he knew.

Without even glancing to one another, Avalon and I started to run. There wasn’t time to joke, there wasn’t time to say or do anything other than sprint. We had to stop Fahsteth from leaving. We had to get there in time.

The good news was, it wasn’t hard to figure out which room the shark-mercenary was in. The bad news was, it was a room that was completely covered by steel plates. Fahsteth had welded thick metal sheets over the whole place, clearly prepared for one last stand.

“Fuck, fuck!” I hit the metal, and it dented in a little bit. But not enough. I wouldn’t be able to get through it before it was too late. It would take minutes to break down. Minutes that we didn’t have.

Then I turned. “Wood! Valley, wood!”

She blinked once before thankfully realizing what I was babbling about. “No, no,” she blurted. “You can’t–”

“I’ve got this,” I promised her. “He’s gonna be gone, Valley. He’s gonna leave. We don’t have time! Do it. I’ll stall him until you get through. I’ll be okay. I’ve got this, Valley, I swear. Trust me.”

She still looked horrified by the suggestion, but after a brief second, her hand slapped against the metal, and Avalon used her own power to convert any object into wood. It worked slowly enough that it would take at least a minute to actually turn the entire wall. But within a few seconds, there was a small, palm-sized spot of wood right there in the middle of the hard steel.

It was enough. Reaching out, I put my hand against the wood and then threw myself through it and into the room on the other side.

Popping out, I was just in time to see Fahsteth. The shark-man was on the other side of the room, near the window that had been similarly covered with metal. In front of him, there was a much smaller figure, a man with dark-purple skin and bright red, wild hair. Somewhere in the back of my head, the Heretic-Sense was helpfully letting me know that these two were both Alters, which was clearly the most shocking news of the day. Their hands were touching, and there was a sort-of electric current in the air. Power. The man was summoning power to teleport.

“No!” I shouted, my staff whipping up. I released the power that I’d been charging it up with, and the kinetic blast slammed into the purple figure. He was torn away from Fahsteth at the last possible instant, hitting the far wall hard before collapsing into a heap.

“Like… Avalon said…” I started while the shark-man slowly turned to face me, murder in his eyes.

“We need to talk.”

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Interlude 3 – Hannah

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Six Years Ago.

I said Black Forest!” The sound of the shout filled the living room of the small apartment, echoing throughout the tight confines just before a glass bottle punctuated the bellow by shattering noisily against the far wall, “Not this fucking Asp’s light shit! It’s the green god damn bottle! The green one! Are you so stupid you don’t even know what the hell the color green is, you retarded little fuckstain?”

Standing before her drunken, towering father, eleven-year-old Hannah Owens quivered a little, reflexively cowering from the man’s glare. “I… I… I…” She was too frightened to force the words out.

“I, I, I.” The man repeated mockingly before making a noise of disgust before his fist lashed out, striking the girl across the face with enough force to knock her to the floor. “Shut the fuck up, brat.”

Hannah had seen the blow coming. Her father was too drunk for anything even approaching subtlety. The young girl, whose dark hair was drawn into a simple ponytail held by a scavenged rubber band, wanted to pull away from the incoming punch. Being hit by Daddy hurt, even when he was too drunk to put much thought into his blows. But she knew through plenty of personal experience that avoiding one blow, tempting as it was, would just infuriate the man and spur him on to much worse things. It was better to take the single hit and drop to the floor than risk giving him any reason to follow up the attack. It hurt to get hit. It hurt worse when Daddy was mad enough to get creative.

So she made herself stand still, taking the back-handed blow that knocked her to the floor with a cry. She had to yelp, had to make the physical sound or her father would think that he hadn’t hit her hard enough. It was a tricky thing to judge. If she didn’t make enough noise, Daddy would think that his first strike hadn’t done the job and would follow it up. If she made too much noise, it would annoy him further and he’d make her shut up the only way he knew how. There was almost an art to making just enough of a scene that he would be satisfied that a single punch had gotten his point across sufficiently.

