Felicity Chambers

Sharkhunt 23-02

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The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?,” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”


She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Interlude 22A – Miranda

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March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)

“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.

The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”  

“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”

Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.

“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”

Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”

Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”

Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.

But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.

From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.

“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”

Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”

Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”

She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled u the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.

Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.

Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”

“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”

*******

“You two girls are in so much trouble.

Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.

But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.

“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”      

“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”

“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”

The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”

Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”  

“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”

To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”

Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”

To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”

Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”

“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”

“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.

“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”

Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”

“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.

Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”

Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”

“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”

“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”

Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”

“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”

Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”

Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.

Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”

“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”

It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.

“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”

“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”

The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”

“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.

“We run into it together.”

******

Present Day

 

The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.

She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.

Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.

Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.

So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.

And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.

Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.

But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.

They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.

All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.

They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”

Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”

The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”

Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”

“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”

“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”

“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”

Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.

“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”

“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”

To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”

“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”

“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass over the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”

“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”

Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.

The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”

If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”

Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”

“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”

For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”

“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.

“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”

Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”

“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”

Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”

“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”

Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”

“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”

“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”

The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.

“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”

Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”

Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”

“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.

“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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Please note that there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday. If you missed it, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Those last words had barely left my mouth before I abruptly found myself standing in a different position without any warning whatsoever. I had been by the door with my hand on it. Now, I was suddenly standing next to Avalon with my hand on her back instead of the door. Professor Dare, meanwhile, was standing where I had just been, with the door open in her hand.  

An instant after that, and the small lobby area was suddenly filled with several more people. I saw a handful of adult Heretics, accompanied by that Spanish woman from the Committee, Elisabet. All of them had their weapons drawn. In the counselor’s case, she held a what looked like a combination of a pistol crossbow and a sawed-off shotgun, with the dual barrels for the gun mounted below the crossbow part. Neither she, nor the other Heretics with her, looked happy.  

“Your response time is admirable.” That was Gaia, her voice cool as she regarded them, not even so much as twitching at the Heretic’s abrupt arrival. “But your locking spells could use some work.”

Dare gave a single, faux-casual nod while drumming her fingers lightly along the door that she was holding. “It didn’t take much effort to break the door security. Barely even knew it was there.”

“You?” Elisabet’s eyebrow raised as she looked at Dare with an expression that I couldn’t read. “You broke the security seal instead of simply using the passcode? Why would you do that?”

My brain caught up with what was going on then. Professor Dare and Gaia were covering for me. If the Committee found out that I had this security-breaking power, they’d be even more suspicious than they already were. Hell, they’d probably haul me back in for a much more intense round of questions, Gaia or no Gaia. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen to ‘but I just got it and didn’t even know about it.’ So Dare had thought quickly enough to swap places with me. Or Gaia swapped us, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, they made sure she was the one at the door.

“Why?” Dare echoed, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “It was a teaching moment. We wanted the girls to see how fast your response time is. As the headmistress said, pretty good. But we were expecting it to be harder to break the seal. Whoever cast it might want to work on that a bit.”

From the look on Elisabet’s face, she wasn’t very happy about their security being questioned. Her voice was tight. “As you well-know, the locking magic used for those inside the building is relatively minor. It’s only meant to keep people from accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t be. And I wouldn’t call breaking a Committee-ordered security enchantment a ‘learning experience.’”

“I don’t know,” Dare replied easily before nodding toward Avalon and me. “Would you say you learned something here, girls?” When we both nodded, she smiled faintly. “There you go.”

Elisabet turned to say something quietly to the men who had teleported in with her. They gave us a searching look for a moment before turning to leave while holstering their weapons once more. Then the woman stepped over and said something to Gaia. I heard the word ‘false alarm’ before she gave the rest of us a look that promised a lot more problems if we set off another security alert before spinning on her heel. She took two steps before vanishing from sight in mid-motion.

I wanted to say something, but after seeing that I waited until we were all the way out of the building and a decent distance away from it (past the security line) before speaking up. “Is it safe?”

Rather than using a coin or even Dare’s music box, Gaia just made a simple hand gesture, and I felt a popping in my ears before she nodded. “We may speak freely now. No one will overhear.”

“I’m sorry,”  I started weakly. “I didn’t know that was gonna happen. If…” I paused, swallowing a bit, “If they figured out that I was the one who broke that seal, it wouldn’t be good, would it?”

