Gabriel Prosser

Spy Hunt 26-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the conclusion to the 3-part Sariel and Larissa interlude series that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, it’s gonna work, right?” Despite myself, I couldn’t keep the tenseness and worry out of my voice. “Please, after everything we went through to get it, tell me that thing is gonna do its job.”

We were back at the Atherby camp by the lake, with some company in the form of Mateo’s pack and a few of the Wonderland people like Seth, Namythiet, and Fennicus, though most of that particular group was back reuniting with the children that had been abducted by Lemuel’s pack.

Of the people who were actually here at the camp, the majority were milling around, talking about the battle or celebrating the fact that Lemuel and most of his people had been dealt with, aside from those who had managed to scatter and flee. The point was, the big threat of the massive combined werepack had been dealt with, for the moment at least.

I’d also been eager to meet up with my father here at the camp after everything that had happened. Apparently, however,  Asenath and a couple other Alters had taken him out for a hike to take his mind off what was going on and so that he wouldn’t obsess over me being in a fight. They were on their way back, but it would take awhile. Long enough for us to deal with this.

Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, Mateo, and I (Vanessa and Tristan were off doing something with Duncan and Misty) were watching as Gabriel and an elderly-looking woman that he had brought in examined the choker. Gabriel had introduced the old woman with the simple name of Kay. Or maybe it was just the letter K. I wasn’t sure on that point. In any case, she was their expert in magical artifacts, their version of Wyatt, basically. For the past ten minutes, the woman had been carefully examining the choker, while I watched anxiously. The only reason I’d agreed to let her take it in the first place was that Gabriel had vouched for her, and was standing right there. If she would have asked to take it out of our sight, I’m not sure even that would’ve been enough. I was seriously thoroughly paranoid about that damn thing disappearing.  

On the other hand, I was also paranoid that, even after we got it, the thing wouldn’t work right. That was why I’d agreed to Gabriel’s offer to have his enchantment-expert look it over a bit.

And yeah, we could have just had Roxa or one of the other Alters put it on and see if it would stop the Heretic sense from going off.  But honestly, taking a magic enchanted necklace that I had just stolen from a completely demented, psychotic, probably possessed girl and putting it on someone else without having it checked over first sounded really, really stupid. But maybe that was just me.

Even then, however, I’d still made Gabriel use the Seosten-detection rune on the woman (as well as Mateo, since he was there too) right in front of me just to prove that they were safe. Maybe that was more evidence of blatant paranoia, but hey, better to be safe than choker-less.

Kay examined the choker for another second, running her fingers along it before finally giving a slight nod. Her voice was brittle, yet strong enough to hear as she announced, “The intended effect of allowing the wearer to be disguised from the Heretical Sense remains fully intact.”

A breath of relief escaped me before I realized what she had said. Blinking up, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “You said the intended effect remains intact. What about the rest of it?” Her voice sounded as suspicious and ready for bad news as I felt.

Beside Shiori, Roxa folded her arms over her stomach, looking a little sick (also like I felt). “They mean the ability to identify Seosten,” she announced quietly. “Please say it still works.”

Raising her gaze from the choker to give all of us a long look, Kay paused before answering. “Being altered into a different form has… somewhat weakened that particular effect.” Even as my heart dropped down into my stomach, she continued. “Calm yourselves. It is still effective, so far as I can tell. When used properly, it will inform the wearer if the subject is possessed or not.”

“When used properly?” I echoed, more confused by her phrasing than elated by the news that the enchantment would identify Seosten-possessed people. “What do you mean by that?”

“As I said,” the woman answered, “the effect has been somewhat weakened. It will no longer allow the wearer to identify any Seosten simply through sight. Now, you must touch the person.”

My mouth opened, then shut, as I absorbed the explanation. “Touch them. You have to touch them and… and that’s it? Just touching them will, uh, reveal if they’re possessed or not?” Sure, it wasn’t the best, but from the way she’d been talking (and probably from my own growing pessimism over the situation), I’d actually been at least half-expecting a lot worse than that.