Luckily, in a manner of speaking, Hannah had plenty of practice at that sort of thing.

Reginald, Reggie to his friends at the bars and the bowling alley where he led the league in score, stood over the fallen girl. His face was twisted and ugly as he jabbed a finger down at her. “I told you to get me a fucking Black Forest out of the fridge, you waste of sperm. Not the Asp’s Light. One of em’s got the green bottle, the other’s that piss-stain yellow one. I always knew the only thing you’d ever be good for was an example of why going bareback on some dumb bitch ain’t worth the trouble, but I thought you at least knew the difference between green and yellow. Ain’t that what you go to school for?!”

He waited half a second before raising his voice back into a bellow, “Answer the fucking question, you retarded little condom-tear! Don’t you know the difference between green and yellow, huh?!”

“Y-y-yes, daddy,” Hannah stammered, her eyes wide as she stared up at the furious man. “I… I kn-know. B-but, but… we-we-w-we’re out of the green one. They’re all gone a-a-and I didn’t wanna give you no beer, a-a-and that one was still there f-from the other night when you had your p-poker night.”

“Out?!” If anything, Reggie was even angrier at that point. He reared back his foot and kicked the girl. “What the fuck do you mean, we’re out?! I had six left this morning! Six of ’em! I had one with lunch, one this afternoon, and three more this evening! One, one, three. That’s fucking five, you worthless little shit! Where the–” He brought back his foot once more, sending it forward to kick the child with enough force to knock her several feet away. “–hell is my last beer! Where the fuck is it?! You steal it, huh? Where’d you fucking put it, shitstain?! Where’d you hide it?! You tell me where it is right now!”

Curling into a ball, tears falling freely from her clenched shut eyes, Hannah finally managed to answer the man when he paused to take a breath. “You drank it! You drank it, you drank it, you drank it!”

Letting out a snarl of anger, Reggie leaned down and grabbed the girl by her hair. Yanking the eleven-year old back to her feet, he gave her a hard, open-palm slap across the face. “You’re a fucking liar, you know that? You’re a moron and you’re a liar. I just told you how many beers I had. Five, not six. You already killed your mommy when you were born, you stupid shit. Wasn’t that enough for you?”

It was one of Hannah’s father’s favorite topics. Her mother had died due to complications while giving birth to the girl. In the eyes of Reginald Owens, that meant that Hannah had killed his wife. He had never gotten over the loss, and had never forgiven the girl, not for one minute. On his best days, he tolerated her presence and gave gruff orders to stay out of his way. On the worst, he made sure she knew just how worthless, unloved, unwanted, and pathetic she was. He made absolutely certain that the girl never forgot that she was a murderer, that she had killed her own mother while being born.

“You killed your mommy, you evil shit, and now you steal my beer?” The man spat the words hatefully.

Blinded by the tears that continued soaking her small face, Hannah had to fight for breath so that she could stammer a response. “Y-y-you had… had… the other one last n-night. You had it last night.”

“Bullshit!” Reggie’s anger boiled over, and he drew back his hand to smack her once again. In mid-swing, however, a noise from outside the apartment drew the attention of both father and daughter. It was the sound of shouting, running footsteps, and heavy crashes as something repeatedly crashed into the walls with so much force that they shook heavily from each impact.

“What… the….” Releasing his daughter, Reggie strode to the entrance of the apartment. Shoving the door open to step into the hall, he bellowed, “What the fuck is going on out here, you inconsiderate–”

His complaint was cut off as a larger man, pale and wild-eyed, slammed into Reggie and knocked him to the floor so hard the air was knocked out of him. The massive figure then continued to barrel into the newly revealed apartment, setting his eyes on Hannah herself, who was suddenly paralyzed with fear.

“Good.” The big man announced, drooling on himself as he staggered toward the girl. “Fresh meat.”

