New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmeine sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmeine instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmeine gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmeine could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppelganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy construct emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppelganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!




But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”


The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmeine around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmeine.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”


“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”


The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmeine in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmeine wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmeine. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmeine had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmeine. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmeine had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmeine announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmeine wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmeine made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out of him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”


“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.


“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…


That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Investigations 25-04 – Douglas Frey (Interlude Arc)

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Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Douglas Frey wore his New York Rangers cap so much because he was a big baseball fan. That wasn’t exactly true, since in reality, he’d never watched a single one of their games and knew nothing about the team itself. Hell, he barely understood how the game was played, to be honest. No, the hat was far more important than as a symbol of sports team loyalty. It was the thing that kept the voices out of his head.

That… may have sounded slightly paranoid to people who hadn’t been through what Doug had. People who hadn’t experienced the Whispers, who didn’t know what they were capable of, wouldn’t understand why the hat was important, why he never went anywhere without it.

It had begun almost five years earlier, on the Crossroads-colonized world known as Vanaheimr, named after the world from Norse mythology. That was where Doug had grown up, he and his entire family, which consisted of his parents, three older brothers, two uncles, an aunt, and three sets of progressively older grandparents (grand, great, and great-great) had lived. His brothers ranged in age from ten years older than Doug, to sixty-three years older, while his oldest relative, Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan, was almost three hundred years old.

Not that he’d looked it. Sulan may have been around for close to three centuries, but he’d looked like a young, fit man in his mid-thirties at most. He had also pretty much been twelve-year-old Doug’s best friend in the world, at the time. The two of them did everything together. Sulan took his great-great-grandson on as many adventures as he could, the two of them exploring the wild jungles of Vanaheimr and the many creatures that dwelled upon it.

It had been during one of those excursions that things had… gone wrong. Doug and Sulan had been exploring what they first thought was a simple cave deep in one of the jungles. Partway through, they had run into actual architecture, evidence of man-made structures. Or at least sapient-being-made structures. It seemed like there was an entire building that had been buried beneath the cave. Neither of them could read any of the writing on the damaged walls, nor did Sulan recognize the images that were carved and painted into the walls as any Stranger that he’d had experience with. It was an entire race of creatures that had never been seen before, as far as Sulan was aware. And given that he was so old, he was aware of a lot.

Naturally, the two of them had been beyond ecstatic to find something like that. Sulan himself had almost been like a little kid as well. They’d explored deeper, only belatedly realizing that one of the symbols repeatedly displayed on the wall had been a warning, a warning to turn back and to never, ever open the doors that they were blundering through.

Even to the present day, Doug still wasn’t sure exactly when the Whispers had started. They began as his own thoughts, barely different from anything he would normally think. Over time, however, the twelve-year-old boy had begun to realize that the thoughts within his mind weren’t thoughts at all, but a distinct conversation. Something was in his head, whispering to him, talking to him, learning about him. Something… was testing him.

Sulan had come to the same conclusion by that point, and the two of them left the buried ruins. Closing everything up behind them once more, they had returned to the colony, letting the town authorities know what they’d found so that it could be explored properly and safely. Particularly, by people with experience dealing with whatever telepathic creature was inside.

Except there were a couple of problems with that. First, it wasn’t one creature at all, it was many of them. And second, they weren’t in the ruins anymore. Because Doug and Sulan had let them out when they blundered through all those doors.

As far as Doug and the people he’d talked to after the event had been able to work out, the creatures that they now called the Whispers were some kind of extradimensional species that was only partially present within the reality that humans inhabited. They were almost like ghosts, in that they had little to no physical presence. Their true power lay in their ability to gain control of a person’s mind through their whispering. The sound of their voices gradually infected the person, draining their will to resist until they were little more than playthings for the Whispers. A person who had been whispered to enough would follow their instructions.

And now, thanks to Doug and his grandfather, the Whispers had been released from their prison and set upon the colony world once more.

The result had been… more than Doug ever liked to think about. The Whispers had spread out to infect as many people as possible. Brother turned against brother, father against daughter, and friends attacked each other. It was a massacre, a civil war within the colony as some were taken over completely, while others were simply made paranoid and delusional.

In a desperate attempt to stop the Whispers from having everyone kill each other, Sulan and Doug had returned to the ruins. They tried to find the answer to sealing the creatures away again, and in doing so, they’d discovered that some of the symbols on the walls were useful in combatting or identifying them. Two were particularly potent. One allowed anyone touching it to actually see the Whispers as a vague outline that would, at the very least, allow them to be identified and hit by certain attacks. Meanwhile, the other important symbol rendered anyone touching it temporarily deaf to their incessant whispering.

That was why Doug’s hat was so important. Sulan had etched the symbols into the inside of the baseball cap, a simple souvenir from his last visit back to Earth. He’d placed the hat on Douglas’s head, and finally the young boy had been free of those neverending whispers.

