Gaia Sinclaire

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Interlude 19 – Nevada

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August 20th, 1615

The blonde girl’s lifeless body lay naked upon the rough stone table which sat in the middle of the forest clearing. While she had obviously been beautiful and vivacious in life, her skin was now pallid and cold. Her arms were spread to both sides, the table itself large enough that her fingers barely reached the edges despite the fact that the girl had been in her late teens before her untimely death.

A half-melted candle sat in both of her open hands, their wax pooling in her half-cupped palms. Bits of that melted wax had been drawn up carefully over her wrists before giving way to flower petals, which decorated both arms up to her shoulders. Those, in turn, were replaced with sticky lines of blood which formed intricate designs running over each breast, down over her stomach, and lower. Both of her legs were marked with the pelts of various animals that had been sacrificed specifically for this endeavor.

The dead girl’s body was positioned by the compass, her head facing east for the rising sun. On the edge of the small forest clearing, at each of the other three compass points, a crucified body could be seen, limbs nailed to the carefully constructed wooden crosses. Blood had dripped from multiple wounds, falling into a pool at their feet before being carefully drawn along the ground to meet in a central location. The blood from the three crucified victims had then been combined into a single line that ran up to the end of the table to become the blood that now decorated the dead girl’s upper body.

For miles throughout the forest, rain fell in torrents while thunder provided its own roaring displeasure. However, no drops penetrated the clearing despite its open connection to the sky. Lightning flashed so close that the explosion of sound it created was deafening. Yet, it too never touched the clearing itself.

A woman, identical in appearance to the one on the table (save for being alive), walked along the trail of blood that led from the crucified victims to the deceased figure who so resembled her. As naked as all of the dead figures, she stopped by the side of the stone table. Her hand slowly ran up the torso of the decorated corpse, carefully avoiding smudging any of the blood designs. There was a fondness in her eyes, yet a madness as well. As her hand found the other girl’s mouth, she carefully pulled it open.

“They’re almost done,” she murmured softly, voice almost drowned out by the crack of thunder that came immediately on their heels. “Do you feel it? Do you feel the power they’re using to banish him?”

There was no answer, of course. The living girl reached to the side to pick up a wooden cup that had been filled with the blood of every creature, human and otherwise who had been sacrificed for this endeavor. Carefully, she placed the cup at the lips of her dead doppelganger before beginning to pour the blood into her mouth and down her throat. Steadily, she drained the cup until nothing was left.

“Just a little more time,” the girl murmured with a soft smile which still somehow managed to betray her damaged psyche even more than the ritualistic surroundings did. “They’re nearly finished with it.”

Turning her gaze to the sky, the girl watched in silence for another minute. She made no other motion, her form completely still. As she had promised, it wasn’t long before the dark evening sky turned a dull red color. It lasted only for a few seconds, but it was enough for the girl to know that the time had come. Before the brief glow in the sky had faded, she began to chant. The words were an ancient, dead language from a world that had been dead and gone since before sapient creatures existed on Earth.

The chant filled the air, almost soothing if the current of power they carried hadn’t been so ominous. With each word, that power grew more apparent, sizzling audibly throughout the air of the clearing.

Four words left of the chant. With the first, a bolt of red lightning shot from the sky to strike the first of the crucified corpses at the edge of the clearing. That lightning, however, failed to fade away as normal bolts did. It remained exactly where it was, crackling with power in a display that would remain unheard of by mundane humans for several more centuries. Two more words each attracted identical bolts of crimson lightning to the remaining pair of crucified victims, the same as the first. Each of the three jagged crimson lines of power connected the sky to the crosses and the bodies nailed upon them.

One final word. As it left the girl’s lips, a final bolt of lightning tore its way out of the sky and entered the clearing. This one was a pale, almost white blue, like the smallest inner flames of a fire. And it burned as bright and with as much power as the other three bolts combined. Its target was the stone table, striking the blonde corpse that lay upon it directly where her heart was. And as the living figure stepped quickly out of the way with a look of indescribable glee upon her face, those other three bolts connected themselves to the fourth through several tendrils of electricity that forked out to join it.

The central, azure bolt grew brighter, while the connected crimson bolts began to steadily fade as they fed their energy to it. Meanwhile, the body on the table shook violently. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. Not from the target of the central bolt, but from the crucified bodies attached to the remaining three. Their forms were burnt beyond recognition throughout those few seconds, until nothing remained but the blackened ashes, which drifted away from the crosses they had been nailed to.