Hannah opened her mouth, a high-pitched scream barely escaping her before the enormous, ugly man was suddenly in front of her. He crossed the entire room so quickly she hadn’t even seen him move before he was abruptly right there. Her scream was cut off as his hand closed around her throat, and Hannah found herself being lifted up from the floor. He brought her right up to his face, and when he spoke, the stench of rotted meat on his breath nearly make the girl throw up. “Wish I had time to take this slow and really enjoy my meal,” he lamented with a sad shake of his head. “Especially when they look as tasty as you. But I need a recharge before those fucks catch up, and I think you’ll do just fine.”

He opened his mouth, revealing, to the girl’s horror, several rows of teeth that were more akin to that of a shark than a human being. Her renewed shriek joined the monster’s laugh as he began to lunge in.

An instant before those teeth would have torn into the child, a glowing red whip wrapped around the massive man’s thick neck from behind, halting the lunge of his head toward her tender flesh.

For a second, Hannah continued to stare into those hungry eyes. Then the man was yanked backward by the whip around his neck. The force of it forced him to drop her, and Hannah rolled out of the way, bumping against the television before her wild gaze found the terrible man with all the teeth once more.

He was standing over her father, who hadn’t managed to pick himself up yet. The monster’s eyes weren’t on the man that he’d casually knocked aside, but on the doorway of the apartment. When he spoke, the words were full of such vehemence that Hannah briefly thought it was her father’s voice.

“Baroness,” the monster spat the title like it was a curse. “To what do I owe this personal attention?”

In the doorway, holding onto the handle of the whip that had saved Hannah’s life, stood the most beautiful woman that the small brunette had ever seen. Tall, regal, with red hair that was cut short, she was stunning in a way that the child had never thought possible outside of movies. The glowing crimson whip that she had used to haul the man away from Hannah hung loosely from one hand.

When the woman spoke, it was with utter confidence and power. Real power, not Reginald’s tantrums. “You’re not killing anyone else, Fahsteth,” she announced flatly. “Not again.”

“Really?” The big man asked while lifting both hands as if to show that they were empty and that he was surrendering. “ Well, in that case, I suppose I’ll just have to–”

Reacting to some sign that Hannah hadn’t noticed, the so-called Baroness spun around suddenly, narrowly avoiding the lunge of the man that Fahsteth had been trying to distract her from.

A sword, the young girl realized belatedly while staring at what was happening in the doorway. The man who had attacked was swinging a sword around, taking chunks out of the wall. They struggled in a fight that was over so fast that the girl didn’t have time to follow anything that had happened. There was just a flurry of swings and the sound of that blade cutting into the wall, and then his sword was on the ground and the man himself was caught in the woman’s grip, her arms around his throat.

“Hey, Baroness!” the first man, Fahsteth, bellowed to get her attention. “You know that thing you said about me not killing anyone else?” His hands were still raised, but when he turned them the other way, there was a long-bladed knife in each of them that had appeared out of nowhere. “You might wanna think about throwing an asterisk onto that if you write this stuff down.”

With that, as the beautiful woman let out a cry of warning and tried to release the man that she had been struggling with, Fahsteth threw a single blade to each side. One struck struck Hannah’s father, who still hadn’t managed to pick himself up from the floor where he’d been knocked.

The other struck Hannah herself, embedding itself into the girl’s stomach with a suddenness that was almost as shocking as the utterly blinding pain that coursed through her.

“Got anymore predictions, Headmistress?” Fahsteth asked before spinning on his heel. With a shout of exuberance, he threw himself at the nearby window, crashing through the glass to escape.

In the next instant, the red-haired woman snapped the neck of the man that she had been struggling with, throwing the body aside before rushing forward. She dropped to one knee beside Hannah, freeing the blade from her stomach with a quick pull before pressing a hand over the wound. “No, no, no,” she murmured rapidly, head shaking. “Damn it! Listen to me, child, do not close your eyes. Look at me. Look at me, Hannah. Don’t close your eyes, okay? Keep them on me, keep looking at me.”