It was Gaia who spoke. “No,” she answered calmly. “They would probably not react very well.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dare added while giving me a brief, reassuring look. “Sometimes it takes awhile for powers to show themselves. Especially if they’re not very obvious. And, of course, when you get several that…” she paused, grimacing before finishing with a soft, “… quickly.”  

Flinching despite myself, I nodded slowly before looking back at the bag that held Doxer’s mice. “And sometimes we inherit things other than powers,” I murmured under my breath. Hearing a slight squeak inside, I opened it up once more. The mice were still huddled there, practically clutching each other as they stared at me with what looked like genuine terror on their little faces.

Wincing at the sight, I glanced up. “Oh. Um… I think I need to spend a little time with these guys.”

“It might have to wait,” Avalon muttered. “We have company, and I don’t think they’ll leave again.”

Looking the way she was, I saw the rest of the team coming from across the field.. And from the look of things, I was pretty sure Avalon was right about them not waiting around anymore. They were going to want to talk about what happened, both during the hunt and with the Committee.

“Okay, guys,” I murmured, looking back down at the bag briefly. “We’re gonna go meet some friends, all right? I’ll introduce you to Vulcan, and you can all talk about how I’m not a monster.”

“Just spend time with them,” Gaia encouraged quietly. “It takes some time for cyberforms to bond to their Heretics. Particularly after the old bond is severed so abruptly. But it will happen.”   

By that point, the others had arrived. Sands moved right up to me, looked simultaneously abashed and nervous as she kicked the ground. “Hey, uh, Flick. About earlier, I didn’t–” She flinched noticeably. “I didn’t think about what happened, what you had to do. I was just–I guess I didn’t–”

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, giving the other girl a slight smile. “I get it. Trust me, I get it. You don’t have to apologize. You were just… excited.” My hand went up to grab hers, even as I told myself that I could be touching a Seosten-spy right then. “Besides, at least he won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her head bobbed up and down, sending her brown braid bouncing. “Yeah, sure. No more victims for that asshole.” Shrugging then, she added thoughtfully, “Too bad Trice got away. But hey, Garden can’t ignore what he did anymore, right? Maybe they’ll do something about it.”

It was a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the year who had insisted that Eden’s Garden were all psychopaths. At least she thought it was possible that they’d step in on the Trice issue.  

Gaia, however, shook her head. “Unfortunately, it seems that Trice has fled even his own people. Possibly to escape judgment or other fallout from the results of this attack. Or,” she added while sounding thoughtful, “perhaps he feared retaliation from his accomplices for the failure.”

I was pretty sure that she’d said it that way just to see if there was even the slightest reaction from Sands, Scout, Sean, Columbus, or even Professor Dare. But if there was, I didn’t see any. Which made sense. A probably-millennia-old Seosten infiltrator wasn’t going to be tripped up by showing any reaction to that. Or maybe they weren’t even here. Maybe they were in Deveron, or Koren, or… yeah, whatever happened, we had to get that choker from Pace. This paranoia thing sucked.

“Figures,” Sean muttered with obvious annoyance. “The hijueputa runs away like a coward.”

Columbus shook his head. “He can’t hide forever. Someone’ll find him, right? I mean, even Eden’s Garden’s gotta want to talk to him about all this. And there’s gonna be Crossroads Heretics looking for him.” He glanced toward Gaia then. “Right? They can’t just let him walk away from it.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed simply. “He will be found. And when he is, I’m sure that there will be many questions he will be made to answer. But for now, I suggest you all try to get some rest.”

“Some rest?” Sands sounded absolutely incredulous at that. “Are you kidding me? We’ve still gotta hear about what happened. You guys need to tell us everything, everything.” Pausing then, she added with a gesture toward the bag in my hand. “Starting with, what’s in there?”

“In here?” I echoed, lifting the bag thoughtfully. “… I guess they’re a couple new friends.

“And I’m gonna have to talk to Nevada, because I’m pretty sure I know just what to do with them.”

******

“I hate this, Flick,” Shiori announced a few days later as the two of us walked along the beach on our way back from feeding Choo. He actually spent a decent amount of time in the container that the other girl had had made for him, but we still had to take him off the school grounds to be fed, since opening the container on the grounds would’ve meant setting off the security alerts. And call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to risk doing something like that again after that bit with Elisabet.