Sulan had etched the symbols onto a piece of his own clothing as well, and the two of them had returned to the town. Doug’s great-great-grandfather forced him to wait outside while he went in to… deal with the situation.

Whatever ended up happening in there, Sulan never told Doug the whole story. When all was said and done, over half of the extensive colony had been killed, including a good portion of their family. Of them all, only Doug’s eldest brother and mother had survived.

From that point on, the symbols used to identify the Whispers and render someone immune to them were a part of everyday life at the shattered and devastated colony. Sulan took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, accepting exile from the colony. He still sent Doug letters and other messages, but the two of them didn’t get to interact as much as they had.

Five years later, Doug still rarely ever took off the hat with its magic symbols that had been drawn on the inside of it. Despite the fact that there was no indication that the Whispers had ever been to Earth, or ever would be there, he just… didn’t feel comfortable without it. Plus, if the Whispers ever did show up, he wanted to know about it immediately. After what they had done to his home, to so much of his family… he couldn’t risk something like that again.

And now, the idea that Flick Chambers or anyone might be trying to use some kind of choker to take over Roxa’s mind, after what he had seen the Whispers do… he wouldn’t let that happen. Ever. To anyone. Not if there was anything that he could possibly do about it.

That was why he was here, sitting in a cheap motel in the middle of Wyoming, sharing a room with the rest of his team while they took turns spying on Flick’s house. Well, they had been spying on the house, until Jazz came back from a short patrol to insist that they go back to the motel and gather everyone so that she could tell them what she’d overheard.

“Um, really?” Rudolph spoke up, his usual lax tone turned tense. “You really think that Gaia is part of this? Does that make sense? I mean, I know we thought she might be compromised somehow or something, but just chatting with vampires or whatever?”

“I know what I saw, Rudy,” Jazz retorted. “I know what I heard. It was her voice. They went inside right after that, but it was definitely her. The headmistress was checking on the vampire that’s staying with Flick’s dad, ‘keeping him out of trouble’, she said.”

“What does that mean?” Doug finally spoke up. “Keeping her dad out of what trouble?”

Standing by the desk with his arms folded, Paul announced, “It means we can’t trust her.” Seeing the looks that the others gave him, he shook his head. “Just think about it. Whether she’s been controlled, replaced, compromised, whatever, we don’t know. Which means we don’t know who we can trust right now. If we can’t trust the headmistress, then… well, anyone could be a threat, you know? Anyone we look at could be one of them.”

“One of who?” That was Gordon, his voice a little tense. “We don’t even know who they are. Is this still just an Eden’s Garden thing? Because it seems a little more involved than that.”  

Isaac, lounging back on one of the two beds in the room, spoke up then. “So what do we do about it, bossman?” He flicked a pencil into the air, catching it on the way back down before passing and rolling the thing between his fingers absently. “Can’t trust the headmistress, don’t know who else to go to without going through the headmistress or without her hearing about it. Maybe we should just find some evidence and go straight to the top.”

“Straight to the top?” Jazz demanded, squinting at the boy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Isaac shrugged, looking hesitant before giving a little sigh, like he didn’t really want to be the one that brought it up. “You know, those… what are they called again? The Royal Court.”

“Committee,” Rudolph supplied quietly before looking down. “You mean the Committee.”

Pointing the pencil at him, Isaac nodded. “Right, right, those guys. They’re above Gaia, right? So they’re the ones we should go to if we think she’s, ya know… not all on our side.”

Paul grimaced at that, head shaking a little. “Go to the Committee? I dunno, it doesn’t…” Pausing, he gave a long, low sigh. “I mean, I guess I don’t have any better ideas. We can’t just talk to Gaia about it. Which means we can’t trust any of the teachers. Anyone else could be corrupted too. Or they just plain wouldn’t listen to us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stop Gaia if she’s been… compromised. The only people I can think of who could stop her, bring her back to her senses, rescue the real Gaia or… whatever’s going on, are the Committee. Do you guys–do any of you have any better ideas?” the boy asked, sounding helpless as he glanced around the room at the team, letting the question hang in the air.

No one responded, at least at first. The silence grew between them for a few seconds before Paul nodded. “Okay then. I guess we need to start talking about the best way to contact the–”

“Flick,” Doug abruptly interrupted before their leader could finish, drawing everyone’s attention. “Whatever’s going on, she knows all about it, right? So we talk to Flick.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Isaac blurted, sitting up in the bed. “Haven’t we been over this? We can’t talk to Flick, she’s too dangerous. Especially now that we know the headmistress is working with her.  Anyone in Crossroads might be part of it. We just don’t know, right?”

“Look,” Jazz put in then. “This is just way over our heads, okay? Maybe Isaac’s right and we should take it to the Committee. I mean, they’re at her house talking about ancient necromancers and–”

“Ancient necromancers?” Gordon interrupted. “What was that again?”

The girl glanced that way. “Oh, right. Yeah, with the whole headmistress thing, I guess I forgot that detail. They mentioned Fossor too. You know, as in the big bad nasty? It was umm…” She paused, thinking about it. “They were steering Flick’s dad away from him.”