“How—how do you know my… my name?” The little girl asked, her voice thick with pain.

“I know a lot of things about you, Hannah,” the woman informed her. “In fact, I was just on my way to talk to you today when that… creature chose to make an appearance. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I thought we’d have more time. I thought I could make your father stop, take you somewhere that people would care about you, and you could have a chance to be a little girl for a bit longer.”

“I—I… d-don’t… d-don’t… wanna… d-die…” The little girl’s tears flowed freely, almost blinding her as she stared up at the woman, terrified of what she was saying. “Please, please, I’ll be good, I promise.” Her sobs had taken on a ragged, pained quality as each word grew harder to speak. “Please…”

“Hannah, listen to me. Listen.” The woman tilted her chin up with a finger. “You are not going to die, do you understand me? My name is Gaia Sinclaire, and I promise you that you will not die today. We just… have to do things a little different. I’m not sad because you might die, Hannah. I’m sad because I was looking forward to getting to know you, and now I’m not going to get that chance.”

“But… but you said–” Hannah tried to protest, though the effort to speak even that much cost her.

“Shh,” Gaia’s head shook. “I said you weren’t going to die, and you’re not. Of that, you have my word.”

From her pocket, the woman produced what looked like a small chicken bone. Taking it in both hands, she snapped the bone and tossed it aside while continuing to smile at the girl. “It’s okay. It’s all right.”

No more than twenty seconds after the bone had been broken, another figure stepped through the doorway. This one was a man, tall and handsome, dressed in an emerald suit. The shirt beneath the suit jacket was black, and the sunglasses he wore were tinted so dark that they appeared opaque.

“You broke the bone,” the newcomer announced, sounding vaguely surprised. “On purpose? I was half-expecting to find it discarded in a dumpster, with you back at your school laughing at the image of me rooting through the trash, trying to figure out what you wanted.”

Turning on him, Gaia interrupted before the man could continue. “Shut up and pay attention, Seller. The girl’s been poisoned. It was one of Fahsteth’s blades.”

Wincing noticeably, Seller’s head shook. “Fuck, so why’d you call me in? I know some of those hardliners you run with think this is the sort of thing we Gardeners enjoy, but you fucking know better than that, Sinclaire. I don’t wanna see this. Fahsteth’s blade? You know we can’t fix a Bystander that’s been hit by one of those. It’s impossible.”

“She’s a potential,” Gaia informed him in a low voice. “One of our biggest, actually. If she was a Heretic, we could fix her in a second. This poison would mean nothing. But…”

Seller’s voice was caustic. “But those stick in the ass old timers wouldn’t stand for it. Can’t break tradition, not even for a sick little girl that didn’t do anything wrong.”

The Baroness shook her head. “They believe that using the Edge on someone who is too young creates more problems.”

“I know exactly what they think!” Seller’s voice was raised. “That’s the whole reason the Garden exists! Because those fucks can’t get over themselves and their ‘tradition.’ And god forbid anyone fight against that. We all saw what happened to…” Pursing his lips then, clearly forcing himself to stop talking rather than launch into a much longer argument, the man finally finished with, “And what do you think?”

“I think I want you to take this girl,” Gaia Sinclaire replied softly, “and save her life. Make her a Heretic. Give her the power she needs.”

“You know if we take her,” Seller’s voice was equally quiet. “We don’t give them back. She’ll be one of us. You said she was one of your favorite potentials?”

“I would rather she go with you and live, than die.” Gaia’s voice was hard. “Take care of the girl, Seller. Heal her, keep her safe. Teach her how to fight. Teach her how to take care of herself. Teach her how to survive… and how to win.”

Slowly, Seller reached up to push his sunglasses down so that his pale eyes could look into Hannah’s weak, pain-filled gaze. “What about you, kid? What do you want?”