Besides, he still spent plenty of time out there in the special area we’d set aside for him. Shiori didn’t want the little guy to be trapped in what was essentially a cage constantly, even if it was a lot bigger on the inside than it should’ve been. Though from what I’d heard her talking with Avalon about, the two had a plan to make the whole thing better that would be interesting if it worked.

The other girl continued, head shaking. “I hate not talking to Columbus about all this stuff. He’s … he’s my brother. But I can’t even–I can’t trust him. What if he’s–” She stopped, making a face while putting an arm against her stomach. “What if he’s one of them? What if he’s possessed?” Even though we were both out on the beach and using a privacy coin (as was pretty much usual by that point), she still kept her voice quiet.

Wincing, I reached out to catch her hand, turning the girl around to face me. “Hey, I know. I know it sucks. Trust me, it…” Trailing off, I gave a soft sigh before interlacing our fingers. “It won’t be long, okay? We already heard from Roxa and the others. They’ve got an idea of where Pace’s pack is gonna be in about a month. Between them, Wonderland, and the rest of us, we’ve gotta be able to get that necklace away from her. After that, we just have to use it to find the Seosten.”

“A month.” Shiori’s voice was weak. “I…” She hesitated before straightening, giving me a nod that was a little more firm. “I know. I know. It’s the only way. I just… I just wish we didn’t have to wait that long. I wish there was some way to find out for sure right now, just to know. I hate looking at Columbus and not… and not knowing if it’s him looking back, Flick. I hate it so much.”   

God. Just standing there like that, I wanted to make it better. I wanted so badly to just wave a magic wand and solve the problem for her. I wanted to tell Shiori that she could trust her brother, that he really was her brother. I wanted to fix everything for her. And I never, ever wanted to see her look at me with that pleading, puppy-dog expression and not be able to do anything about it.

Instead, all I could do was embrace the girl. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I swear, we’ll fix it as soon as we can. We’ll find out who the spy is and get rid of them. Whether it’s Columbus or anyone else, we’ll get them back, okay?” I leaned back, staring at her. “I promise, we’ll find out the truth.”

Shiori watched me for a moment like that as we stood on the edge of the water, with the sun just starting to set across the horizon. The way the light made her face glow a little bit was mesmerizing, and I found myself lost in her gaze, unwilling and unable to break the comfortable silence. Because in that moment, we were communicating plenty without saying a single word.

Eventually, Shiori lifted her hand to gently touch my face. “Flick,” she whispered, her voice barely audible against the sound of the waves lapping against the sand. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times, as if she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the right words. In the end, she found another way of expressing what she felt. Leaning over, the other girl gently touched her lips to mine, giving me a soft, exquisite kiss. It felt different than kissing Avalon, yet somehow just as powerful. And just like those times, it took my breath away.

After what was entirely too brief of a time like that, the girl pulled back to blush, shifting on her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled adorably without looking at me. “I just–I really wanted to–It felt like-”

“Well see,” I interrupted before she could continue, “now I’m really in a predicament.”

Shiori blinked at me a couple times as she brought herself under control. “In a predicament?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, see… now I can’t figure out if I want to kiss you again, or just listen to you babble some more. Gotta tell ya, I’m leaning toward the babbling. It’s really sweet.”

She flushed even more at that, but before she could actually say anything, I leaned in to touch my lips to hers, giving a little smile at the sound of her gasp. “Then again, kissing’s really good too.”

A tiny whimper escaped the other girl before her arms snaked their way around me once more. I felt her nod almost imperceptibly, our lips still close to one another. “Uh huh,” she whispered. “Really good.”

We stayed like that for a minute, leaning against each other while collecting ourselves. It felt good, just standing there with Shiori. Eventually, however, she pulled back and cleared her throat.

“I guess we need that month anyway, since we still have to learn that spell from Prosser.”

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, yeah, he promised to set up some sessions for that. Knowing which of our friends is possessed isn’t helpful unless we know how to kick the bitch out of their body. We learn the anti-possession spell, then find out who she’s possessing, and kick her ass out of them.”

“And then kick her ass in general,” Shiori added firmly.

I nodded, smiling slightly. “And then kick her ass in general.”