“Steering Flick’s dad away from Fossor?” Doug echoed, feeling confused by that. “What–how–what does that nasty fuck have to do with Flick’s dad?”

“For all we know, they’re drinking buddies,” Isaac muttered, folding his arms. “Guys, this doesn’t change anything. We still–”

Before the boy could continue, Rudolph spoke up. “She knew the name.” As everyone looked that way, he continued. “We were doing a group project a couple months ago. Vanessa found this journal by this Lyell Atherby guy, and it mentioned Fossor. Flick, she acted like she recognized the name. When Koren read it out, Flick got all… jumpy and grabbed the book.”

He told them more, about how the journal had explained that Fossor had approached the ancient Heretics, only to be rebuffed by all of them except for Gabriel Ruthers, who actually trusted the necromancer, an act which led to the Black Death.

“Okay, what the hell?” the words blurted their way from Doug’s mouth before he knew what he was saying. Still, he stuck with it, shaking his head. “Now I’m just confused. What does Fossor have to do with this whole thing, and what does that have to do with Eden’s Garden or any of this? And why are a vampire and Headmistress Sinclaire working together to keep Flick’s dad away from him? I–I… we’re missing something. Probably a lot of somethings.”

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “And they’re ‘somethings’ that the Committee can sort out, right? It’s above our level, we know that for sure. So we take it to the Committee. That’s the best we can do. We don’t know what’s going on, but they can figure it out. We just take what we’ve got to the actual adults and let them figure out how to pro–”

Frowning to himself throughout all of that, Doug finally spoke up, interrupting their leader. “Why didn’t you tell us about that before?”

Rudolph, realizing that he was the one being addressed, blinked that way. “What?”

“About Flick’s reaction to hearing about Fossor,” Doug clarified. “It seems kind of relevant, so why didn’t you bring it up before?”

“Well, I just… I…” Rudolph paused, frowning. “I um. I’m not sure. I probably should’ve.”

“Yeah.” There was something tickling at the back of Doug’s mind, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something… important. Finally, he shook his head to clear it. “Maybe it’s time to do what we should’ve done from the beginning.”

“Right,” Paul agreed. “Thanks, Doug. We do what we should’ve done from the start. We take what we know to the Committee, and–”

“No, not the Committee,” Douglas disagreed. “I still think we should talk to Flick. She hasn’t–I mean. Okay, look. I play a lot of video games, right? Video games, movies, books, all of it. And you know what? I don’t feel like being the character that comes in and fucks everything up because he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he’s wrong. I don’t wanna be that guy. If Gaia’s working with Flick and a vampire and all that, maybe they’ve got a reason. How about we don’t just automatically assume that Gaia’s evil because we heard one side of a phone conversation? Can we just step back from that cliff, please?”

Jazz slowly spoke up, sounding thoughtful. “So what do you suggest?”

“Like I said,” he replied pointedly, “we talk to Flick. Alone. Say I’m wrong and this whole thing really is sketchy. Well, if we ask Gaia about it and I’m wrong, we’re fucked. But if we ask Flick about it, confront just Flick, then maybe even if I’m wrong, we still get some answers. One way or the other. You wanna find out what happened to Roxa? That’s how we do it. But if we bring in the Committee, there’s no going back from that. That’s a switch we can’t unflick. Pun intended and I am so sad that Shiori isn’t here for this conversation because she would be so jealous.” 

“You’re insane,” Isaac informed him. “How’re we gonna talk to ‘just Flick’? How are we supposed to get her alone? We have no idea how wired up with spells and spies and whatever else Crossroads is. You don’t know who we can trust over there. If Gaia’s in on it, anyone could be.”

Douglas nodded at him. “Yup, you’re right. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads.”

Isaac gave a satisfied nod then. “Right, thank you. So let’s just take it to the big guys and–”

“No.” Doug shook his head. “That’s not what I was saying. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads, so let’s take the whole thing out of Crossroads. Let’s confront Flick about it somewhere that Gaia isn’t around. Somewhere she couldn’t possibly have anything set up.”

Isaac squinted at him then, and Doug thought there was something… different and strange in the boy’s gaze before it passed. “Okay…” he announced slowly, glancing toward Paul briefly before asking, “and how exactly would you suggest we do that, man? We can’t exactly just snap our fingers and magic up an excuse to take Flick off school grounds and away from everyone else. I mean, unless you’ve got some serious pull that you haven’t been sharing with the rest of the class.” The latter was added in a teasing tone as Isaac winked at him.

“Maybe we can.” The words came not from Doug, but from Rudolph. The boy looked thoughtful.

“Excuse me?” Paul was looking at Rudolph, frowning a little while cracking his knuckles a little methodically. “You seriously have an idea to take Flick off school grounds so we can confront her without Gaia or anyone around?”