“Yes,” Kay confirmed. “Physical contact will reveal whether the person being touched has been possessed. It need not be skin-to-skin, simple contact will be sufficient. Presuming,” she added, “that the contact is not hindered by anything thicker than perhaps a couple layers of clothing.”

She offered the choker to me then, her expression softening. “In other situations, I might offer to try to fix it. But I’m afraid that, as little as we understand the enchantment itself, any more work done to it may damage the magic further. Trying to expand its ability could make it worse, or simply remove its power entirely. If you can accept the limitation, it would be safest to leave it.” After a brief pause, she added, “In any case, this enchantment is a work of art. I have honestly never seen anything like it before. And I have been working with magic for a very long time.”

“Yeah…” I murmured, taking the choker from her thoughtfully. Maybe Wyatt could do something else with it. But I wasn’t going to say that to her after everything she’d done. Instead, I turned slightly and offered the choker to Roxa. “We got it for you,” I reminded her. “If you want it.”

Instead of taking the choker, however, the girl hesitated before looking toward Mateo. “I… I’m going to stay with the wolves. If that’s okay with you,” she added quickly, toward the pack leader.

I wasn’t that surprised. After everything that happened back during the fight, when she’d taken off to help her pack, I’d kind of expected her to choose to stay. After all, the werewolves had accepted her even knowing she was a Heretic, while she would have to trick the Heretics to accept her after becoming a werewolf. If it was me, I’d probably choose to stay with them too.

For Mateo’s part, he simply smiled. “If that’s your choice, then yes, of course. You are a part of this pack for as long as you want to be.” As he spoke, the man reached out and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder while repeating, “If it is your choice.”

“It is,” Roxa confirmed. “I want to stay with you guys. I’d rather be able to be myself, all of myself, than hide behind a magical artifact.”

With a sly look in his eyes, Mateo winked. “Well, I would say that the girl who went and killed Lemuel would be welcome in any pack she wanted to join. Are you sure that you want to stick with our little ragtag group? Maybe you’d feel more at home with one of the big fancy packs. With the rep you’re getting, you could probably even start out pretty high up.”

“Yeah right,” she snorted. “Pretty sure they wouldn’t want me after meeting me.” Looking toward me then, she blanched a little bit. “Sorry, after everything you went through to get it…”

Shiori spoke up before I could respond. “Hey, we needed the choker anyway. And besides,” she added easily, “just because you don’t want it right now doesn’t mean you can never use it. Since we have it, and it’s supposed to work, anytime you need to talk to a Heretic, you could just borrow it.”

I nodded at with that. “She’s right, anytime you want it, it’s yours. And,” I added with a quick look toward Avalon, “if you could actually use it really soon, and talk to your old team so that they know you’re okay and stop looking at me like I’m the devil or something. That would be really cool.”

Roxa snickered a little bit, covering her mouth. “They’ve been really coming after you, huh?”

“Actually,” I corrected her while shaking my head, “I would’ve preferred that kind of direct confrontation, honestly. Mostly they’re just staring at me, particularly when they don’t think I can see them. It’s kind of unnerving to keep glancing at a reflection, only to see one of them lurking around watching my every move. It’s kinda creepy. Please, tell them you’re okay and not stuffed into a freezer in my basement or something.”

Blinking at that, she gave a quick, vigorous nod. “Uh, oops. Yeah, I’ll talk to them in person. Maybe that’ll help get them off your case.”

Gabriel spoke up, his voice thoughtful. “If you’re going to be using it, maybe we should test the choker in a live situation, let you see how it actually lets you know that someone’s possessed.”

Shiori started, clearly reflexively. “If we had a Seosten, we could–oh, wait. Ermahgerd could possess people. Does that mean he’s a, uh, you know. A Natural you-know-what?”

Putting a hand over his mouth to cover an obvious smile briefly, Gabriel corrected, “It’s Enguerrand, actually, not, ah, Ermahgerd. And yes, he is what you call a natural-Seosten Heretic.” To me, he added, “If you would like to test the choker, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

I agreed with that, and he called the knight-guy over. A brief explanation followed before Ermagh–damn it, Shiori– before Enguerrand nodded to me. “Of course, m’lady. ‘Twould be my honor to assist in this endeavor.” To Gabriel, he added, “Prithee, allow me entrance briefly?”

