Gabriel Ruthers

Exodus 44-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

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

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

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

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

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

But Great Whites can jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough of this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Exodus 44-05

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In that moment, it looked as though Ruthers realized that there was something far more to Harper than met the eye. Something even more than her being able to fly. He stood there, hand tight in my hair as he narrowed his gaze at her. His voice, when he spoke, was gruff and clearly beyond all reason. The rational thought he’d been capable of before Oliver was killed was gone. He had always looked either like a bulldog, or like a literal bull in a China shop, and that latter analogy was even more apt now.

“I do not have time for childish antics now, Miss Hayes. You will sit down and be quiet.” Along with his words, Ruthers used his free hand to make a dismissive shoving motion. I felt a wave of clearly powerful force pass me on its way to knocking Harper to the ground.

She didn’t go down. The girl stood there, watching him as bits of her hair ruffled as though pushed by a steady breeze before it finally settled, leaving her unbothered.

Ruthers squinted, clearly taken aback. Raising his hand, he made a grabbing motion before yanking it back down as though to physically force her to the ground with his invisible grip.

Once more, it seemed to have no effect on Harper. She lifted her chin a little bit and watched him. That was it. Whatever power he was using to try to yank her down accomplished nothing.

Ruthers snapped his fingers. A crystal formed around Harper before solidifying to freeze her.

She stepped out of it, like it wasn’t there. Said nothing. Did nothing else. Just stepped out.

“Who are you?” Ruthers snapped. His grip on my hair lessened as he turned his full attention to her. I slumped to the ground and grunted a little. The man ignored me, and I saw a few of the other students he had pinned down starting to sit up, all of them looking confused, and many frightened. The song that had driven them to flee had been cut off or silenced somehow.

“You are not a student,” Ruthers murmured. “Could you be… no, no. You are not Joselyn. I know her. I would know her. You…” His head shook, and he stared intently. “Who are you?”

Even as he spoke, I saw another figure. Actually, it was an identical figure. Another Ruthers, a duplicate, loomed up behind Harper. He held a sword made of some kind of red metal, and had done something to completely silence himself. Hell, I couldn’t even sense him with my item-power. The second Ruthers was definitely within range of it (and it was working, as I could sense the other students and the first Ruthers), but I couldn’t sense anything on this one at all. He was completely silent and invisible to other extra senses.

He’d silenced everyone else too. When I tried to blurt a warning, I found myself once more unable to move. I couldn’t open my mouth, couldn’t widen my eyes, couldn’t even nod toward the girl to get her to look back. All around us, everyone else seemed frozen too, from the hybrids who had been hesitantly and fearfully picking themselves up, to the other students who came to see what the hell was going on. Ruthers was simultaneously freezing and muting all of us together, while also duplicating himself to appear behind her with that red-bladed sword drawn back. I didn’t know if he intended to stabilize her after she was disabled and get her healed as soon as she wasn’t a threat anymore, or if he was actually going straight for the kill. But one thing was for sure, he wasn’t playing around. He was going to end this.

Or not. Because despite the fact that all of us were frozen, and the Ruthers in front of her had given no indication of the other’s presence, Harper somehow knew he was there. At the last possible instant, just as the second Ruthers drove his sword at her back, she abruptly spun. A sword I had never seen before appeared in her hand just in time to smack Ruthers’ blade out of the way. It looked… fairly ordinary, particularly against the fancy red sword that Ruthers wielded. The hilt was gold, with a simple, straight guard and a ball-like pommel. The blade itself was grayish silver. There were no special designs, jewels, or anything else to make the sword stand out.

And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to look away from it. The blade, as it casually caught Ruthers’ own sword to stop it, seemed to sing. It was a… a happy song. That’s the only way I could explain it. The metal of Harper’s sword sang as it collided with the other, in a way that made it seem happy, like a woman singing in joy.

“Joyous.” The word fell from the second Ruthers’ lips as he stared at the blade that had caught his own. At least, at first, I thought he was saying joyous, agreeing with my thoughts about what the vibrating metal sounded like.

That’s not what he said. It was Tabbris. She was back in my head, and sounded completely awed. He said Joyeuse. The sword. The sword is Joyeuse.