Squeezing my hand, the other girl asked, “Um, what about Trice? Has he…”

My head shook. “He hasn’t said much of anything, really. Gaia says we just have to give him time to stew on everything. She keeps talking about having patience. Which I guess at this point means leaving him in the cell and not talking to him for a few days. She’s making sure he gets fed and whatever else, but other than that, he’s pretty much left on his own. Solitary confinement and all that.”

Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before asking, “And Fahsteth? What about that other meeting, the one that the Seosten heard about?”

“They’re rescheduling,” I answered with a grimace. “I’m not sure when, exactly. But sooner than before, hopefully. We’ve gotta get to him before the Seosten do. But when we do, we’ll keep quiet about it. Like the Trice thing. We’ll keep it quiet until the meeting was supposed to happen. Then see if any of our new friends show up. You know, counter-ambush style.”  

Shiori nodded, smiling at me in that familiar way. “I guess, if nothing else, the guy makes good shark-bait.”

Before I could respond to that with more than a snicker, the approach of someone else drew my attention. Seeing Nevada walking down the beach, I quickly disabled the coin and cleared my throat. “Oh, hey, Nevada.” Jeez, it still felt weird to call someone who was supposed to be our teacher by her first name. Then again, having a teacher who looked like a cheerleader was weird to begin with.

“Hey guys!” she chirped, giving us a dazzling smile. “Everything okay?”

I shrugged. “Neither of us have been attacked or teleported away to an alien planet today, so that’s a tick in the plus column.”

Laughing, the other woman reached behind her back to pull out a familiar object. “Well, here you go.” Flipping my staff around, she held it out toward me.

“You finished already?” I took the staff, looking it over. The only visible change was an additional half-hidden button as well as two white teardrop shaped marks about six inches from either end of the staff. “I know, I know, quick turnaround and all that. But I thought you’d need at least a little more time.”

She grinned at me. “It’s like I told you before, we figure out how to do these things quick. Gotta get the Heretics their weapons back. Besides,” she added with a wink, “The staff’s already got the portals at the ends for your sand. It wasn’t hard to add the new ones.”

Shiori blinked at that, squinting at the weapon in my hands. “New portals? For more sand?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Not for more sand. For something else. Are they…” I looked to Nevada.

She indicated the new button. “Give it a shot, they were making themselves at home last time I checked on them.”

My thumb pressed it, and immediately two small portals were generated right where the teardrop marks were. They were just large enough for a pair of tiny mechanical mice to poke their heads out, sniffing curiously before emerging onto the staff. Despite the fact that I was holding it vertically, both seemed completely at home crawling along it.

“Hey guys,” I spoke up, drawing their attention. The two mice quickly scrambled to the middle of the staff to meet each other, staring at me. They weren’t quite as skittish as they had been, but it was obviously going to take awhile for us to get to the level of trust that we needed. I liked them a lot, actually. But I didn’t want to rush things. They were just starting to open up to me and stop looking at me like I was about to feed them into some kind of industrial grinder. Time, it would just take time.

Rotating the staff carefully to hold it horizontally, I reached into my pocket for a handful nuts. Metal nuts that was, as in the kind that went with bolts. Coming out with them, I held the handful of metal up to the little cyber-mice. They hesitated, but quickly took the offered treat.

“Did you ever find out what their names were?” Shiori asked, glancing to me.

My head shook. “No,” I replied. “I don’t know what their names were. I dunno if he even had names for them. But I do.” Lifting my hand slowly, I pointed to the slightly smaller one, then the other. “This is Jaq, and that’s Gus.”

Nevada and Shiori both grinned at that, the latter reaching out a finger to them. “Jaq and Gus. That’s great. Hiya, Jaq. Hey, Gus.” She held her finger there, letting the little guys sniff it for a moment.

“Give the staff a spin,” Nevada encouraged, nodding. “Trust me, they’re fine.”

I hesitated, but she seemed confident. So I stepped back for room and spun my weapon, slowly at first to watch the mice before slowly picking up speed. No matter how fast I spun it, however, they stayed attached to the thing. “How?”

“Trade secret,” she replied with a wink. “But basically magic magnets. They’ll stay attached as long as you want them to.”

As I stopped and let the mice go back to exploring the staff, Shiori asked, “So you had Nevada make… portals in your weapon to summon your mice? That’s kinda cool.”