Finally, the blue lightning faded out of the sky until only a small portion remained. That portion seemed to pour itself over the body of the girl on the table. The sharp, powerful electricity crackled and sizzled up and down her figure, down to her toes and then back up once more. Gathering near her open mouth, it fed itself through the opening. More and more of the blue current filled her up that way as the corpse inadvertently swallowed the power that had been called down from the sky and channeled through the arranged crucifixion victims, until no sign of that sky-fire remained, leaving the clearing eerily silent.

Three seconds later, the corpse’s eyelids rose to reveal eyes that seemed to be made entirely of that azure lightning. It crackled audibly throughout the small orbs, leaving no trace of white for a moment until gradually fading into slightly more normal blue eyes. They blinked once, then again before sight seemed to return to the figure. Her skin turned a healthy pink rather than its previous deathly pale, and she jerked upward before half-falling off the table. The previous silence was broken by harsh coughing.

The already standing figure, identical to the one who lay over the edge of the table, watched in silent awe for a brief moment before stepping closer. “It worked,” she murmured. “It really… really worked.”

As her coughing gradually faded, the newly risen former corpse blinked upward in confusion. Seeing the figure standing there, she made a soft gasping sound before speaking in a voice that was cracked from a combination of long disuse and her own uncertainty at making the words. “I… I know you.”

“No.” The standing girl shook her head at that. “You’re wrong. You don’t know me. She knew me.”

Moving to a sitting position, the formerly dead girl looked down at herself and the runes that had been drawn in blood, then to the animal skins that had fallen from her legs as she moved. Frowning, her gaze rose again to the standing figure. She stared for a moment before raising her hands to touch her own face, her own hair. “We are the same,” the girl started uncertainly. “Identical.” She paused. “Sister.”

Crack, the standing girl slapped her, hard. “No,” she snapped with obvious impatience. “Never say that again. We are not sisters. Theda was my sister, my twin sister. You are not Theda, and never will be.”

“Who am I?” The girl paused, looking at her own hands briefly before looking up again. “What am I?”

Smiling faintly, the standing figure answered with obvious pride. “A djinn. That’s what you are. You’re a being of pure magical power.” Met by a blank stare, she sighed. “When a spell is cast, there is residual power. Most of the time that power fades away without impact. But when the spell is powerful enough, it affects the physical world. Usually it just creates terrible storms or other events. When the mountains spew fire and smoke, those sometimes come from the residual effects of powerful spells.”

Not-Theda tilted her head curiously at that. Her tone was innocent. “I am not a fire-mountain.”

“No,” the other girl agreed flatly. “You’re not. You see, sometimes, if you know just when a suitably powerful spell is about to be cast and you… prepare properly,” she indicated the clearing around them including the crosses where the crucified bodies had been, “you can harness the residual magic and channel it into the creation of… you. A djinn. That’s where all your kind come from. You’re not real, you’re not human beings. You’re creatures formed entirely from magic. Extraordinary, but not human.”

“Not human,” the newly risen figure echoed, her voice thoughtful and quiet. “But Theda was human.”

Nodding, the standing girl spoke softly. “Yes. Theda was human. But a djinn requires a body to inhabit. And the greater the sacrifice of that body, the greater chance that the spell to create the djinn succeeds.” Her unhinged smile returned as she shrugged. “What greater sacrifice is there than one’s own twin?”

“You killed your twin sister,” Not-Theda realized, straightening once more while staring at the girl.

“As I said,” the standing figure replied, “a great sacrifice was needed. The Heretics cast their spell to banish the necromancer from this world. I just… latched onto the residual power from their magic to create you. Otherwise all that power would have just created another earthquake or fire-mountain. And what a waste would that have been?” She shook her head in disgust at the very thought of such a thing.

“Anyway,” she added while clapping her hands together. “Let’s get started. This,” she picked up the wooden cup that had held the blood, “is your vessel. Think of it as your anchor to this world. Usually they use oil lamps for this. It’s supposed to be easy to pour the blood out. But—well, I didn’t have one. And whoever holds your anchor controls you. They’re your master. So what does that make me?”

Not-Theda paused, eyes looking at the wooden cup briefly before she answered quietly. “My master.”

The standing girl smiled at that, clearly happy. “Yes,” she confirmed. “That’s exactly what I am. And you are a djinn, the living embodiment of magic. Which means you exist to grant wishes. My wishes.”