The first Ruthers was already moving. Or rather, he had moved. Suddenly, he was right there, on the opposite side of Harper as his own red-bladed sword was driven at her exposed side, her blade still caught out of position against his duplicate’s.

A second sword appeared in the girl’s other hand, flicking up to catch the first Ruthers’ blade. This one had a dark blue hilt that seemed to be made of some kind of crystal, like a sapphire shaped into the handle of a sword. The guard was a bit more rounded than the other sword’s straight one. Its blade was a very light blue to go with the hilt, aside from the edges and a bit going up the middle, which were white. The whole thing looked almost too thin to withstand any kind of hit.

Yet take the hit it did, catching the first Ruthers’ sword easily before she pushed it aside and down. Harper stood there, one sword in each hand with the blades stopping the blades of both Ruthers and his duplicate.

“Caliburn,” the first Ruthers breathed, staring at the sword that had stopped him. “No. No, that’s… that’s impossible.” His voice actually shook a little bit, his awe and disbelief audible.

“Caliburn and Joyeuse,” the second Ruthers murmured, sounding like he didn’t even know that he was actually speaking out loud. “You… you cannot have Caliburn and Joyeuse. You… no… no…”

Wh-what does that mean? I sent inwardly, still unable to make myself move. Even distracted as he was, Ruthers was still almost absently holding me and all the others completely motionless. That’s how powerful he was, how little of a chance I would have stood against him. Caliburn and Joyeuse? What does it mean if she has those?

What does it mean? Tabbris echoed my words, and I felt her broad smile. It means holy shit.

Ruthers clearly agreed with the words themselves, if not the sentiment or emotion behind them. His eyes narrowed, and the man snapped, “You’re going to tell me where you took those swords from, how you have them. You may know a few tricks. You may have a few toys. But I am of the Crossroads Leadership Committee. And this is over.”

“Is it?” Harper asked him, still blocking both of the other swords. “Because I think it’s just getting started.”

With those words, the music that had been playing was back, the song from Twisted Sister roaring to life once more to flood the island from every direction.

Something happened then. Something I couldn’t follow. Actually, it was a lot of somethings. There was a blur of motion, a clanging of swords. Both of the Ruthers and Harper moved too damn fast to follow. It was like they were moving so quickly my eyes and brain couldn’t keep up with them. It was just a commotion of color and shapes accompanied by the sound of clashing swords. They were fighting, but they were doing so with so much speed that I had no idea what was going on or who was winning. And not just clashing swords. I saw glimpses of fire, electricity, and more. I saw a glowing ball of plasma shoot across the field, burning through the ground it passed over and turning it to a blasted line of dirt. I saw lightning called down from the sky before being broken into smaller bolts and scattered across the island. It was completely impossible to follow. As the battle (and the song) went on, I had no idea how it was going or who was doing better.

Though to be honest, the fact that Harper was in a full-on fight with one of the Committee (who had duplicated himself into two specifically to outnumber and outflank her) and I couldn’t tell who was winning said enough all by itself. Tabbris was right. Holy shit basically summed it up.

I saw energy whipping around through the air. I saw bits of ground raised up. I heard sonic booms, collisions of power and energy that I couldn’t even start to follow. I saw a whip made of darkness itself try to wrap around Harper before her sword cut through it. I saw both Ruthers sheathe themselves in some kind of diamond armor that completely covered them. Diamond armor that pulsed and crackled with what looked like contained lightning.

That lightning was sent forth through the hands of both Ruthers from either side of Harper, clearly intended to destroy her. The power just within those twin bolts from Ruthers and his duplicate sizzled the air. I could literally feel the heat from them despite being several yards away. Yet she caught the bolts on her swords, dissipating them as if they were no more than streams from a water gun.

It was enough, however, to distract her. And Ruthers, the main one (from what I could tell), took advantage by appearing in front of her. His diamond-covered fist lashed out, colliding with her face. Her head was knocked to the side, and I saw a bit of blood on her lip, a slight bruise forming.

A bruise and bloody lip from a blow that, I was absolutely certain, could have leveled a tank.

Ruthers followed up that blow. I knew he did, but I wasn’t sure how. Because the next thing I knew, Harper and both of the Ruthers were several yards away from where they had just been an instant earlier, separating as one of the man’s forms held a hand against a bloody cut against his cheek.