“Dude,” Jazz interrupted while the other boy flinched. “Could you sound any more critical? Give him a chance, huh?” To Rudolph, she asked, “Seriously though, what’s up?”

Again, the boy looked hesitant before breathing out and straightening. “I visit my great-great-great grandfather at night sometimes. He’s one of the doctors at the EJC, err, the Eduard Jenner Center.” To Isaac, he added, “It’s basically one of the main Heretic Hospitals.”

Isaac, who had stood from the bed and was watching Paul for a moment, turned his attention back to Rudolph. “Gotcha. So what does that have to do with our little problem? You wanna make Flick get the flu or something?”

As Doug watched, curious about where the other boy was going with this, Rudolph’s head shook. “No, no, nothing like that. But I was there the other night, and one of Grandpa Donald’s old friends was there for some kind of night class that he’s been teaching for the people that are laid up in there. He’s this guy that works in the Bystander world, Josiah Carfried.”

“Wait,” Jazz interrupted. “As in–”

“I think they’re related, yeah,” Rudolph confirmed. “Not sure how. But the point is, he works at some museum or something, and he was talking to Grandpa Donald about how Professor Dare asked him to have the Investigative Track show up and help out.” He flushed a little. “I wasn’t supposed to hear about it, I don’t think. But I kinda did. And then Gramps was saying that he should spice it up a little, so the Josiah guy got this idea about having a prize for whoever helps him the most with whatever he has them do.”

“Okay, this sounds really great and all,” Isaac informed the other boy doubtfully. “But I really think–”

Gordon spoke up then. “What kind of prize, exactly?”

Looking up at them, Rudolph hesitated before answering quietly. “A trip to New York City. Four days out there, away from the island.”

“Flick’s not in Investigation anymore,” Paul pointed out mildly.

Rudolph’s head bobbed. “Yeah, the prize is for the whole team of whoever finds it. Or teams, you know. They’re supposed to break into pairs, from what Josiah was saying.”

“So… what?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “You want us to find a way to make sure, what, Flick’s team and our team both win this trip?”

Straightening, Doug gave a quick nod. “Sure, we can do that. We just need to make sure one of you ends up in a pair with either Sands or Scout. And then make sure that pair wins.” This could work, and it sounded a lot easier than taking stuff to the Committee. And less… final. Doug wasn’t sure how he felt about Flick, but if she was just being manipulated into doing all this herself, if there was a way to do this without turning the girl in… that was the best way, it had to be. Sulan wouldn’t have just thrown the girl under the bus without a second thought. He would have given Flick a chance.

Paul and Isaac were looking at each other. Neither seemed convinced. Their team leader slowly shook his head. “I dunno, guys. How do we make sure they’re on the same team? How do we make sure that team wins?”

Shrugging, Jazz replied, “The team part we can figure out as we go. As for the winning thing… “

“I can help,” Doug quickly spoke up as his eyes widened with realization. “My power. Whoever gets on a team with one of the twins, just send me a text or something. Tell me what you’re trying to do, I’ll ask my power how to win, and then send it back.”

Together, they all looked at each other for a few long seconds. Isaac made a face. “Did we all just forget something? Remember how much ass that Chambers chick can kick? That’s why we didn’t confront her to begin with.”

“This is different,” Doug insisted. “Six of us and one of her. We get her alone, make it look like we’re all separating, and then we confront her all together. Between the six of us, we can at least get answers.”

Give her a chance to explain her side, it’s what Sulan would have done.

Paul lifted his chin. “Not a bad idea, really. I mean, maybe a bit of a longshot, but still. Nice job thinking outside the box, guys. But… yeah, I think our best shot is still just letting the adults handle it. So we’ll just try to get hold of–”

“Let’s take a vote.” Jazz’s voice was challenging, her eyes staring at their team leader.

“I’m sorry?” Paul blinked at her.

The girl shrugged. “You always said that if we disagreed, we’d take a vote, right? You’re not a dictator. That’s what you said. So let’s take a vote. Everyone who wants to to go with Rudolph’s plan, raise your hand. If you want to go with the ‘inform the Committee’ plan, keep your hand down.”

She raised her hand, followed by a slightly hesitant-looking Rudolph. A moment later, Gordon’s hand joined theirs. And Doug’s raised hand made four. The only ones who kept their hands down were Isaac and Paul.

Isaac made a disgruntled noise, shoving a hand into his pocket. “Right, I guess we just–”

Doug interrupted the other boy then, calling up the power that allowed him to ask one question per day and get an answer. “How is Josiah Carfried dividing up the people from Professor Dare’s Investigations class to do this contest of his?”

The answer came almost immediately, and he smiled before looking at Rudolph. “Right, got it. Wait, let me think….” He focused for a moment before smiling. “You know what? I think I know what to do. But if we’re gonna pull this off, you’ve gotta go back to that hospital tomorrow night. And we’ll need a spell from the school. I saw it the other day, but I don’t remember it exactly.”