Glancing down at herself, she made a face. “To begin with, I need clothes. Not the same ones as before. I deserve better ones. Clothes befitting a lady of my stature. Or the stature I’ll soon have.” Snapping her fingers, she gestured to herself. “I wish for the clothes of a noblewoman, made of the finest materials.”

At those words, Not-Theda felt a tug at her core, an irresistible urge that was almost like a subconscious bodily function. Obey. Grant the wish. Use her magic. It all rose up in her until she focused on what what her master had requested. Clothes. Fine clothes. Her blue eyes glowed with power, and she lifted a hand into a gesture. That rising power flowed out of her, until her master was suitably attired in a dress that would have been perfectly at home on any woman of royal standing.

The newly-dressed woman giggled upon seeing what she had been draped in. Lifting her hands, she spun in a slow circle to make the dress rise briefly. “Good,” she announced with child-like delight. “Very good. Now dress yourself too. Not like this, but… servant clothes. Because that’s what you are.

“Because I have a lot of plans, and you… you’re going to help me get everything I could ever want.”

******

Wednesday, July 18th, 1984

“So this is the thing that makes new Heretics, huh?” The girl who had at one point simply referred to herself as ‘Not-Theda’ had a name now. A name drawn from the title on a movie poster starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, Wanda Nevada. At some point, she should actually see the movie itself.

“Yes, Nevada,” the red-haired woman standing beside her in front of the Heretical Edge confirmed. “This is what allows us to create more Heretics so easily.” She glanced to her, “Are you going to change your appearance before you surrender your powers? It wouldn’t do for Jackson to notice you.”

Nevada gave a swift nod, face flushed at the terrifying memory of the relentless Heretic chasing her through the mall before Deveron had intervened. “Yes, I’ll change. But I still want to look like me. Close to me. Just different enough that he won’t recognize me. I… I don’t want to change that much.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s hand found her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to. I doubt he paid enough attention to recognize you at all. You were just another target for him to eliminate. But still, better safe than sorry.”

Nodding silently, Nevada took a step forward. Feeling the power coming off of the light, she put a hand on it. “Are you sure about this?” she asked the headmistress. “I’m pretty sure I can change it to accept hybrids, but if I make myself human after that, I won’t be able to change it back. And that’s a pretty big step. Half-human Heretics? What if your—uh, what do you call your leaders? What if they find out?”

“The Committee,” Gaia answered easily. “And things have to change. This is the most effective way to make that happen right now. After Joselyn’s rebellion and what happened with her, we can’t simply let it go on. We need to show that Alters and Heretics can live alongside each other, can work with one another. It’s going to be a long journey to get there, but this… this is an important step along the way.

“Besides,” she added a little more quietly, “It was her plan, and it should be put into play even if she can’t do it herself.”

Nevada was quiet for a moment then, looking at the lighthouse lamp. Her hand trailed along the side of it before she looked to the other woman. “You have to say the words. And it’ll probably help if you hold my anchor while you’re doing it.” She nodded to the wooden cup that sat nearby.

With a soft, knowing smile, Gaia picked up the cup and held it carefully. “I wish you would change the Heretical Edge so that it can turn half-human Alters into Heretics as well.”

Nevada felt the familiar tug at her power. Over the past several hundred years, she had felt it many times. This one was different somehow. It was a wish that she truly wanted to grant. Yet it would also be one of the most powerful wishes she had ever granted. Not simply in initial effect, but also along the line, throughout the future. Allowing non-pureblood humans to become Heretics? The very thought of the things that it could change, that it would change was staggering.

She gave another glance to her anchor, to the wooden cup that allowed whoever held it to command her. It had passed through several hands over the centuries, for one reason or another. Usually because after a powerful enough ‘wish’, the hold that her master at the time had over her was lessened. She herself became less powerful as she recharged, but she was also able to disobey and escape until her power inevitably returned and she became tied once more to whoever held her anchor.

Yet her creator, the twin sister of the girl who had been sacrificed to give her life, had always taken back possession eventually. She would pass into the hands of one man, then be sold to another, only to be lost in a brutal attack that left her master dead. Her anchor would change hands again and again. Sometimes she would be owned for only a few short hours, while other times, her current master would be smarter about keeping the anchor safe. But it never lasted forever. And eventually, her creator would show up to take the cup back. And with it, she would regain control of what she called her property. Despite all the magic she already had, despite all the power she had already taken for herself, she wouldn’t let her djinn creation go. Not for good. Nevada, or the girl who eventually became known as Nevada, was her trophy. She was her greatest symbol of power, a living djinn. And perhaps some small part of her felt connected to the body of the twin that she had sacrificed to gain all that power.