Then they were on the other side of me. I saw one of them on the ground, the other reeling back from a kick that Harper had put into his stomach. She had another bruise that hadn’t been there before, this one on her temple.

A blink, and they were somewhere behind me. I couldn’t move, but I heard a few clashes of swords and a grunt.

To my left, they suddenly appeared. Harper had a pair of cuts along her arm and there was blood on her leg. Both Ruthers looked damaged too. In front of me, behind, to the side. They kept disappearing, then reappearing with new injuries, new evidence of fighting that I hadn’t seen.

It was time stopping, I realized. Ruthers kept stopping time and trying to attack Harper. But Harper wasn’t frozen. They were fighting through each time-freeze until Harper landed a hit that broke the man’s concentration enough to restart time. That was why they seemed to keep bouncing randomly around us. We were only catching extremely brief glimpses of this fight, like getting snapshots instead of a movie. But why was Ruthers bothering to stop time if it wasn’t stopping Harper herself?

Because he knows the others are trying to take down the shield, Tabbris suddenly piped up. He wants to deal with her before they finish that. That’s why he keeps freezing time, so fighting her doesn’t give them a chance to take down the shield. He wants to finish her, then go to them.

Right, that made sense. Of course he’d be able to figure out that someone else was trying to take down the security shield, and wouldn’t want to waste time here with this fight. So he was just going to keep freezing time instead, making what should have been a several minute long struggle take place in a handful of seconds.

Whatever happened through the next time stop, only one of the Ruthers came out of it. He stood there, about a dozen feet in front of us. One side of his diamond-covered face was cracked a bit, and he was breathing heavily. He held his sword out in front of him, to where Harper stood. “Who are you?” the man demanded in between deep breaths. “You are not Joselyn. You cannot be… you… those swords…” He sounded like he was right on the cusp of figuring it out, yet didn’t want to. His voice cracked a little. “Who the hell are you?”

For a moment, Harper was silent. She stood with both of her blades crossed in front of her. Slowly, she looked to me, eyes gazing in my direction before moving to take in the others. All of us, dozens of students, were staring, everyone frozen in place while we watched and listened to the fight playing out before us. I even saw a few teachers mixed in there. They too were frozen, likely because Ruthers didn’t know who from Gaia’s staff he could trust. Harper looked to all of us, taking in the fact that everyone was watching. And everyone had the same question.

“You want to know who I am?” She drew herself up, literally growing a few inches in the process. Her hair lengthened, growing to her shoulders while shifting from simple pigtails to a pair of tight braids, blonde hair growing to mix with the pink.

“I am the one whose blade sings.”

Her Crossroads uniform fell away, dropping to reveal form-fitting armor. The legs and boots were mostly black, with a bit of blue going up the sides like shin and hip guards. The torso of the armor was a dark blue, with a white emblem etched into it starting at the waist and going up to the right shoulder. The emblem was of a griffin in flight.

The arms of the armor, stretching down into gauntlets, were black like the legs and boots, with the same blue reinforced spots.

“I am the one whose sword shatters fell magic. The one who stands at the right hand of Arthur, king of all and savior of this and every world. The one who shall end those who would betray Camelot and humanity to their oppressors. The one whose swords will break all that are raised against them, and send the pieces scattered as dust on the winds of their panicked cries.”

The woman stood straight, her true form revealed as she held both weapons in front of herself. A dark cloak fell into place, unfurling to drop across her armor. Her voice seemed to shake the very ground as she spoke. “I am the one who is telling you to move.

“I… am… Darkwing Duck.”

With what I swore was a literally audible record scratch, those last words made Ruthers blink, taken aback. He looked completely lost, his mouth opening to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean.

But before he could get a word out, Harper disappeared. She reappeared behind the man while he was still lost in confusion. One of her swords was driven into his side. Not enough to kill the man, I knew. Yet definitely enough to draw a cry of pain from him.

He spun, stumbling a bit as his sword fell. With his body still turned to diamond (or whatever it was), he swung for the transformed Harper’s face. But he was too slow. She ducked her head back to avoid it, before following through with her own punch. It connected against Ruthers’ face with so much force that I heard what sounded like a sonic boom explode across the school grounds. I felt the wave of concussive force like a rush of wind, even as Ruthers himself was sent flying. He went back a good twenty feet, crashing to the ground. His armor had disappeared, his skin back to normal. And he was bleeding.