Hand still in his pocket, Isaac squinted at him, his voice strange. “Wait, you just used your power? The one you can only use once per day? You used it on this, right now?”

Nodding absently, Doug replied, “Yeah, felt like the right time for it.” To Rudolph, he added, “You said Josiah’s has been there teaching night classes? You think he’ll be there tomorrow night? And do you think you can get into that hospital again?”

Slowly, Rudolph nodded. “I… yeah, he should be there. And I can visit. No… uh, no problem.”

“Great.” Jazz was grinning, raising both fists into the air. “We’re going to New York, baby!

“Even if we’ve gotta cheat to do it.”

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Investigations 25-02 – Paul Calburn (Interlude Arc)

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Late Friday Evening, January 26th, 2018 (Three days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Paul Calburn embodied the very concept of the cliche gentleman cowboy. That wasn’t exactly true, since the one and only time he’d actually ridden a horse, the thing had bucked him. That was back when Paul had been eight years old. He’d ended up with a broken arm and a deep-seated fear of horses that he still hadn’t shaken. He knew how irrational it was, especially now. He was training to fight much, much worse threats. But logic didn’t matter. Anytime the idea of actually sitting on a horse came up again, he had a flashback to his own small body flying through the air, followed by the terrible pain as he’d landed on his arm. Logic be damned, he just didn’t like horses.

But what he liked even less than horses were bullies and manipulators, people who took advantage of others to get what they wanted. People who abused their power like that were the worst scum. And as far as he could tell, that included the girl who called herself Flick Chambers, if that was even her real name. From what he’d seen, everything else about her was a lie.

She had supposedly been a completely normal Bystander with no combat training and no connection to the Heretic world. Yet, within a few months of starting, she was already one of the most advanced combatants in their school. Hell, if the rumors were right (and they seemed to be), she’d killed an Amarok on her team’s first hunt. An Amarok, and Chambers managed to kill it after she’d been a part of the school for… what, barely a month? That was completely absurd.

Then there was everything else. On the third day of school, Professor Pericles had been killed. And who were two of the first people on the scene first thing in the morning according to others who had been there? Flick and Avalon. The next day, who were the two students locked in a room with a bunch of Peridles that came out of it without a scratch despite one of those students supposedly never being in a fight before in her life? Flick and Avalon.

It went on and on like that. Flick kept disappearing and showing up with powers that no one saw her get. She didn’t get them on any kind of official hunt, that was for sure. She just… had them.

Then there was Thanksgiving. It was next to impossible to put together any kind of coherent timeline or description of what had happened. But somehow, Flick had ended up at Koren Fellows’ house and… surprise, surprise, there was an attack by some kind of nasty Stranger. An attack that ended with Koren’s mom needing help. But did they bring her to Crossroads? No. Flick was there and she just happened to have a contact in Eden’s Garden, a contact that took Koren’s mom there instead of to Crossroads. And guess who, completely coincidentally, stopped being so antagonistic toward Flick and her friends right around that same time? Koren.

Koren acted like a…  word that he wasn’t going to even let himself think, because he didn’t want to be that kind of person. She acted awful toward Flick and Flick’s friends. Flick ended up at her house, Koren’s mother was horrifically injured, and then was taken to Eden’s Garden… and suddenly Koren’s attitude changed? What better leverage was there than someone’s mother?

And it was around that same time that Roxa had disappeared, with the utterly ridiculous explanation that she had gone for a family emergency. A family that she didn’t have, since she’d made it quite clear to them all that she was an orphan.

That, in itself, obviously didn’t tie her to Flick. But then there was Doug’s power. The power that told them that the answer to finding out where Roxa was lay in Flick. Flick was the answer. She knew where Roxa was, what had happened to her.

What, exactly was more likely, that Roxa had somehow gained an entire family just before having an emergency that required she visit them for months on end…  and that somehow Flick knew about it…. or that Roxa had found out the truth about Flick being from Eden’s Garden and she or someone connected to her had done something to the girl?

Maybe they hurt her. Maybe they abducted her. Maybe they brainwashed her, or just convinced her to go to Eden’s Garden somehow. Threats, payments, promises, Paul wasn’t going to pretend to know Roxa well enough to say for certain. But the point remained that Doug’s power said that Flick knew what happened to Roxa. And, in the time since that whole thing had happened, Flick had begun to act more and more paranoid and suspicious of everyone.

She had the people on her team using those magic coins that Paul and the others had found in her dorm room, the coins that masked their conversations. How had she learned that spell?

Flick knew magic she shouldn’t know, she was a better fighter than she should be, she kept disappearing and gaining abilities with no explanation, she had contacts in Eden’s Garden that were strong enough to let her tell them to make someone into a Heretic (and purposefully had that person sent there instead of to Crossroads where her own daughter attended)… and on and on. How much more obvious did it need to be that she wasn’t a normal student?