Either way, whatever the reasoning, she always found Nevada and always took control of her again.

Not this time, however. This time would be different. As she focused on fulfilling that one final wish, the last wish she would ever grant before she turned herself into a human, Nevada knew one thing for certain. Her creator would never take that freedom away from her again. She wouldn’t be a slave to her, or to anyone else. Never. She would live her own life, be her own person, make her own choices. Now and forever.

Theda’s sister, Denuvus, would never own Nevada again.

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Mini-Interlude 17 – Avalon and Gaia

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Avalon and Gaia after that certain kiss…

“Are you winning?”

The voice took the girl who called herself Avalon Sinclaire by surprise. She jolted upward, a sound that was equal parts curse, threat, and embarrassing yelp slipping from her mouth even as she spun around to face the unexpected intruder. And yet, no threat presented itself. None of her enemies had come to make another play for her life. Instead, the person who stood in the doorway of the training room was quite the opposite.

“Gaia,” Avalon spoke sharply, belatedly wiping an arm across her face to gain a second to collect herself. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was… working out.” The last bit came out softer than the rest as she glanced over her shoulder at the heavy punching bag that hung from the ceiling nearby. In mid-glance, however, a frown lightly touched upon her face and she turned back. “Wait, did you ask if I was winning?”

Stepping into the otherwise empty room, Gaia gave a slight nod of affirmation. “Yes, I was under the impression that you were engaged in a very intense psychic battle with a most dangerous foe.” Her voice turned suspiciously casual. “Of course, I wasn’t aware that you had actually gained any such powers, but it was the most immediate explanation for what appeared to be roughly ten minutes of standing completely still while alternately scowling and smiling at that bag there.”

Avalon felt her face heat up before she tried to shake it off. “Yeah, well, I was planning my… preparing…”

Before she could continue, Gaia held up a hand. Her expression had softened. “If you wish to talk, I will hear anything that you would like to say. But you need not invent an explanation. I am not here to embarrass you or demand answers. But I am here… for as long as you would like me to be.”

The words made Avalon turn away quickly. It was easier to look at the still bag than to see Gaia standing there, expecting, hoping… thinking… she didn’t even know. The woman mattered more to her than she could ever hope to tell her. She and… and…

“I kissed Felicity.”

Gaia’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper that Avalon nonetheless heard perfectly well from across the room. “Good.”

That response was enough to make the girl turn that way, eyebrow quirking up. “Good?” she echoed.

“Of course.” Gaia moved across the room, her smile turning up slightly. “Avalon, you have wanted to kiss that girl for quite some time now. The only thing stopping you was you.”

“But I kissed her,” Avalon snapped back, feeling her emotions tumbling within her. Good, bad, fright, delight, terror, overwhelming joy. It all fell together like a boulder in the pit of her stomach. “I kissed her,” she repeated dully. “That means… it means that… that…”

Gaia was in front of her. “What does it mean?”

“It means they’re going to take her away!” Avalon abruptly blurted, the words coming in a shout that was louder than she intended it to be. Then it all came out in a rush, an avalanche of words propelled by feelings that could not be contained. “She was my friend, and they already hurt her, they already tried to take her away. And now, now I kissed her. I kissed her and I can’t take it back. I can’t hide it, because she’ll know. She’ll come and she’ll talk and I want to push her away because it’s the only way she’ll be safe but I can’t do that because she’ll look at me and I can’t do that to her, I can’t make her look at me like that. Her mom is gone and people leave her and I can’t leave her. I can’t even pretend. I thought I could pretend it wasn’t anything important but I can’t because she’ll be hurt and I can’t hurt her. I can’t hurt her but I already hurt her because they’ll hurt her. They’ll hurt her to get at me so I should push her away but I can’t do that because she’s my—she’s my…

“She’s my Flick.” The last words came out very soft, as the girl slumped forward from the weight of it all.

A moment later, Gaia’s hand was on the back of her head, and Avalon felt herself pulled against the woman. Her face found her adoptive mother’s shoulder before Gaia spoke softly. “Do you know what happiness is?”