“Watch a cartoon sometime,” Harper suggested. Then she was in front of him, appearing in a blink as her foot lashed out to collide with his face.

Ruthers fell, before disappearing. He vanished from sight, apparently reflexively retreating before he could fall unconscious.

“He’ll be back, probably with help,” Harper informed us, as I realized that I could move again. All of us could. The other Hybrids were picking themselves off the grass, staring at Harper in a mixture of shock and awe. I was right there with them. The one who stood at the right hand of Arthur? What did that mean? How could she… how could she do that? What… what…

Avalon and the others (Columbus, Shiori, and Aylen) had caught up by then. They skidded to a stop, looking just as confused and awed as the rest of us. In the back of my head, I could hear Tabbris stammering and babbling like a fangirl, going on about how awesome that was.

The teachers were moving again too. But none of them seemed to know what to do, or what was going on. They were all from the older years, teachers I hadn’t really officially met. They seemed lost, and I was pretty sure that none really wanted to be the first to launch themselves into a fight against someone who had just beaten a Committee member. Understandable, really. Especially since, given the secrecy surrounding this whole ‘arresting Gaia’ thing, none of them actually knew what the hell was going on.

“Who… who are you?” I finally managed. Around me, I heard some of the other students, Hybrid and normal onlooker, student and teacher, all echoing that single question.

For her part, Harper smiled faintly. It was a smile that reminded me of the innocent, cheerful, somewhat goofy girl I had seen her as until tonight. Until she did all of this, and stood against one of the Crossroads Committee.

“Who am I?” she echoed, a hint of teasing on her voice as she let the question hang on the air for a brief moment, her eyes glancing around briefly. “I am Lancelot. And I am here to get you, and everyone else who wants to go, off this island. But like I said, he’ll be back. They’ll be back. So what do you say?

“Who’s ready to run?”

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Exodus 44-04

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“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Shiori muttered a minute later as we made our way across the dark grounds with Avalon, Aylen, Columbus (with Vulcan), and Harper. We had to take a long, meandering route to stay away from the search patterns of the security guards, rather than heading straight for the main building. Luckily, their searches seemed to be mostly centered either around the dorms or off in the direction that Larissa had sent the ones who came to where Liam was.

Glancing that way while leaning just for a second on my staff, I asked, “Nevada really set some kind of evacuation order up with all you guys together?”

She hesitated briefly before offering me a shrug. “It’s not like we have meetings or anything like that. I’ve never actually met all of the other hybrids. She just talked to us individually and told us what to do if the alert goes out. Mostly it amounts to running and scattering. There’s some teleport escape hatch things in different parts of the jungle and beach.”

Avalon held up a hand up to stop us from moving, her eyes focused on the spotlight being cast by some kind of cyberform owl flying in the distance. Her voice was curious. “What kind of alert?”

For some reason, despite the situation, Shiori actually gave a tiny smile. “It’s sort of a song. Trust me, none of the hybrids will mistake it for anything else. Not around here.”

Well that definitely had Avalon and me even more curious. Even Aylen was clearly unsure, which made sense, considering Gaia and Nevada apparently hadn’t known that she was a hybrid. From the brief look on his face, Columbus already knew. But he seemed mostly distracted by his guilt about Sean not being with us. Because if there was one thing Columbus needed more of, it was definitely guilt.

Harper, who had been a few feet ahead as she watched the patrols, turned back to us. “Okey dokey, there’s a door around the side. It’s unlabeled and they don’t use it very much. We can go in there. It’s connected to the teachers’ lounge.”

Raising an eyebrow at her, I decided to try, “And you know that how? I am pretty sure they didn’t just let you wander through to check the place out.”

I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer, and she rewarded that by grinning. “You’d be surprised how far baked goods and a bright smile can get you in this world. Cookies open more doors than you’d think.”

That sounded like a pretty good advice, actually. But I still stuck my tongue out at her for being evasive. Then we were moving again, as I used my staff as a walking stick to keep up.

Flick? Tabbris’s mental voice came down. Are you guys okay? We have reinforcements, but they can’t get through the shield yet. They’re on the other side of the island.