“Of course, Guerrand,” the other man agreed before bowing his head a little bit as he waited.

As the rest of us watched closely, Enguerrand reached out to touch Gabriel’s arm. As soon as he made contact, the armored man disappeared, vanishing entirely in an instant. A second later, Gabriel raised his head, giving a brief shudder before moving his eyes to me. “I am prepared.”

Kay gestured to me then. “There is no command phrase or any other method of activation. Simply put the choker on and then touch him. It should signal the truth to you immediately.”

So, I followed her instructions. Lifting the choker to my neck, I slipped it on and tightened it a bit before taking a breath. As soon as it was comfortable, I slowly reached out to touch the possessed-Gabriel’s arm with two fingers, a bit gingerly since I didn’t know what would happen.

As it turned out, what happened was simple: I saw a blurry, almost translucent  overlay of Enguerrand over top of Gabriel’s body that disappeared and reappeared randomly for a few seconds. When Gabriel’s body moved, the image of the other man duplicated the motion.

It lasted about six seconds through that brief touch, enough time to definitely notice without completely taking over or going on for too long. Other than that, there was no alert or anything. Touching him didn’t burn, or give an electric shock, or any of the other things I’d worried about.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, and even Mateo were all watching me anxiously. Roxa was the first one to find her voice. “So?” she pressed curiously. “Does the thing work, or what?”

“It works,” I confirmed with a nod before explaining what I saw. Taking the choker off, I offered it to Avalon first, so she could try. One by one, she, Shiori, and Roxa used the choker before touching Gabriel to see what it was like. Once they were done, Enguerrand released him and stepped out, shaking himself off. “I believe,” he announced “that it has performed as desired?”

“Exactly as desired,” I confirmed, looking at the choker in my hand after Roxa handed it back to me. “I mean, it’d be easier if it worked all the time, constantly. But if it’s a choice between not working at all and needing to touch them, I’ll go with touching them every goddamn time.”

“Sure,” Shiori piped up. “And it’s not like it’ll be hard to touch anyone close enough to you to be a threat. Just gotta make up an excuse to hug them or something. Oh, and not give it away.”

I nodded at that. “Exactly. Finding the one that Charmiene is possessing shouldn’t be that hard, not with this. But we can’t go after her until we find out who the other guy is possessing. That um, Manakel guy. He’s gonna be harder. But we can start ruling people out. Like Deveron.”

That was one of the biggest reliefs of all this. Not only would we be able to find out who was possessed, we would also be able to find out who wasn’t possessed. And as soon as we could start ruling them out, we could start confiding in them again. I was really looking forward to that part. This whole ‘keeping secrets from my friends and people I trusted’ thing was for the birds.  

Gabriel started to say something then, before pausing. Raising his gaze to look past me, he spoke with a slight smile, musing aloud, “Maybe now is a good time to take a short break.”

“A short brea–” I started to question that before glancing back to see what he was looking at. What I saw was my father walking into view from around one of the cabins, accompanied by Asenath, Twister, and Calice, the female Relekun (tree-person) that I’d met before.

I stopped talking. Every other thought left my head. Before I knew what I was doing, my body had already pivoted, and my feet were carrying me that way. I sprinted, trying to call out, but the words caught themselves in a lump in my throat. Finally, I managed a thoroughly choked, “Dad!”

My father’s arms opened as I approached, and just like that, I was a little kid again. I could bench a thousand pounds, but I was a little kid again. I had just been involved in a massive battle against the largest combined pack of werewolves (and other weres) on the continent, but I was a little kid again. My father had his arms around me… and I was a little kid again.

I held tight (but not too tight) to the man who had raised me pretty much on his own for the past decade, who had spent ten years thinking that his wife had abandoned him and their child for no reason, who had broken through the Bystander Effect to learn what really happened. I wrapped my arms around him and held on, clutching my father for the first time since he had discovered the truth. Sure, we’d talked over the phone. But that was different from actually being there with him. Nothing, not even Fossor himself, could have made me let go in that moment.