“Oh, it’s very cool,” I replied. “First, they’ve got a little home in there. I mean, they can come out too. But they’ve got a whole little house in there. Technically the portals link to a box that’s in my room. That’s where they are when they’re in there. But they come out through there.”

Nodding, the other girl hesitated. “Okay, but… what do they do once they’re here? Like, explore and spy on people or whatever? They look like they’d be pretty good at that.”

“Sure, sure,” I confirmed slyly, giving Nevada a quick look. “But they do a lot more than that. Is it…?”

“Go for it,” she replied, looking just as eager as I was. “Just tell the little guys it’s time to fight.”

“Hey, Jaq, Gus,” I spoke quickly. The mice stopped what they were doing and turned their tiny heads to peek up at me. “It’s time to fight.”

Immediately, they both took off in opposite directions. As I held the staff up, the mice ran to either end, clinging onto it before abruptly changing shape. In the process, they seemed to physically bond themselves with the weapon itself, latching on in several spots so that it was impossible to tell that they weren’t part of the thing to begin with.

Barely a handful of seconds after I’d said the words, and the transformation was complete. At one end of the staff, Jaq had turned into a slightly smaller version of the short-sword that he had been under Doxer.  Only the blade though, without the hilt. Meanwhile, at the other end, Gus became a smaller version of the grapple-hook.

Carefully, I spun the staff once more, checking the weight. It would take a bit to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad. And this way, my weapon had a couple more tricks to it. The blade on one end that could cut things, and a grapple-hook with an attached energy line that would both be wickedly dangerous in combat once I learned how to use it properly. Plus, the grapple would drastically improve my maneuverability when used in conjunction with the staff’s kinetic boosts.

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, spinning the now-bladed staff around once more. “This I could get used to.

“I could really… really get used to it.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-06

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“Flick,” Professor Dare spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Are you alright?”

It was a few minutes later, and the two of us were in a side-room away from where the Committee was still talking to Avalon and Gaia. They had asked me to step outside while they continued to speak to the others. I’d felt Avalon stiffen beside me, and knew that the girl had been about two seconds from launching into a rant. She obviously didn’t care who the Committee were or how powerful they happened to be. But I did, so I had quickly interjected to say that I’d wait.

Call me crazy, but as freaking badass as Avalon really was, I didn’t think that even she could come back in one piece from the kinds of things that she had obviously wanted to say to those people. So I agreed to leave, stepping out of the room while accompanied by Professor Dare.

“Alright?” I echoed, giving her a brief stare. “Some of the most powerful people on the planet think I might’ve had something to do with trying to kill Avalon and being part of some big conspiracy.”

Her head shook at that, slight blonde locks slipping out of place to fall over her eye before she brushed them back. “Only a couple actually think that. The majority don’t believe that you had anything to do with it.” She sighed. “They’re looking for someone to blame, Flick. It makes them look weak that someone can walk onto the island and completely bypass all of our security repeatedly. So they want to blame someone. You…” She paused, glancing around before reaching into the inner pocket of her suit jacket. Coming out with a small, intricately decorated music box the size of my hand, she set it on a nearby table before popping it open. A figurine of a ballerina popped up into view before slowly turning in circles, as a low, quiet hum filled the room.

“Anyone beyond the two of us will not hear anything from this room,” Dare informed me before continuing. “As I was saying, you know exactly why they would immediately look to you for that.”

Biting my lip, I gave a short nod. “Mom,” I spoke flatly while folding my arms. “They remember what happened with my mother. I guess if you spend the better part of a century with your entire society in the middle of a civil war because of one woman, you might squint a little at her daughter when she shows up pretty much at the same time as something like this starts happening.”  

“Unfortunately,” Dare confirmed with a strange look for a moment before she shook it off. “Your mother… there are those on the Committee who are still… unhappy with how that was resolved.”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before asking, “Unhappy? You mean, unhappy that she survived?”