“What?” Avalon’s voice cracked a little bit, and she flinched at the sound of it. “What do you mean, do I know what happiness is?”

In response, Gaia slowly and gently ran her fingers down through her hair, then back again. The feeling was soothing, despite the turmoil in the girl’s stomach. “Happiness is a brick.”

Avalon’s mouth opened and shut. “A brick?” she echoed flatly.

The woman’s body shook just a little as she chuckled before explaining. “Each moment of happiness is a brick. We use those bricks to build a wall to protect us from the things in the world that would try to make us feel pain. With enough of them, we build more walls, and even add a roof. As we collect these moments of happiness, we protect ourselves from the storms which inevitably arrive.

“There are those who see happiness as a precious resource to be hoarded and viciously protected. But if I can teach you nothing else, then let me teach you this: happiness is not a treasure to be shielded from sadness. It is a wall to protect us from sadness.

“Those who hoard their happiness, always afraid of what they may lose end up standing in the torrential downpour of terrible things, shielding their pile of bricks while insisting to themselves that at least they are protecting their happiness. But those who use it, those who gather and seek it out, and build their house from the bricks of their happiness are shielded from the storm. And they may still get wet. A brick may be lost here and there. The storm can get very bad at times. But that house that they’ve built will not crumble.”

Leaning back, Gaia reached down and used a couple of fingers to tilt Avalon’s face up by the chin. “I will not tell you that you will never experience any loss or unhappiness with Felicity. I will not tell you that things will be perfect. There will always be a storm on the horizon, but the bricks are there.

“Building the house is up to you.”

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Mini-Interlude 16 – Nevada

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving. 

The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.

“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures to ensure their privacy. Finally, she finished her thought. “Wasn’t this the kind of music your old Master used to enjoy while you were still… in his employ?”

Pushing herself back before standing up, Nevada smiled reflexively. It was an old defensive measure she’d learned to deal with uncomfortable or upsetting memories. “You mean when I was a Djinn,” she replied flatly while waving her hand. A minor telekinetic touch shut off the music, leaving the room much quieter.

Wincing just a little at her directness, Risa nodded. “I would have thought that his preference for that music would have turned you away from it. Especially given his… proclivities while listening to it.”

Picking up a nearby wrench just to have something to squeeze, Nevada shook her head. “Not like it’s the music’s fault. Besides, he preferred the Perry Como version of the song. Something about Como being a natural born American while Hayes was from Argentina. Which was pretty funny considering dear old Master wasn’t even born on this planet, let alone America.”

“Sorry,” Risa murmured apologetically. “I know you don’t like to think about those times.”

Nevada shrugged. Her mouth opened to ask what the woman was doing there, but before she could say anything more, the door behind Risa opened abruptly, and Virginia Dare appeared.

“Felicity and Koren,” she announced. “They’re in trouble.”

“What kind of–” Risa started.

“Fomorian trouble,” Virginia interrupted. The tension and fear in her expression and voice were far more plain than Nevada remembered seeing them ever before. “There’s a Fomorian at Koren’s house.”

Those words instantly drained all the amusement and casual atmosphere from the room. Nevada dropped the wrench she had been squeezing so tightly and was already halfway to the doorway by the time Risa caught up with her. The security chief was paler than usual, her expression set in a grim line.

No one joked about the Fomorians. Not after what had happened during the last major altercation with them, including the loss of Desoto.

“Gaia?” Risa spoke tersely as the three of them emerged into the corridor.

“Still busy with the Committee,” Virginia replied, her own voice just as tense. “Ulysses is prepping the portal.”

She explained everything that had been in the message from Flick as they made their way through the hall. Their destination wasn’t the Pathmaker, but the enormous mirrors in the main corridor. As promised, Ulysses Katarin was already there, performing the opening enchantment on the mirror that would connect them to Koren’s house.

“Can’t put it inside,” the big man explained without looking up as the women approached. “Fomorian shit’s already blocking it. The closest I can get is the sidewalk at the front.”

“Do it,” Virginia prompted, her face tight with worry. “Deveron Adams and Wyatt are there too, but..” She paused, shaking her head. “We need to be there, now. Before now. Yesterday, if time traveling back into time you’ve already experienced wasn’t out of the question.”