And that wasn’t even getting into the whole visit from the boy who had somehow mind-controlled their head of security before visiting Flick and Avalon’s room. Sure, he’d then proceeded to use that mind-whammy power of his to convince most of the students in the immediate area to attack them, but as far as Paul could tell, that had only happened after Gaia showed up. At the time, he’d assumed it was just what it looked like. But now… ever since Doug’s power kept repeatedly pointing at Flick as being the source of Roxa’s disappearance, he doubted it. Again, the whole ‘attack Flick’ thing hadn’t happened until Gaia was there. Who knew what else they talked about before then? And it would’ve been a quick way of making Flick look innocent after they were caught in her room by the headmistress.

Sigh. None of that sounded exactly right. Paul couldn’t entirely shake the thought that they were missing something important. He kept doubting things. Yet Doug’s power was insistent. Every time they asked it who was responsible for Roxa’s disappearance, how to find her, who knew where she was, and so on and so forth, it pointed at Flick Chambers.

Sometimes, Paul thought he should just walk up and demand answers from the girl. Other times he thought he should just ask her. Either way, the direct method was tempting. Yet there was also no way to come back from it. If they confronted Flick openly and she was a threat, there would be no do-overs. That was the only thing that stopped him. So many times, he had looked at the blonde girl and thought that just asking her about it would be the best way to do things.

But if she was bad, if she was some kind of Garden secret agent or something and thought her cover was blown… she would be more than a threat to him, she might just have Roxa killed to cover their tracks. And after what had happened to Rex, the little brother who had drowned while nine-year-old Paul was supposed to be watching him… he couldn’t face something like that. He was their team leader. He was responsible for Roxa. He couldn’t make a mistake and trust Flick when it might mean that Roxa would pay the consequences if he was wrong.

Maybe that was why he was so obsessed with finding Roxa. Roxa. Rex. His little brother died because Paul was too busy playing his game instead of watching him. He knew his mother had never forgiven him for it, and likely never would. She’d never looked at him the same way again, even after his parents separated and Paul went to live with his father.   

He’d failed Rex. He wouldn’t fail Roxa.

“Now, see dude, when you said you had a plan, I thought you meant something involving teleportation or whatever,” Isaac announced from the backseat of the old red van.

“We did teleport,” Paul reminded the boy from his spot in the driver’s seat. “From Crossroads all the way to my dad’s new place in Montana.”

“Sure,” Isaac replied. “And then we proceeded to sit in a normal old van and drive down the freeway for the past five freaking hours. My cramps are getting cramps.”

Beside him in the front passenger seat, Jazz pointed out, “What were we supposed to do, say, ‘hey, Professor Carfried, could you teleport us to Wyoming? Yeah, we know none of us live there, but we really want to visit all the absolutely nothing that’s there’. We’re just lucky the place Paul’s dad moved to is as close as it is. Five hours isn’t that bad, and I’m the one who has to put up with the boy smell.”

Rudolph, sitting next to Isaac, spoke without opening his eyes. The boy had been dozing in his seat since the moment the drive had started. “And lucky that his dad doesn’t mind him going on roadtrips when he’s supposed to be visiting for the weekend with his team.”

Coughing a little despite himself, Paul tightened his grip on the wheel before nodding. “Dad pretty much lets me do what I want, long as I don’t make no trouble. Not the first road trip I’ve taken. Kinda like the solitude.” Pausing briefly, he asked, “Everyone else okay back there?”

Doug, in the middle seat in front of Rudolph and Isaac, spoke without looking up from his game. “Dandy.” His fingers were flying over the buttons, and his brow was knit with concentration, eyes mostly hidden by the ever-present New York Rangers cap that was pulled down low.

Beside the other boy, Gordon gave a slight nod. His own eyes were focused out the window, watching the Wyoming scenery as they drove by. He spoke quietly. “How far is it now?”

Before Paul could answer, Jazz lifted a hand to point at a sign they were passing. “There it is. Laramie Falls, Wyoming, exit in five miles. You got that question ready, Doug?”

The boy in question nodded before muttering, “I’ll wait until we’re actually in town.”

It didn’t take long from that point. Within a few minutes, they had exited the freeway and were slowly driving through the town itself. Doug finally shut off his game, straightening up. Aloud, he asked, “How do we get from here to the house in this town that is listed as being Flick Chambers’ home?”

No one in the van answered. But then, Doug wasn’t asking them, he was using his power. Once a day, he could ask a question and either receive an answer or directions toward an answer.

A moment later, he opened his eyes. “Got it. Turn right up here, then left at the next corner.”

Over the next couple of minutes, the boy directed them through the town. Just before they reached Flick’s street, Paul pulled into a corner gas station and parked in the back. The six of them stepped out, the boys stretching their legs a bit while Jazz went inside to get some drinks. Then, once they were sufficiently refreshed, the team started out of the lot on foot. They walked down the street, keeping their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. Now would be one of the worst possible times to somehow run into someone who knew who they were. Explaining what they were doing in Flick’s (supposed) hometown would take an awful lot of doing.