For awhile, there was nothing else but this: holding onto my dad and feeling him holding onto me. I didn’t care about anything. The whole camp could have spontaneously exploded and it was iffy whether I would have noticed or not. My dad was there. That was all that mattered.

He seemed just as affected. I felt his arms close around me, and remembered all the times that I had run into his arms as a child, or crawled into his bed after a nightmare, or clutched onto him in the middle of the day for no reason other than the terrible thought of losing him like I had my mother. Every time, no matter what he had been busy with, my father had held me for just as long as I needed him to. He was never too busy for me, never too distracted to give me all the support and reassurance that he could. He was my dad.

My dad.

After a minute or so, I felt him run a hand up and down my back, coaxing me a little bit. “Well, hey, you.” There was a smile in his voice as he gently kissed the top of my head. “Fancy meeting you in a place like this.” Even though he was teasing, I could hear the lump in his voice.

Despite myself, I reflexively replied, “You’re right, I did meet Fancy in a place like this.”

With a tiny smirk, Dad raised an eyebrow. “Damn, you met the kobold too, huh? I had a whole thing planned for that.” He used a hand to muss up my hair. “Oh well, glad you’re here.”

“I had to come,” I pointed out, gulping before continuing, “you’d get lost without me around to help.”

“Kid,” my dad announced while leaning back so that he could put a finger under my chin, lifting it up to meet my gaze. “I’d be lost without you, period.”

“Dad…  Daddy.” Choking up again, I dropped my head to his chest and hugged my father once more, unable to help myself.

That took another brief time before I gathered myself, straightening to look at him. “Dad,” I whispered hoarsely. “I don’t… I don’t know where to start.”

“Honestly?” he replied, “neither do I. I–Felicity, you’ve got so much going on. All this–everything you’ve been doing, it–how are you even–” He sighed, embracing me tightly once more for a moment. “Did you… do what you needed to?”

“Pace got away,” I admitted. “But we got what we needed from her, and they think it’s destroyed.” Pausing, I added, “And Roxa killed their pack leader.”

“Killed.” Dad’s voice was flat. “You… say that so easily. You–”

“I killed too,” I admitted quietly, glancing away for a moment. “I killed then, and I killed before. Self-defense, mostly.” I wasn’t sure if it counted when the school put us in the situation where we had to fight to survive. But then again, the things we hunted were killing innocent people, or would have if we didn’t intercede, so… talk about a gray area.

“There’s a lot I don’t understand yet,” Dad murmured, watching me intently. “But I know you. If you say you had to do it…” His head shook. “God, Flick, this is… and your mom is–”

“Alive,” I interrupted. “That’s the important part. She’s alive and she’s out there. We just have to–to find her.”

Dad looked at me again, his gaze serious. “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it than that,” he pointed out. “But… you’re right. We’ll find her. Right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around all this.”

Smiling a little, I nodded. “Take your time. You… um, seem to be coping with it pretty well, actually.”

His voice was dry. “With my job, I’ve learned how to freak out on the inside.”

From that point, my brain stalled out for a moment. There was so much I wanted to say to my dad, so much I wanted to get his opinion on, now that I could actually talk to him in person instead of just over the phone. “I…” Swallowing, I reflexively looked over my shoulder. And then I knew.

We had the choker. Soon, I would use it to check each and every person on our team, and everyone else that I could. We would figure out who Charmeine and Manakel were possessing. We would find a way to deal with all that. I would tell my dad everything I could. I would do everything I needed to do.

But right now, there was something that I wanted to do. So I took my father my the hand, leading him back that way.

“You, um, you know Shiori,” I started, weirdly nervous. “And this is-um, this is Avalon.

“Avalon, this is my dad.”

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

One thing that I obviously had to ask before we went anywhere else with this particular conversation was a simple, “How? How’d you guys get out of the house? How did you get away from the werewolves? They said–they said it looked like the wolves were killed by a bunch of Heretics, but I know it wasn’t–I mean, if it was some of Gabriel’s people, he would’ve said so.”

“Not a bunch of Heretics,” Dad corrected. “Just one, actually. A powerful one, I think. Not that I have a lot to compare it to, but from what I saw, she’s pretty damn powerful. Scary powerful. She’s the one who weakened that memory suppression thing so I’d have a chance to break through it. Pretty sure if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be clueless. Not to mention dead right now.”