Quickly, I let my little sister know what was going on, and what we were doing. I gave her a brief summary while letting her pick out details from my mind on her own.

So things are about to pretty much blow up around here. We are taking down the shield and letting the hybrid students know they need to GTFO. Which means that if you guys have reinforcements ready to come in and take some of the heat off when we do, that would be pretty damn peachy.

We exchanged mental hugs then as she urged me to be careful and said that she would keep the others updated. I promised not to do anything too stupid and felt her presence withdraw once more.

By that point, we had begun making a long, circular route around the main building.  At one point, we had to stop and crouch down as a lone security guy made his way around the building in the opposite direction. Harper did something. I wasn’t sure what, but she made us touch her shoulders and when the guy glanced in our direction, he didn’t show any reaction even though we were definitely close enough for him to see. He simply paused briefly before continuing his patrol. Still, I didn’t breathe again until he was out of sight.

“Clear,” Columbus announced after staring in that direction with his goggles faintly illuminated. “He’s still walking.”

Harper nodded toward what looked like just another bit of wall. “Faculty lounge door is right there. All we need is teachers credentials to make it open.” She looked to me then. “Sorry, but they’ve got it blocked against things like your security-breaking power. Too many students get stuff like that and try to go snooping.”

Avalon exchanged a brief look with Aylen before staring at Harper. “I don’t know if you’ve eaten too many cupcakes or something, but we don’t have teacher credentials.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah, how are we supposed to deal with that?” Sovereign had landed on her shoulders earlier before attaching himself like some kind of backpack. His head came up over her shoulder to squint curiously at Harper as well.

Harper just smiled at them while holding up a golden card. “Don’t worry, I took Mason’s card off his unconscious body back there.”

Shiori sputtered. “When?! I swear, you didn’t even go near him.”

Winking, Harper started to the wall. “That would be a terrible thing to swear to. Besides, it’s not like this is the only faculty card I have.”

That time, all of us exchanged looks behind her back before following the girl. By then, she waved the card in front of the blank wall and part of it immediately slid aside in the shape of a doorway.

We stepped through quickly, and found ourselves, sure enough, in one of the faculty lounges. It basically looked a lot like the student lounge, except bigger, with more individual spaces for private working, and a library area attached to it. There were still pool tables, televisions, even video games. Which was pretty cool. Actually, now I really wanted to see one of my several hundred-year-old instructors playing Mario Sunshine. Or Pokémon!

Shiori glanced to me, whispering, “Nevada said that when she went here, she thought she was the best Pac-Man player on the island until Professor Pericles totally schooled her. A couple years ago they had a Mario Kart tournament that got really big and Pericles stomped everyone.”

I grinned reflexively before my face fell just as quickly. “I really wish I’d gotten to know him.”

Her hand found mine and squeezed as the two of us followed the others across the room at a brisk jog. Or at least as much of a jog as I felt comfortable with. Shiori helped with that too.

Stopping by the door, Harper spoke in a low, soft voice. “Nevada’s office is two floors up. We shouldn’t run into too much trouble, since everyone is either outside searching, asleep, or guarding Gaia or one of her people. But we need to be quick and quiet. Stay close.”

Once again, her voice had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.  It wasn’t quite rude or demanding, just… authoritative. It made me want to do what she said without even thinking about it.

Together, we slipped out into the dimly lit hallway and began to make our way through the eerie school corridors. Harper was right about the place being mostly deserted. There were a couple of patrols that we had to avoid, mostly with her making us invisible or whatever she was doing. But for the most part, we were able to move unimpeded.

On the other hand, I had the feeling that we would have been caught in a few seconds without her help. Then again, we also would have been caught instantly at the beginning of all this if she hadn’t shown up before Patrick and October.

Was Fossor counting on that? Did he plan on me being taken by Crossroads security? Did he have something else in mind? I had no idea what that psycho was thinking. But I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have counted on Harper. Maybe he thought another of Gaia’s people would get me out. Whatever he was up to, it was obvious that he knew a lot more about what was going on here then we’d even suspected after knowing he was controlling Escalan.

The man was a piece of shit, but an annoyingly competent one.