Before stepping onto Flick’s street itself, Paul made everyone stop. It was late enough that almost no one was out anyway. But still. They all clustered together, touching Jazz before the girl summoned her invisibility power. It wasn’t perfect, showing a shimmering shape in the air whenever they moved. But as long as the group moved slowly, it was better than nothing. Plus, according to Jazz, the power also somewhat dampened other senses like hearing and smell.

The house in question was mostly dark, with only a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. As they slowly (and almost invisibly) approached, there was no sign of movement aside from some flickering that looked like it was coming from a television. Aside from that, all was still.

“You know,” Isaac whispered barely loud enough to be heard, “I kinda expected something to happen right now. Like a bunch of Garden thugs to jump out or… or… I dunno, something.”

He was being quiet, but Paul still shushed him without taking his eyes off the house. They stood there, across the street while staring at the place for another ten minutes before he ushered the group to move on. Together, they continued down and around the corner, gathering in a gravel-filled alley before Jazz finally relaxed the invisibility so they could see each other again.

Rudolph was the first to speak, his voice quiet and steady. “Looks pretty normal, doesn’t it?”

Paul nodded slowly. “Yeah, not that that means anything.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Right, just like we figured. That motel we found online is just a couple blocks away. Since I’m the only one that’s eighteen, I’ll check in. Most of us get some sleep, and we watch the house in pairs over the next couple days until something happens. Everyone good with that?”

There were an assortment of nods, and Paul gestured. “Right, let’s go. I wanna get back so we can keep an eye on the place before we end up missing something. I’ll take the first shift, with…”


A little over an hour later, Paul started awake abruptly. He was in the driver’s seat of the van once more, which was parked just around the corner from Flick’s home, pulled forward just enough to see the house in the distance.

“Bleh,” Paul muttered, smacking his lips a few times to get rid of the sleep taste. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.” Glancing to his partner for the moment, he asked, “Everything still quiet over there?”

The response came not from the person seated beside him in the passenger seat, but from the back. And it spoke in his own voice.

“Everything still quiet over there?”

Jerking around in his seat, Paul stared at the figure who sat behind them. The figure was… him. It could’ve been his twin brother. Seeing his stare, the doppelganger smiled before speaking, again mimicking his previous words. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.”

Paul’s mouth opened, and then he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck. His head turned, snapping that way in time to see his partner withdraw a syringe even as all of the strength left Paul’s body. He slumped over, collapsing halfway out of the seat.  

“Here we go,” his teammate announced quietly while reaching out to yank Paul up by the arm. They steadied him in the seat, patting his cheek. “If it makes you feel any better, you didn’t miss anything in the house. Though, you know, I did wonder if that drink was ever gonna knock you out.”

He was paralyzed. Paul couldn’t move anything aside from his eyes and his mouth, both sluggishly. “Th…wh…what… what…”

“Oh, right,” his teammate… his supposed friend snapped their fingers. “You’ve probably got questions about the guy in the back.” Glancing that way, they smiled slightly. “That’s Fetch. Wait–” They looked to the figure in question. “Was Fetch your name or your species, because I was never quite clear on that.”

“Yes,” the answer came from the back in Paul’s voice.

After pausing briefly, the person beside him nodded. “Right then. Anyway, Fetch. I think it’s some kind of Irish Stranger or something. Anyway, you don’t want a history lesson right now. You just wanna know why it looks like you, right? Well, long story short, he’s a doppelganger.  Cuz here’s the thing, Paul… turns out, my uh, let’s call them my benefactors, they think they need some more help. Some backup, you know. So, they sent in Fetch here. He’s one of those Strangers that doesn’t set off the Heretic-sense. Pretty useful. And he’s kind of a mercenary.” There was a pause then before Paul’s teammate chuckled. “Hell, I guess I’m a mercenary too, huh? I mean, they are paying me a shiiiiiitload for all this. Which, I mean, I almost would’ve done it for free cuz how often do you get to do shit like this? But you know, the money helps.”

Paul was struggling, fighting a losing battle to make himself move, to shout for help, to warn… someone. He was trying to interrupt, but it was hard to talk, hard to do anything but sit there. Even his emotions seemed dulled and slow, because the sense of betrayal that he felt didn’t seem to be the kind of raging fire that it should. Everything was dampened.

“Anyway,” the person beside him continued. “Point is, Fetch here needs someone to take over. You got elected because you’re on my team so I could set it up, and because–well, quite frankly it has been a pain in the ass to keep this team focused. You have no idea how many times you people decided to just go and talk to Flick to straighten this whole thing out. I mean, memory-erasure spells or not, having the same conversation over and over and over again until you get the result you want just gets dull, you know? Now, maybe with my pal Fetch here calling the shots in your place, we can actually stay focused on getting the rest of this team to gather all the evidence we need about Flick being a baaaaaad little girl. Then we’ll take that to the Committee and, well, that’ll be that. Oh, and because Gaia’s so tied into this whole thing, she’ll probably go down too. Won’t that be fun?”