“One Heretic?” My eyes widened as I echoed those words. “You mean a Heretic broke the Bystander Effect for you? Or helped you break it. But who–what–how? What do you-”

“She was part of the Committee,” my father interrupted with a statement that made me give a choked gasp. “The uh, Crossroads Committee? That’s the group that–the leaders, right?”

“Th-the Committee?” I managed through a strangled voice. “The Committee as in that Committee? But–but who–what? You said she. As in a woman. Who was–I mean which one-”

“She said her name was Calafia,” he answered quietly. “Does that… mean anything to you?”

Calafia. Wait. Calafia? As in the dark-skinned woman who had never really said that much? I tried to think back to the single interaction I’d had with the woman while meeting the Committee.

She hadn’t said that much, I remembered. She’d spoken up to say that Litonya hadn’t been accusing me of anything, and to tell me that anytime I needed to take a break, I could. Other than that I couldn’t really remember anything she’d done. Mostly, she stayed in the background.

“She said that she owed your mother,” Dad interrupted my tornado of rebounding thoughts and confusion. “She said she owed Joselyn more than she could ever repay, but that one thing she could do was make sure her husband learned the truth. I don’t know what that meant.”

It made sense. Gabriel had said that the person who helped break the Bystander Effect for my dad had wanted to help, and that they did so because they owed my mother. And if anyone was going to be powerful enough to make it so that a normal human could break through the Bystander Effect, it would be someone who was part of the Committee. Still, I was stunned.

I was going to have to talk to her. Somehow, someway, I had to find out more about Calafia and what she owed my mother. I had to talk to her about my mother, about everything. If she could help… I shook that off, along with all the accompanying paranoia. Or tried to, at the very least.

Finally, I took a breath. “I guess you kinda want to know how my year’s been going so far, huh?”

“That’d be nice,” Dad replied dryly. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and we’ll go from there?”

“From the beginning?” I echoed before nodding. “Alright, here goes…” So I started to tell him what had happened, from the beginning. Starting with right after I left our house that first day.

“So let me get this straight,” my father asked in a tone that betrayed some combination of curiosity and indignance. “You just woke up on that bus, alone and in the middle of nowhere?”

Coughing, I nodded to myself. It felt like so long ago. It had only been a few months, but somehow, it seemed like that had happened at least a couple years back. “Yeah, I guess they still hadn’t quite decided what to do with me right up until the very last second. The Committee ended up with an unbreakable tie, so they had to have Gaia–Headmistress Sinclaire come in and break it. That’s why I didn’t get the normal orientation that all the other Bystander-kin got.”  

Pausing briefly, Dad started slowly. “Bystander–oh, that’s what they call… what, like Mug–”

“Ordinary humans, yeah,” I interrupted while shaking my head. “Bystanders. People like me, the ones that were raised in ordinary families are called Bystander-kin. Or Silverstones. As in–”

“Alicia, Clueless,” Dad cut in before grunting. “Not exactly a ringing endorsement or praise.”

“You got that faster than I did,” I muttered before taking a breath. “But yeah, that’s the term they use. And you should see the school here, Dad. It’s on this tropical island, with this ocean and a jungle everywhere. A real jungle, with all these wild animals and everything. It’s really pretty, gorgeous I mean, which is totally purposeful  and–and you’ve gotta meet my sharks, and–”

“I’m sorry, what?” Dad interrupted while sounding completely incredulous. “Did you just say I have to meet your sharks? Wait a second, kid. I know I’ve been pretty cool about this whole secret society of monster hunters thing, but did you go and join a finger-snapping gang that spontaneously breaks out into song too? Because I honestly don’t know if I could handle that.”

Covering my mouth with one hand to hide the snicker, I took a moment before replying as flatly as I could, “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are, you know. No, they’re real sharks. They’re like, umm, my friends. It’s sort of a um, a power that I inherited, taming these sharks.”

“A power you inherited by…” Dad started before trailing off. His voice was quieter. “By killing.”