“That,” the woman answered slowly before continuing, “and unhappy that there wasn’t some grand final battle. You see, the fact that Joselyn was able to fight the Committee members on their own terms was always something of a… sore spot for some of them. They have always been seen as being as far removed in power from normal Heretics as we are from Bystanders. Their power is supposed to be unmatched by any save for perhaps the Victors from Eden’s Garden. But the fact that Joselyn, that anyone,  was able to fight them toe-to-toe and survive was a blow against that. So there are those on the Committee who wanted to end the war by… well, ending Joselyn. They believe that not having that final battle where they could prove that their power was stronger than hers left a permanent mark against them. They never beat her on a level playing field. In the end, they only won by…” Her face twisted, and I saw an anger in the woman that she obviously kept suppressed most of the time. “They only won because she surrendered to them.”

“So they want an actual fight,” I murmured under my breath, grimacing. “They want to have that grand final battle that didn’t happen before, so that they can prove once and for all that they’re stronger than she is. That’s why they’re so convinced that she’s still out there, that she got her memory back and is behind all this. Because they want her to be. They want her to be the one doing this so they can fight her, so they can beat her the way they wanted to a long time ago.”

Nodding slightly, Dare put a hand on my shoulder. “They look at you, and they see the war that they never actually won. They see the woman they could never beat, until she surrendered herself to them.  And even if Ruthers was never completely open about how he convinced her to surrender, they have their suspicions… suspicions that make them feel even worse about it.”

“Because he held children hostage,” I stated flatly, not wanting to put any kind of spin on it. “He took innocent children, babies, and threatened them unless Mom surrendered. They have their–they suspect something like that, so it makes them feel worse. Good. They should feel like shit. They should feel like the lowest fucking scum on the planet for not ejecting that son of a bitch ri–” I cut myself off, closing my mouth while shaking my head violently. I couldn’t talk about that.

“You’re right.” Dare’s voice was soft, barely audible even as close as she was to me. “It’s plausible deniability. They know what he did, or at least suspect it strongly. But as long as he doesn’t confirm it, as long as he’s quiet about it, they can pretend they don’t know. They can shut it out and focus on what they see as the important thing: that Joselyn was captured. But even then, even then there’s that part of them that knows how far they had to go to even do that much. So if they can beat Joselyn in a fair fight, if she’s out there somehow and has all her memories and power back, they can make up for that dark stain. The stain of never really beating her, and the stain of what Ruthers did to end the war. They prove they can beat her now, and they fix all of it.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. It took me some time to get myself back under control to the point that I could actually think straight. The urge to walk back to that room and scream at the lot of them was almost overwhelming, despite the fact that everything I’d told myself about Avalon losing her temper with them being a being a bad idea went at least triple for me. I still had to take a few deep breaths and force myself to focus, suppressing the anger that tried to boil out of me.

Finally, I made myself say something else. “It still doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “The whole idea that I could be the one behind these attacks. For one thing, why would I stop anyone else from killing her? If I was really working with my mother and we wanted Avalon dead for some… stupid reason, why would I care who actually did the deed as long as she was dead in the end?”

Giving a long, slow sigh, Dare took a moment before answering. “There are… certain benefits, magically-speaking, toward being the one responsible for someone’s death. Or at least having access to the person who was responsible for it. There are rituals, particularly necromantic ones, that require the person casting them be responsible for the death that you’re using in the spell.”

“Fossor,” I almost spat the name. “They think we’re working with Fossor, and he needs the–the whatever, necromantic-death energy from Avalon’s death for some kind of spell or something?”

The woman nodded slightly. “It makes a twisted sort of sense. I mean, it doesn’t, but if you think the way that they do, it does. If you believe that your mother is working with the necromancer, Avalon’s death would be incredibly powerful. After all, her blood relation to Bosch means that there are a lot of potential magical benefits to being able to use her death. There are ritual spells that could do a lot of damage to Crossroads with the blood of our founder mixed in.”

The words made me feel sick, and I folded my arms over my stomach tightly. “So they think there’s two different groups fighting over who gets to kill Avalon… all because of some necromantic spell crap? Which… Yeah, I didn’t even know they knew about Avalon’s history.”

“I would be interested in learning how they found out,” Dare murmured, her voice thoughtful for a moment. “And how long they’ve actually known. Because they obviously didn’t know before she was taken in by Eden’s Garden. They never would have allowed something like that if they knew who she was. It has to have been something they learned fairly recently. But I have no idea how.”