It was so hard to talk, it was so hard to think. Paul forced his mouth open, struggling to say even a couple words. “Flick… not… bad…”

“Flick’s not bad?” the figure echoed. “Yeah, I guess if you like snoopy blondes with firm little–oh, you meant evil. Well, no, she–oh, just for the record, were you talking about the real Flick, or the one we overheard the other day? Cuz uh, the one that came in her room and just conveniently spilled all that information just when we happened to be there? Yeah, that was my friend over here too. Just making sure they spoofed the security system correctly and all that. You know, while dropping just enough info to keep the rest of you guys interested and right on Flick’s tail. I mean, not as literally on her tail as I’d like to be, but…well,  you can’t have everything.” A pause then, before there was a thoughtful, “Actually, do you think they might let me have her when this is over?”

That was enough for Paul to almost push himself up a bit. His fists actually clenched. “Piece… of… shit…”

His teammate pushed him back down. “Oh, look at me, rambling forever. It’s just–it’s been a long time since I got to be myself, you know? I was just… faking it for so goddamn long, ever since they found me and told me all about this plan and… yeah. Seriously, it’s just nice to talk to someone. And see the look on your face. That’s–that’s gotta be one of the best parts of this whole thing. It’s almost as good as the look on Pericles’s face when he realized I was just distracting him before, well…” He drew a finger over his throat.

“Y… you… you…” Paul’s eyes were wide as he desperately fought against whatever he had been injected with. “… killed…”

“Me? Dude!” the figure beside him blurted. “You know how cool that would’ve been? Imagine how many powers I would’ve gotten from that.” A sigh then. “But no, they wouldn’t let me do it myself. I was just the distraction. But believe me, the person who did do it…. Well, let’s just say you’d be really surprised.”

“Wh… why…?” Paul’s voice was a weak croak, the words barely audible.

“Why do this? All of it?” His teammate paused before shrugging. “Well, I already told you about the money. Believe me, it is a lot of money. You have no idea. But beyond that, I’d say because it’s fun. I mean, check this out. You know those um, what were those little freaks called, the umm…” Their fingers snapped a few times as they fought to remember. “The Jekern, right, the big warthog things that’re like those Russian nesting dolls. You get one of those and you cut off its legs and you put these metal caps on the stumps so it can’t go anywhere, right? Then, all you gotta do is wait for it to get big enough that there’s a bunch of them inside. And once it is, there’s this technique you gotta do with the blade, you gotta angle it just right and when you shove it in, you can kill three, four of them all at once. Shrick, straight through all the brains, just like that. So all that’s left is the smallest one. Then you take that little baby, you cut off its legs, lock it up in the cage and feed it until it gets big enough to have more inside it. I mean seriously, dude, why don’t we just do that in the school? I must’ve killed eight or nine of the piggy freaks by now.

“And there’s other ones you can do that shit with too, you know? You just figure out how to cripple ‘em, lock the bastards up and let them spit out little ones. But you know, in that case you gotta kill the little ones, not the big ones. Don’t wanna get rid of your breeder, that’s just dumb and wasteful. And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s wasteful. Learned that lesson with my sister. I mean, one little slice and it was over, you know? I didn’t get to enjoy it or anything. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret not showing just a little more restraint. But you know, first times and all that. I think I can be forgiven for shooting off a little quick in that case. I’m much better at keeping my cool now.”

“I’m done.” Paul’s voice spoke up once more from the backseat, his doppleganger, Fetch.

“Done?” the traitor echoed before grinning. “Great.” To Paul, they added, “See, Fetch can just copy your physical appearance and all that if need be. But his real trick is a lot better than that. See, if he spends a few minutes close to the person he’s copying, he can sort of… lock onto their spirit. Or whatever you wanna call it. The point is, it means when you die, he gets to copy all your memories, your skills, your powers, everything useful. He can only hold onto that stuff for a short time before it fades. Someone like you is probably weak enough that he can copy it all for a couple months. But you know, that outta be long enough for our purposes.”

When he died. When he died. Summoning all of his anger, his rage, his desperation, Paul jerked forward in his seat… only to receive a knife in the middle of his chest.

It was a literal one, to match the metaphorical one that his supposed friend had stabbed him with already.

Dropping their hand from the handle, the figure beside him watched as Paul collapsed back into the seat. It was… it was cold… colder than Paul thought it would be. He was struggling, hand grasping for the door handle, mouth struggling to move, fighting to flee, to fight, to escape, to scream.

Fighting to live.

“Man,” the traitor announced calmly. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that, you sanctimonious prick.”  

Paul’s hand fell from the doorknob. Rex, he thought desperately. Roxa. Roxa, I was trying–I was trying–

The last thing that he heard, the last thing he would ever hear, was the derisive snort of his supposed friend.

“Man, would you just die already?”

Isaac Acosta gave a wide smile. “I wanna see how many of your powers I’ll get.”

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