Flinching a little bit, I sat up in bed to put my back against the headboard. “Would it help if I said the shark guy was attacking at the time, and that it was self-defense? And defense of others.”

“Kid,” Dad replied low, his voice quiet, yet firm. “I know you. You may have all this training, may have fought monsters and seen more crazy shit in a few months than I’ve seen in my entire life. But l know you. Of course it was self-defense. I’d never question that. You’ve done what you had to do. I’m not gonna run in and try to take over, try to pretend that I know better than you. Yeah, I’m your dad. But right now I feel about as clueless as…” He sighed, voice going a bit darker. “I’m your dad, I’m supposed to protect you from this stuff. But I’m not gonna pretend I can now. I’m not gonna act like a stubborn ass and start screwing everything up. So just… tell me what happened, all right? Tell me all of it, because if I’m gonna help at all, I need to know.”

Biting my lip, I backed up a bit. I told my father about seeing the light from the Heretical Edge. I told him about my vision, about recognizing Gaia. I told him about meeting my team, playing with Herbie, how much of an ass Deveron acted like at first, and more. I told him about how the food was delivered, how the room keys automatically unlocked our rooms when we got close to them, about choosing my weapon, my first classes, everything I could think of that had been my initial impression of the school over that first day or two. I told him all of it, trying to set the stage.

Then I told him about Professor Pericles. I told him about the man’s death, about how he had been murdered. And I told him about the Peridles attacking Avalon and me in the locked room.

“Wait, wait,” Dad interrupted. “How do you spell that name? The Peridles.” After I told him, he asked how to spell Pericles, then coughed. “Isn’t that weird? They’re only off by one letter. Pericles and Peridles. It might sound different, but spelling-wise, it’s just one letter.”

He was right. There was a difference in sound, with Pericles sounding like ‘Pair-Uh-Klees’ while Peridles was ‘Pair-uh-dulls’. But the spelling was almost identical. “Uhh, yeah.” I blinked a couple times. “I dunno if that means anything or is just a coincidence, but… yeah, they are.”

I continued from there, telling my dad everything I could remember. Or at least summarizing it. Over the next hour, I kept talking until my throat felt hoarse. Through it all, my father interjected a few times, making his own observations and questioning where he needed to for clarification. But mostly, he listened. And there was a lot of listening to do. Hell, up until I’d actually had to explain as much of it as possible, I hadn’t really comprehended just how much was going on.

“Damn, kid,” Dad finally muttered by the end. “When do you ever eat and sleep? Let alone study. Wait, you do have normal classes up there, right? Not just the monster hunting ones.”

Yup, still my dad. Chuckling despite myself, I replied, “Yes, Dad. All sorts of normal classes. Geography, Trig, Chemistry, the lot. I promise, I’m still getting all that stuff. Maybe a little slower than I would’ve because, let’s face it, there’s only so many hours in the day. But I’m getting it.”

“Good, good. I…” Trailing off, Dad took a moment to search for what to say next, grasping for the right words. “You know, I just… I just want to tell you… I want to tell you to stop all this, Flick. I want to tell you to stop all of it and just come here, to run away from it and hide. I want to tell you to leave it alone. But I get the feeling that,” he swallowed audibly, “that wouldn’t work.”

Swallowing hard, I bit my lip before answering. “No, Dad. It wouldn’t. Fossor, he’s gonna come for me regardless, as soon as I’m eighteen. At least here I can get training. And I have friends, friends that I can’t just abandon. Not with everything that’s going on. I need them, and they need me. It’s scary, yeah. But it’s really important too. It’s important and I can’t just walk away from it.”  

“I know, kid.” Dad’s voice was soft and quiet, and I could almost feel his frustration and helplessness. “I know you can’t. And–and I wouldn’t want you to. Not really. You’re just–you’re my girl. You’re my kid, kid. The more I hear about all this stuff, all these people, the power they’ve got, I just… I can’t do anything about it. I can’t fucking do anything to help you, not now.”

“You’re wrong, Dad,” I objected. “Just talking to you about this stuff, it helps. I can… I can think about it a lot more clearly. It’s less… jumbled in my head just from talking about it. That helps.”