“I….” Hannah started. “… want… to… live.”

“Good enough for me.” The man crouched, pushing his hands under Hannah before lifting her off of the floor. “I’ll take the kid back to the Garden, Baroness. We’ll fix her up.”

He started for the doorway, the small, weak figure clutched in his arms. Before he reached it, however, another voice spoke up. “Heeeeey. What about me?”

It was Hannah’s father, Reggie. He was still lying in a pool of his blood, hand waving back and forth. “I ain’t… I ain’t dead either, you stupid fucks. What about me?”

Pushing herself up, Gaia Sinclaire stood over the man. “What about you? Well, as it happens, I was on my way here to tell you what I think of how you’ve treated your daughter, Mr. Owens, when that creature so rudely interrupted. And now? With that particular wound and the poison in the blade, you’ll be dead within the hour.” Taking the handle of the knife with one hand, she tore it from his body while straightening up. “Give or take.”

“You shit!” The man blurted. “You can’t just… can’t just leave me here!”

Standing there regally, the Baroness gazed down at Reggie. “There are several things that I am capable of, Mr. Owens. I am capable of understanding what you’ve done to your daughter. I am capable of understanding that you are never likely to change. And, perhaps most importantly for you in this second, I am, in fact, fully capable of leaving you right where you are.”

With that, she pivoted on her heel and left the man to scream useless insults and threats after her.

“All right, kid,” Seller announced while walking deeper into the apartment, toward another door. “Let’s get you fixed up, huh? You know where this door goes?”

Blearily, the poison working its way through her, Hannah lifted her gaze to look that way. “It’s a…. closet…”

The man smiled. “Wanna bet?” Leaning close enough to twist the knob without dropping the girl, he pushed it open, revealing a whole new building on the other side.

Eyes widening in spite of the pain she was in, Hannah stared at the impossible sight. “H-how…?”

“You think that’s cool, munchkin,” Seller announced, “then the rest of this stuff is gonna blow your mind.”

******

Four Months Ago

“They’ll never take me back,” the girl who had grown into a beautiful, powerful young woman over the past six years stood in the middle of the empty street. Rain poured down from above in great sheets, the raging storm making it all but impossible to either see or hear further than a few feet away. “Not after what I did,” she finished.

Beside her, the woman who had saved her life by sending her away all those years ago lay a hand on her shoulder. With her other hand, she clicked the top of a pen. The second the pen was clicked, the water stopped falling on the two of them. It was still raining just as heavily as before, but a space had opened up where the water simply avoided, falling to either side. It was as if an invisible shield had surrounded them.

“It’s going to be all right, Hannah,” Gaia promised the girl.

“All right?” Turning on her, the brunette shook her head. “I killed my teammate. That’s not all right. That’s not something they’ll ever forgive. I killed him. They’ll want payback for that. I have to run.”

“It was self-defense,” Gaia reminded her. “He was trying to–”

“I know what he was trying to do, I was there!” Hannah shot back. “You think it matters? I killed him and everyone saw me with the body. They know I killed him, they know it was me. They don’t know anything else. They don’t know about the harassment. They don’t know about the letters. They don’t know how many times he said he didn’t care that I like girls. Fuck, it was a turn-on for him! He said we could get one of the other babes in and make it a real party. But yesterday he just… he just… he tried to push the issue. I killed him. I just hit him and I hit him again, and then I couldn’t stop hitting him. That’s what they saw. That’s what they walked in on. Me, sitting on his chest, hitting his dead body for so long that his face was just a… a mess. I know what they saw. I know what they were going to do. So I ran away. I would’ve been taken anyway if Seller hadn’t gotten me out and given me your number. Now I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Listen to me, Hannah,” Gaia’s voice was firm. “You are going to be all right. First, the Garden wouldn’t dare attack the daughter of one of Crossroads’ senior staff. It would provoke a war.”