Reaching the stairwell, we made our way up two flights to the third floor. Just as we reached it, Harper stopped us again. Columbus’s hand was raised right after her. We knelt there in the stairwell, listening as voices grew louder.  From the sound of them, it was just two of the security guards asking each other what exactly was going on. All they seem to know was that the headmistress was in deep trouble and the Committee had stepped in. There were rumors flying around about Gaia killing one of the Committee members, about her trying for a coup, about one of them killing her instead, it was all a complete mess. And it was clear that they weren’t being told much yet. Just that they had to keep an eye out for all of us.

Columbus nudged me, his eyes on the door as he whispered, “They’re not looking at each other. They’re facing either direction. About ten feet that way.”

Knowing what he was implying, I nodded. “I’ve got one of them.”

Harper gave me a thumbs up. “Then I’ll handle the other one.“

Without another word, I reached out to touch the door, sending myself into the wood before moving through it and into the wall beyond. Sure enough, there were two guys there, each facing a different way. One of them was looking at the door I had just come through, his expression one of a mixture of boredom and slight apprehension. It was clear that he knew something big was going on and that he and his partner were mostly being left out of it. Probably because the Committee didn’t know how much they could trust Gaia’s own security team.

Sliding myself along that wall, I parked right near the guy and waited for a moment. He kept shifting his weight back and forth before eventually taking a step over to lean against the wall. Unfortunately, it was the opposite wall from the one where I was. And neither the floor nor the ceiling were made out of wood. So, I had to send myself all the way back around again, through the door and to the other wall. Figured.

Eventually, however, I made it back to where he was still leaning. Taking a breath, or at least as much as I could do that while possessing wood, I put a hand out, caught his arm, and possessed the man all in one motion.

Only then did it occur to me how much worse this could’ve gone if the guy was actually already possessed. Or worse, a hybrid himself. Thankfully, he wasn’t, and I was right inside of him.

He also clearly wasn’t very happy about it, as I instantly made his body freeze, his voice dying in his throat before he could cry out. I threw everything into keeping him still and silent, even as the man himself tried to jerk and shout in surprise.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I quickly blurted to him. I know this sucks, and it’s not fair, and I promise not to pry into your thoughts or make you do anything bad. We just need to get through here and we don’t want to hurt you guys. Or be hurt, come to think of it. I promise, we’re not going to do anything, I’m not going to go prying through your head, or anything like that. You just need to go to sleep. After we call your partner over here. But I promise, we’re not going to hurt him either.

Some part of me wondered if I should just use his body to fight and move around. But no. No, I wasn’t going to be that person. Not right now. Not here. This was already bad enough without me possessing a guy and forcing him to fight and be injured by his own friends. Or worse, killed. I didn’t know how far they were willing to go. If I took this guy into combat and things went wrong, I would never forgive myself.

From the serious rant this guy launched into, my words did little, if anything, to reassure him. But at least I tried. Turning my attention to his partner, I made the guy speak up. “Hey, did you see that?”

He looked to me, blinking. “See what?”

Holding a finger up to my host’s lips, I made a shushing noise while staring intently at one of the office doors. Slowly, I made him walk that way while he continued to silently tell me just how much trouble I was in. As if I didn’t already know that.

The other guy fell for it, coming in close, his attention on the empty office. We got close to it, heads bent as though to listen. The guy leaned in, squinting out the door before shaking his head. “I don’t see anyth—”

That was as far as he got before collapsing unconscious to the ground with Harper standing directly behind him. I interrupted my own host’s ranting and frantic questions with another brief apology before letting him fall unconscious as well. Stepping out of the body, I cracked my neck before taking a painful step. Yeah, while Seosten were apparently supposed to be basically completely healed whenever they possessed someone, I either hadn’t fully picked that trick up yet, or the poison that Kushiel used bypassed that. Either way, my legs still hurt. We’d already tried it back at the camp to no avail, so it wasn’t surprising now.

The others joined us, and we stowed the unconscious guards in that empty office before heading down the corridor.

“Don’t worry, boy,” I whispered to Vulcan, who was looking lost. “We’ll get Sean back, I promise.”