“But what about when Ammon showed up?” I asked quickly while shaking my head. “I mean, why wouldn’t I just let him kill Avalon if we were actually working together? And why wouldn’t I just–” I stopped, catching myself. “Oh. Right, Wyatt’s protection spells. Gaia said that if someone kills Avalon before the spells are removed the right way, they get permanently marked by them?”

“Essentially, yes,” the woman replied with a nod. “Their thought process is likely that Ammon was being rebellious and trying to prove he could do a better job than you could by eliminating Avalon himself. You had to step in to prevent the boy from getting himself marked by the protection spell, which would have led Crossroads straight to Ammon, and subsequently to Fossor himself.”

I started to say something else to that, but Dare held a hand up to stop me. Her other hand closed the music box, and she had just tucked the thing away when there was a knock at the door on the opposite side of the room (away from the door that led into the room where Gaia, Avalon, and the Committee were). The woman gave me a brief nod of reassurance before speaking. “Enter.”

It opened, revealing… Teach. The man stepped in, closing the door after himself. “Well,” he announced with a nod at the door that led into the Committee’s room. “That’s a hell of a meeting.” Giving me another of gold and silver toothed smile, he added, “Hello there, Miss Chambers.”

“I–you–”  My mouth opened and then shut as I glanced over my shoulder at the other door. “Is the meeting over? You weren’t–I mean–” I stopped for a moment, my confusion mounting.

Teach gave a light chuckle at that, head shaking with amusement. “Nah, we’re still rambling on in there. Probably keep going for awhile yet. But ahh, you really think we’d go on for this long without having a way of being in two places at once?” His expression sobered briefly. “That’s some good information there, Chambers. Never think that just because we’re in one place, that we can’t be somewhere else too. Last I heard, your friend over in Eden could testify to that much.”  

“Miranda…” I murmured before shaking that off. “You guys know a lot more than I expected you to.” It was blunt, maybe. But at that point, I really didn’t want to tiptoe around everything. I didn’t know why Teach was standing there, what he wanted, or how much I could trust anything he said.

“And yet,” he replied easily, “I suspect we know less than you do about a great many things.” Before I could say anything to that, he raised a hand. “It’s all right, no need to see how many denials you can spit out. I’m not actually asking. This isn’t an interrogation, Miss Chambers.”

I was trying to find at least a slightly more polite way of asking what this was then, when Professor Dare spoke. “If this isn’t an interrogation, Counselor Teach, then what is it, precisely?” Apparently she cared less about being courteous at that point than I did. “Why are you here right now?”

In response, the man reached into his pocket to pull out a metal flask. Unscrewing the lid, he took a long pull from it before speaking. “There’s things you know about that you can’t say. And things that I know that I can’t say, because if I do, you either have to pretend to be surprised, which is just offensive to all of us, or… give me the kind of trust that I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna give me right now. So I’m gonna save all of us a bit of a headache and not put you in that position.”

He paused a moment, giving us a chance to say something. But I took Dare’s example and just remained silent. So, after a couple seconds of that, the man continued. “But you know, even if we can’t confirm anything because we’re all playing these secret games, I’m still gonna tell you something. You can take it for what it’s worth. Don’t have to say anything else. Just listen.”

His eyes softened then, and the man spoke simply. “What happened to the woman you’re looking for, it’s bullshit. Everything we did, everything we let happen, everything we didn’t stop, it was wrong. Whatever the intentions of it, whatever we thought we were doing, it was wrong. And she, that woman that we can’t talk about, she was the strongest kid I ever met. And I’ve met more people than you’ve seen stars in the sky, so believe that. And if you ever start to think about everything she’s been through, you just remember… she’s gonna be okay. Because she’s strong.” He paused, giving me a brief look up and down. “And she’s got mighty fine motivation to make it.”

My throat had closed up by that point, and I had to swallow a couple times before giving a flat, “I guess I wish I knew what you were talking about.” My voice was hollow, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone with it. “Sounds like an important person to know.”

“You will,” Teach replied with the kind of certainty that I wished I could feel. “Give it time.”

The door into the room with the Committee opened then, and Gaia stepped out along with Avalon. If either of them were surprised to see the man standing there, they didn’t show it. Avalon just moved next to me, rather pointedly taking my hand before squeezing it right there in plain view. Which was different for her. She didn’t tend to show much affection in public like that, usually. In this case, however, I supposed that her desire to show the Committee just how little of a shit she gave about what they said drastically outweighed her dislike of public affection.