There was a brief pause then before he started slowly, “Your mom, when you… when she talked to you through the… the monkey-thing, are you sure she–I mean are you positive it was–”

“It was her,” I promised him. “It was Mom, I swear. She’s… she’s with that fucking psychopath, that piece of shit. But it was her. She was Mom. Dad, she.. She didn’t–I mean it wasn’t her…” My eyes were filling up despite myself, despite the fact that I’d thought I’d already cried myself out earlier while explaining all of this the first time. “She didn’t abandon us, Daddy.” My voice was weak, even to my own ears. It sounded cracked and frail. “She didn’t really abandon us.”

The emotion in Dad’s voice matched what I felt. I could hear the cracks in it, could practically feel his desire to grab onto me. “I know, kid. She didn’t. She was saving you. She–” There was a brief pause as he fought to get himself under control, at least enough to speak. “She did everything for you. She never stopped being her. She didn’t…” He paused again, and I could almost hear his shudder before he continued quietly, yet firmly. “She never stopped loving you.”

“And she didn’t stop loving you either, Dad,” I added, just as firmly. “She’s Mom. She’s… she’s amazing. She always was. Even when they tried to take that away. She became a sheriff, Dad. She never, never stopped trying to help people. And now she’s–that fucking son of a bitch. That–” I stopped talking, my eyes squeezed as tightly shut as I could manage. Yet even that wasn’t tight enough to stop the few tears from leaking out, sliding down my face. “That monster.”

There was a little more then between the two of us, not all of it very coherent. We talked both to and at each other. Some of what we said was just… noise, emotional noise that was somewhat comforting. A lot would’ve meant very little to any outside audience. We were telling stories about Mom, about what we remembered. Only they weren’t the entire story. They didn’t need to be. One of us would start to say a couple words, and the other would know what we meant. Three words of an entire story, and none of the rest needed to actually be said. And this time, for once in the past decade, the stories weren’t tainted by the idea that she had abandoned us.

From there, I shifted back into talking more about the school. Dad asked questions, some of which I’d already thought of and some I hadn’t. His questions even helped lead me to my own.

It was just like when things were still more normal, when life wasn’t so crazy and he’d help me talk through some story I was writing for the school paper. It helped clear my head, helped me notice little things that I hadn’t before. Maybe none of it would actually pay off, but it still helped.

Mostly I just… enjoyed talking to my dad. Clearing things up, telling stories about my friends, my teammates, about everything that had happened, both the funny things and the scary ones. Bringing up to date on everything would take awhile, longer than this phone call. But I made the very best attempt that I could. We kept switching between my stories and Dad’s reactions, his thoughts, his jokes, his… everything. He had his opinions, his ideas, his thoughts to share.

He also wanted to punch Ruthers in the face. Actually, Dad went on at length about just how much he wanted to knock the guy’s teeth out. In detail and with vivid descriptions. It was nice to listen to, even if it was pretty much a pipe dream. Still, the thought of my dad laying Ruthers out on his ass was a really nice one. I had to smile while holding that special image in my head.

And he asked about Deveron. Not only him, but also Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. He wanted to know all about Mom’s family. He wanted to meet them. I could hear the slight hesitance in his voice about meeting Deveron. Honestly, I would’ve been hesitant too, in his situation. The thought of meeting his wife’s first husband, the man he had never known about, had to be intimidating. But he still wanted to. He wanted to talk to them, all of them. He wanted to be a part of things. And now that he could remember what was going on, now that the Bystander Effect no longer worked on him, I wanted that too. But it was going to wait. For a few days at least, those reps from the Committee were going to pay entirely too much attention for me to take off. They’d be watching for me to try to disappear, probably thinking I’d sneak off to meet Mom.

“But Dad,” I eventually put in, “you guys can’t just stay wherever you are. The Heretics are gonna be looking for you. The Heretics, the Seosten, the werewolves, they’ll all be looking for you. I mean, Twister and Asenath are good, but you guys need help. You need…” I paused, lifting my chin thoughtfully. “You need to go to the lake, the place where Gabriel’s camp is. The Atherby camp. They’ll take you in, I know they will. There’s no way anyone’ll find you there.”