Ulysses was already nodding, throwing the last bit of magic into the mirror before he stepped back. “Hope we can break that blood shield the Fomorian threw up. Cuz the last time I had to deal with one of those, it took a god damn hour to knock it down, and that was with nine of us.”

“We have a secret weapon,” Virginia reminded him before stepping through the mirror.

“Wyatt,” Ulysses finished for the woman, smiling mirthlessly. “Let’s hope the guy’s as good as Gaia says he is.”

Then they were through the portal, emerging through a simple wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, an elderly woman walking her dog gave them a wave, and Nevada briefly wondered what exactly the woman had seen. What had the Bystander Effect turned the four of them stepping through a door that had no business being in the middle of sidewalk into? Maybe she saw them stepping out of a van?

Regardless, they had more important things to focus on. Wyatt was there. His wide-eyed gaze snapped around, focusing on them. “Felicity,” he blurted, “Koren, they–”

“We know,” Virginia interrupted before the man could start rambling. “How long will it take you to bring down the shield, Wyatt?”

Not, ‘can you bring it down’, Nevada noticed. For Virginia, it wasn’t even a question of whether the man could pull it off or not. She simply wanted to know how long it would take him to do it.

Swallowing hard, an act that sent his pronounced Adam’s apple bobbing, Wyatt nodded. “I can. I can do it. I’ve been examining the spell, and–”

“Details later, Wyatt,” Risa reminded him. “Right now, focus on smashing that spell down as soon as–”

“No,” Dare corrected her while shaking her head. “Don’t smash it down. He’ll know we’re coming. Wyatt, we need you to get the spell as close as you can to going down without alerting the Fomorian about what’s happening. Can you do that?”

Again, the nervous man fidgeted and seemed to hesitate before nodding. “Um, maybe. Yeah. I mean, normally I’d have to put my own power into it as I went. But if I leave most of the power out of it and just shape the spell, it might work. But I can’t put enough power in fast enough by myself. After I—umm, shape it, we all have to put power into the spell at the same time if you want it to go down fast.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Risa decided, laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Be fast, Wyatt. The Fomorian cannot escape. Not with what it already knows.”

“Funny,” a new voice spoke up from the darkness as the man in the green suit came into view. “I would’ve thought that your first words would’ve been, ‘he can’t be allowed to hurt our students.’”

“It’s implied, Seller,” Risa snapped at the man from Eden’s Garden. “What are you doing here?”

It was Dare who answered. “He’s helping. Flick obviously called for his aid. Which is good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have all the help we can get to deal with a Fomorian who managed to survive the war and escaped being banished. He’s gone unnoticed this entire time. We can’t just let the ridiculous Garden/Crossroads division matter right now.”

Seller gave a brief bow. “Yes,” he murmured in agreement. “Besides, regardless of where they happen to attend school, I prefer not to leave my more promising descendants in danger. Particularly from a Fomorian.”

Nevada’s head snapped around at that, and she felt her own surprise jump. Her mouth opened to question what he meant,but she stopped herself. She had to focus on what was happening, not get distracted. Even if it was an announcement like that. Because if he was related to Flick, that meant that he was related to… Oh.

Virginia stepped away to use a telepathy power to contact Deveron on the inside to let him know what was going on. She also used the same mental discussion to get a report from the boy about the full situation inside.

Deveron. According to Gaia after a discussion the woman had had with the boy, he was the one who had originally recruited Nevada to join the school. He was the one who convinced her to turn herself into a human, and then a Heretic. After, of course, she had altered the Edge to allow hybrid students.

Before then, Nevada had simply… not really thought about who had recruited her. That was the power of the spell that had been used. Even though she’d clearly thought about the fact that she’d been recruited by a Heretic, she simply hadn’t thought about who it had been. And nothing about the fact that she couldn’t remember who he was, this man who had changed her life so much, had actually struck her as odd.

Magic scared her sometimes. And the fact that it frightened even her, a former Djinn, said… well, it said a lot. And at some point, she was going to have to have a discussion with Deveron about everything that she couldn’t remember.

Soon. She’d talk to him soon.

Meanwhile, Risa and Seller took a moment to put aside their initial hostility and talked about exactly what they were going to do once the spell went down. Then the Eden’s Garden Heretic stepped away to do something of his own that would apparently mask his own presence from the shield.

Of course, since he was apparently related to Flick and Koren, the spell would let him through anyway. But it would also alert the Fomorian to his arrival, so the man was doing something that would hide him from the spell once he passed through it.