“But I’m not related to anyone from your school,” Hannah pointed out.

“You will be as soon as I finish adopting you,” Gaia replied simply. “You’ll be my daughter, my heir, and no one from that school will dare come after you. They’ll have to go through me first.”

Hannah’s mouth fell open. “You want to adopt me? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that?”

“Actually,” Gaia shrugged. “You happen to be the perfect age to start attending Crossroads.”

“Your school.” Hannah’s disbelief was palpable. “You want to adopt me and send me to your school.”

The Baroness nodded once. “You’ve learned so much from Eden’s Garden already, but I know they don’t start teaching magic until this year, Hannah. The human body can’t handle it until now. So you have a head-start on the physical parts, but you’ll be right with the others when it comes to magic. You’ll come to Crossroads. It will be hard for you to adjust, but I believe that you can manage it. I believe that you will excel, that you can excel at anything. I’ve been keeping an eye on you, Hannah, the whole time you were with the Garden Heretics. I know you. I know you can do this.”

Pursing her lips for a few seconds, the girl finally shrugged. “What the hell, it’s better than being on the run for the rest of my life.”

“Good,” Gaia smiled a bit. “We’ll spend the summer together. And in the fall, Hannah Sinclaire can join Crossroads.”

“No,” the young woman shook her head firmly, turning a bit to face the Headmistress. “Not Hannah. I’m tired of that name. That’s the name my father chose. I’m done with it. You want to adopt me? Fine, but change my whole name then.”

“Very well,” Gaia nodded once. “What shall we call you then, if not Hannah?”

The girl was quiet for a few seconds before she spoke. “I liked being at Eden’s Garden. You know, it’s not as bad as you Crossroads people make it sound. Sure it’s… different, and there’s some nasty people there. Hell, I’ve done some bad things. Things your people would consider bad. But it’s not all evil mustache twirling. They’re not a bunch of monsters. They just think differently than you. Hell, they say a lot of things about you guys that’s not true.”

Gaia’s head inclined into a simple nod. “I am aware of this. I would not have sent you with Seller if I didn’t believe you could be safe there.”

The girl continued, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to abandon it. Eden’s Garden taught me a lot. They taught me how to fight, how to protect myself. I’ll go to your school, I’ll even take your name. But I miss the Garden. I want my new name to help me remember it.”

“There is a possibility,” Gaia informed her. “I have… heard that the apple has a special significance to Garden students.”

“Apples, sure,” Hannah bobbed her head. “Or just fruit in general. The whole bullshit with the apple on the tree? The forbidden fruit? Yeah, that’s real for them. Sort of. That’s how they awaken us. You guys use the lighthouse, Eden’s Garden uses the fruit of knowledge. You eat the fruit, you become a Heretic.”

The Crossroads Headmistress nodded at that. “Of course. If you wish to hold onto your connection to the Garden, there is a name whose source was derived from the Old Welsh word for apple, aball. Or afal, depending on who you speak with. Ynys Afallon, to be specific. The island of apples. Or, in more common terminology… Avalon.”

“Avalon…” The girl considered for a moment before nodding slowly. “I like it.”

“Very well,” Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Then after today, you need never answer to the name of Hannah Owens again. This is your fresh start. From this point on, you are Avalon Sinclaire.”

“I still think this is all going to blow up in our faces,” the newly dubbed Avalon remarked quietly. “And Eden’s Garden won’t just let it go. They can’t. But…. what the hell, I suppose your Crossroads Academy has a new student. Just one thing though, I don’t do well with roommates. They never last.”

The Headmistress smiled faintly at that. “Never fear. I happen to have the perfect roommate in mind for you.”

“I’ll break her inside of a week. She’ll beg you to move her,” Avalon replied flatly.

Gaia met her gaze, her smile broadening just a bit. “We shall see, my new daughter.

“We shall see.”

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