Porthos, who was still riding on Vulcan’s back, made a chittering noise of agreement. He was joined a second later by a soft chiming sound from VJ, attached just behind him, as well as squeaks from Jaq and Gus, poking their heads out of my pocket. The menagerie was in agreement. We were going to save Sean. Somehow.

Eventually, we made our way to the door into Nevada’s office. Avalon input the code the woman had given us, and the door clicked. After a quick glance up and down the hall, we slipped inside.

“We don’t know how long it’s supposed to be before someone checks on those guys,” Valley announced. “We should set off this alert and then get the hell out of here. If they know where it came from, they’ll be right on top of us.”

“You said it’s a song?” I asked Shiori. “How do we make everyone hear a song?”

She responded with a quick thumbs up before jogging across the room, toward Nevada’s cluttered desk in a corner. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.”

The rest of us watched curiously as she dug through the desk before coming out with a Rubik’s Cube and a silver hammer. She set the cube on the desk, raised the hammer, and brought it down hard on the thing. It shattered apart into a bunch of  pieces that went flying everywhere.

Instantly, a song blared to life from the speakers in the room. It was also coming from the hallway beyond, and, apparently, from every other speaker as well. I could even hear it blasting across the school grounds. It was everywhere. I had no doubt that it was playing in all the dorms as well. Every single speaker on the school grounds was blaring this song.

Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. That’s the song that was playing. That’s what was blaring out over every speaker on the school grounds. That’s what hundreds of students woke up to, what they heard exploding to life all around them.

I looked to Shiori, who grinned and pointed to the window. I moved that way, looking out. The school had come to life. Mostly by the dorms, I saw students swarming out of every doorway, through the windows, off the roof. A few security guards and Committee agents alike were trying to stop them, but were almost immediately overwhelmed just through sheer numbers. Over a dozen students went right over them. They were taken completely by surprise.

Behind that first wave of students, I saw more emerging with obvious confusion. These were the ones who weren’t hybrids and didn’t know what was going on. They looked around, rubbing sleep out of their eyes while staring as their class and teammates slammed right through the guards who had been searching for… well, us.

Mostly it was older students that did the brunt of the damage, students who were third or fourth years. There were about a half dozen of them, and they basically hit those security guards so fast and so hard that the guys were on the ground before they knew what hit them. Others from the younger classes followed, while their teammates called out confused questions about what the hell was going on. Two of the Committee agents tried to form a dome wall of energy to contain everyone, but were hit by about six different powers at once that put them on the ground. I saw one student shapeshift into a bee, fly straight at one of them, then turn into a rhino just in time to slam into him. Another used a series of vines from the ground to entangle them.

Then something happened. The hybrid students had started to split up, but suddenly all of them hit the ground. It was like some kind of invisible hand had reached up to smack them down, pinning them against the grass. There was a single figure still standing, his hands raised.

“Wait,” I started, “is that–”

I was interrupted by glass exploding in my face. Belatedly, I realized that I was being ripped through the window by an invisible force. The same force, in fact, that had pinned all the hybrid students. I was hauled through the air, slammed through the window as everyone behind me shouted my name, and then found myself dropped unceremoniously to the ground right at the feet of the one responsible for all this.

“You,” Gabriel Ruthers snapped, “are behind this.”

Blinking twice as I oriented myself, I started to say something. “Ruthers, you don’t–”

I was interrupted as the man caught hold of my hair, twisting it a little. “Stop,” he snapped. “You have been turning the students since you arrived, on your mother’s orders. Your mother and Gaia, working together.”

“That’s not wh–” I started, interrupted once again by a sharp pain in my head as he twisted my hair.

“Silence,” he ordered. “You will do nothing else. You and the Strangers that Gaia and Joselyn have brought in will be put through trial. And I can assure you, we will ensure that you are made an example o–”

It was his turn to be interrupted then, as a figure abruptly landed on the grass just in front of us, amongst all the still-pinned hybrid students. Harper. She had flown out, literally flown, before landing hard on the grass, sending up a spray of dirt from the shockwave.

Slowly, the girl I knew as Harper Hayes straightened from where she had landed. As Ruthers gripped my hair and stared, she met his gaze. Her voice, as she spoke, was as cool as ice. The kind of ice that would take your finger at a touch.

“You’re going to want to let her go now, Gabriel.

“You’re going to want to let all of them go.”

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place. I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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