Eventually, they were ready. Seller gave a quick salute before moving through the spell to cause a distraction. The man had enchanted a couple of stones, placing one in his pocket while leaving the other with Nevada and the others so that they could all hear what was going on.

“Tell me you’re ready, Wyatt,” Virginia urged, clearly not wanting to wait any longer.

“Ready,” the man confirmed.

Dare sent the message through to Seller, and the rest of them took a moment to gather their energy for the last push to break the blood shield. Meanwhile, they listened as the emerald-suited man announced his arrival to interrupt the Fomorian, who was apparently trying to convince Flick or Koren to choose which of them would go with him. Nevada tightened her fist, snarling under her breath while focusing on her own power.

Then Seller’s voice announced that if Dare was going to do it, she should do it right then. And on cue, Nevada, Ulysses, Risa, and Virginia all helped Wyatt by pouring their power into the spell that the enchantment expert had created. The invisible wall vanished, and they were through. Through and ready to make sure the Fomorian didn’t escape, and never hurt one of their students again.

******

“Where are they?” The booming demand came from the doorway that led into Koren’s house, and Nevada looked up from her slumped over position to find Gabriel Ruthers standing there, flanked by Gaia.

“The Fomorian, Chambers, and Fellows,” the man demanded before Nevada or any of the other exhausted and clearly bloodied figures could respond. “Where are they? If you let them escape–”

“Felicity and Koren are fine,” Virginia snapped. The woman was busy holding her hand tight against a deep wound in her own stomach until it could heal. “Physically, anyway. And the Fomorian’s body is in there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the kitchen. “He’s dead. But he got off a message. We’re not sure what it said, but… probably too much.”

“If they’re fine, then where are they?” Ruthers’s voice was dark.

“Eden’s Garden,” Risa answered without looking toward the man. The woman’s vision would take awhile to return after the fog that the Fomorian had released into her face had eaten away most of her eyes. “Koren’s mother was… critically injured. They took her to Eden’s Garden to have her turned into a Heretic so that–”

What?!” Ruthers’s voice turned into a bellow. His fury was palpable. “You allowed them to—what kind of failur–”

“Gabriel,” Gaia snapped. “Leave. The situation is handled. You and I can discuss it further later.”

At first, Nevada thought the man was going to blow his gasket and start screaming at Gaia right there. His face reddened and he glared at the woman for a few seconds before taking a visible breath. “You, I, and the rest of the Committee. We will all discuss this. And everything else.”

“I can’t possibly contain my excitement at the prospect, Gabriel.” Gaia replied flatly. “Now leave, and let me attend to my staff. There’s clearly no need for your presence here.”

“We’ll see where my presence is required, Gaia,” the man retorted.

“We will most certainly see.”

Then the man was gone, just as abruptly as he had arrived. Gaia let out a visible breath before stepping further into the building. Her attention was on the rest of them, her voice soft. “Are all of you all right?”

“We’ll be okay,” Ulysses replied for them, shifting his half-mangled form with a grunt. “Can’t say that tangling with a Fomorian is any more fun than it used to be, though.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would be,” Gaia murmured before stepping over to lay a hand on Nevada’s arm. “I’m going to discuss things with Seller, and find out how the others are. Tristan was pulled along with Felicity’s travel to Eden’s Garden.” She paused briefly. “And so was Roxanne.”

“Pittman?” Ulysses blurted. “How—oh damn it, she was touching him, wasn’t she?”

“They were surfing,” Gaia confirmed. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach them in time to prevent it. And now… now I fear what might have happened if she wasn’t pulled the entire distance. If she–” The woman stopped, obviously not wanting to put voice to the fear.

“Go,” Virginia urged. “Make sure they’re okay.”

“I have to ask,” Gaia started first, focusing on Nevada. “You… you were the one who killed him, weren’t you?”

Nevada nodded. “Yeah. Well, we all killed him, but that last hit, that was me.”

“And did you… gain anything from it?” the headmistress asked carefully.

Risa interrupted. “Why would you even have to ask that? Heretics don’t get powers from killing Fomorians. That’s one of the things that makes them such a pain in the ass. We all know that.”

“Normally, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But I thought perhaps… Nevada’s uniqueness would be different.”

“You mean the fact that I used to be a Djinn, and that it’s magic that made me human,” Nevada realized before shaking her head. “No. No, I didn’t get anything from it. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t feel any different.”