“You think they’ll go for that?” Dad asked slowly. “I mean, I’d like to meet them, your mom’s… people, I guess. That… Gabriel guy, he’s really the same guy from the history books?”

I laughed a little. “Yeah, and like I said, Professor Virginia Dare really is that Virginia Dare.”

“And I met her.” Dad’s voice trailed off, the awe apparent before he shook it off. “I’ve got so many questions the next time she shows up. The–the colony, do you know what happened to-”  

Snickering despite myself, I nodded. “Yup. But I’ll let her tell you about it. I think she liked meeting you too, Dad. And she’ll like it more now that you know what’s really going on. Soon, the next time you meet. But right now, speaking of that other historical figure, yeah, I know Gabriel’ll take you guys in. The Atherby clan’ll love having you, Dad. Just give me a sec. I’ll call him up and make plans for it. Wait, where are you guys? I mean, where can you get to easily?”

He told me where they were, just a little bit outside of the absurdly small town of Dixon, Wyoming. But it didn’t matter how big the town was. Gabriel would be able to find them there.

Telling my dad I’d call him back in just a minute, I disconnected before quickly dialing one of the numbers that had been magically sealed into my memory with that spell. It rang three times before being picked up.

“Felicity,” Gabriel’s voice wasn’t at all surprised by my call, even this late. “I take it you’ve had a chance to speak with your father.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, nodding quickly. “And I was wondering if you’d… um, pick them up? They’ve got a lot of people after them right now. I trust Senny, but…”

“But there’s no need to push things,” he confirmed. “Of course. The rest of the clan has been asking why we haven’t gone after them already. But we… it was better to wait for the invitation.”

Quickly, I told him where they were, and he promised to go collect them before anyone else caught up. Then he assured me that Dad and the others would be safe at the lake, and that I could come see them as soon as I could get away

“Um, one more question,” I put in then. “Did you–I mean…” Biting my lip, I explained about what had happened to those other Heretics, about the woman with the golden aura that killed them to save the Alters.

“I didn’t hear about that,” he murmured softly. “Do you think it was–”

“I don’t know, but they think so.” I sighed. “So I can’t get away, not as long as those guys are paying so much attention. Just… take care of my dad, please.”

“You have my word,” Gabriel assured me. “I’ll go and bring them in right now. Tell your father to meet at the post office in town.”

I confirmed that before hanging up, then dialed my father back. Telling him where to go and what to look for, I promised him that we’d talk again soon. He made me swear that the second I could get away from the island, I’d come talk to him in person. Actually, he made me swear it three different times. So I did. And I made him promise to be careful and to stay at the camp.

Finally finished, at least for the moment, I disconnected the phone and set it beside me on the bed.

I meant to run through things in my head some more. I meant to write in my notebook, think everything through again, maybe even get a little studying in. I meant to do all of that. But in the end, after everything that I’d been through that day, after everything that had happened, my brain was just on its last legs.

I blinked, and the next thing I knew, it was morning, and the phone was ringing next to my head. Groggily, I fumbled for it, blinking a few times before managing to hit the button. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Chambers, you busy?” Roxa’s voice spoke.

“Because you’ve got that big stick, and we’re looking at a whole lotta werewolves that probably wanna do worse than play fetch right now.”

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Sharkhunt 23-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday (along with a special announcement about commissions and monthly rewards). If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sharkhunt 23-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, having that used against us really sucked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds agreeable to me, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sharkhunt 23-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I turned. “Wood! Valley, wood!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to talk.”

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Sharkhunt 23-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table.” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “More of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

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Sharkhunt 23-03

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“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.

“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”

The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”

“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.

After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”

“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were a eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.

“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”

“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”

“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”

I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with a pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.

“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”

The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”

“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”

While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd,  what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”

Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”

“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”

Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up.  “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”

In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.

Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.

One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”

There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway.  Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”

“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.

“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.

I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”

More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.

That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.

Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.

Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.

Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.

He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”

“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.

“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”

Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.

Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”

The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”

Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”

He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”

Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”

The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after Mom surrendered herself. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.

“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”

“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”

Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”

“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”

I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”

“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”

Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”

Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”

“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”

Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”

There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.

One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.

Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.

Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.

We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.

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