“Edward,” Gaia greeted the man evenly, giving him a slight nod without saying anything else.

“Evening, Headmistress,” Teach returned the greeting with a sly wave of his hand. “I’ll leave you all alone. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to go over.” Pausing then, he added while looking toward me, “And Chambers, don’t you go letting yourself feel guilty about what happened. That boy made his choices. He had every chance to turn them around. Some people just aren’t worth the tears.”

He disappeared then, seeming to fade from existence while smiling faintly. After he was gone, I looked toward Gaia. “Do, um… do I need to go back in there and talk to them some more?”

“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Not today. You’ve been through enough. If they wish to speak with you about any more of their conspiracy theories, they can make an appointment.”  

Biting my lip, I looked at Avalon. “You didn’t try to bite their heads off or anything, did you?”

“I should’ve said a lot more than I did,” she half-snarled, clearly gearing herself up as her hand squeezed mine. “How stu–”

Clearing her throat, Gaia spoke up. “Perhaps we should leave here for now. I’m sure you’re tired of standing around and waiting.” She nodded to the door. “We can discuss everything outside.”

On the way, I glanced toward Avalon. She still hadn’t let go of my hand, obviously deciding that she hadn’t actually made her point yet. Not that I minded. “So they knew about…”

“Yeah,” she replied in a dull voice. “They knew. Tried to tell me about it like it was some grand revelation, like I should be so proud and amazed because of what my ancestor did.”

I coughed at that. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything you shouldn’t have.” Seeing her reaction, I gave her a quick look. “… Valley? What exactly did you say to the obnoxiously powerful people who could probably blow up our entire dorm building by sneezing in its general direction?”  

It was Gaia who spoke, her voice carrying the slightest undercurrent of amusement. “She informed them that they should be happy that her ancestor did not set this society up as a monarchy, because she would have demoted them to muck out the stables, since they were…” She paused then. “How did you put it? Oh yes, since they were ‘so obsessed with shoveling bullshit.”

Choking audibly for a moment, I gave my roommate a wide-eyed look. “Valley! You can’t talk to them like that.”

“Pretty sure I just did,” she replied coolly. “What are they gonna do, try to kill me? There’s a line.”

Dare shook her head slightly. “To change the subject slightly,” she murmured before holding a bag up for me. “I’m afraid protocol means that you’ll have to decide what to do with these.”

Frowning, I took the offered bag, glancing inside to find Doxer’s mechanical mice. They were both staring up at me while huddled together in the bottom of it. “Err, wait, what?” I blinked up then. “Shouldn’t these go back to Eden’s Garden? I thought Heretics were usually buried with their weapons. We… I mean, you are shipping his… his…”

“We are sending his body home, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But when one Heretic attempts to kill another, their weapon becomes forfeit to the survivor. And now that it’s been officially determined that you were within your right to defend yourself with lethal force,  Doxer’s weapons belong to you. What you do with them is your choice.”

The mice were still staring up at me as we approached the door to leave the building. My hand groped out, grabbing the handle. I felt a slight resistance before it pulled open, but the question of what I was going to do with these little guys was distracting enough that I barely noticed.

Barely noticed, that was, until I stepped through the door and glanced back to find the other three openly watching me, standing where they were. “Err… uh, were we not going…”

It was Gaia who spoke. “When the Committee is all together in the building like this, it’s locked down by several powerful security measures. One of those is that all the doors are remotely locked. That door should not have opened for you.”

“It shouldn’t have– but I didn’t–” I started and stopped, blinking a few times as I looked at the door, then back to them. My head started to shake, before stopping short. There was someone else who had done things like that, who had somehow taken control of plenty of security measures that he shouldn’t have been able to.

“…. I… think we just found out what else I got from Doxer.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone. “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second-year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that was one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older-year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked to see how many of his powers you… inherited?”

Right, check how many I’d inherited. Because unlike the way killing a Stranger only granted a single, random one of their abilities, apparently when a Heretic killed another Heretic, they had a chance of gaining multiple powers. If they got really lucky, they could even gain every power the other guy had. Which seemed to me like it would put a target on the back of every other Heretic whenever someone wanted to gain a lot of power quickly. 

It was a thought that made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”


“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

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