Gaia met her gaze intently for a few seconds before nodding. “If that changes… tell me. If our hybrids are going to react to Fomorian kills any differently than a normal Heretic, we need to know about it.

“The last thing we need, at this point, is another surprise.”

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Interlude 17 – Virginia Dare

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

May 18th, 1611 – London

Crash. Scream. Laughter. Shriek. Thump. Shout. Angry bellowing. Sarcastic retort. Crash.

All of that and more filled the air at nearly the same time, forcing Virginia Dare to snap her gaze from one noise to another. Her head twitched back and forth, the enhanced wolf-hearing that was such an asset in the forests she had spent so much time in becoming a liability here in the incredibly crowded, oppressively loud city of London. Every time she jerked her head to look at and subsequently dismiss one potential threat as its sound reached her, four others assaulted her ears from various directions.

It was safe to say that the twenty-three year old woman was out of her element. Growing up in the New World, making her way with Tiras through the small settlements of the colonies and the wilds where the Natives lived had not prepared her for seeing any of… this. There were so many people. More than she thought could possibly live in one place. How did so many people all manage to eat enough food to survive?

And the smell. That awful, rotting smell that permeated everything. Garbage from the buildings and houses was simply dumped into the street and then (eventually) carried off. Rats and other vermin scampered through the shadows, feasting wherever larger piles of rotting trash had gathered.

A sound to her left, a voice actually addressing her. Through the noise and confusion, Virginia snapped her gaze that way, wide eyes taking in the sight of a fresh-faced young man who appeared to be about sixteen. Which, in reality, was about as old as Virginia herself appeared to be, thanks to the Amarok blood that made her age more slowly than a normal person. At least, that’s how Tiras had explained it.

She missed her vampire mentor. It was his work, his effort in teaching her how to survive that had allowed her to make it this far. And yet, whatever evil had been after her for so long refused to stop sending its minions after the girl, and she refused to put Tiras in danger any longer by staying with him.

That was also why she had sailed clear across the ocean, back to the land of her parents. If her blood was supposed to cause some great destruction just because she was the first English child born in the new world, she would leave that continent and hope that she could evade her tormentor that way.

“I said,” the young man spoke louder over the sounds of people shouting back and forth throughout the crowded city street. “You look new here!” He gave her a crooked-toothed smile. “Are you okay?!”

Virginia didn’t bother to ask how he could tell. She knew that her clothes (mostly leathers and animal hides), the fact that she openly wore a sword on her hip (a gift from Tiras), and simply her expression itself all worked together to make the fact that this city was strange and new to her patently obvious.

“I’m quite all right!” she called back to the boy before gesturing at the crowd of people that still hadn’t abated at all. If anything, the crowd was growing even larger. “What happened, was there an attack?”

The boy gave a laugh. “Attack? No. Nothing happened. This is just London! You uh…” He paused, looking her up and down before shaking his head. “Come on, it’s quieter if you get off the main path!”

At his gesture, Virginia followed the boy. He led her through the awe-inspiring mob of people to a side street. This one was even narrower than the last, and still had people rushing back and forth. But it was at least quieter, as he had promised. The noise fell to a dull roar in the background, allowing the two of them to talk at more normal levels rather than continuing to scream directly into their ears to be heard.

“Whew, that’s better, eh?” The boy gave his head a sharp shake. “My name’s Giles. What’s yours?”

“Virginia,” she answered simply and curtly before her sessions with Tiras about being polite kicked in and overrode the wolf-blood’s wild nature. “Thank you. This place is… louder than I expected it to be.”

“You get used to it,” Giles promised, his curly black locks bouncing a little as he gave a loud laugh. “Or I have, at least. Anyway, you look like you could use a place to stay. Maybe even something to eat if we’re lucky. It’s not much, but Mum keeps our stomachs as full as she can, and she won’t object to another mouth to feed if that mouth comes with hands to help her set the table and do a little cleaning.”

Virginia hesitated slightly before meeting his gaze. “Actually, I’m trying to find St. Bride’s Church.”

That was where her father had worked as a tiler and bricklayer before joining the Roanoke expedition. She’d memorized the name as a child, longing so much to see where her parents had grown up, what their lives had been like before they went to the new continent and had their lives broken by her very existence and the monsters that ultimately killed them while searching for Virginia herself.

“St. Bride’s?” Giles echoed, his tone curious before he gave a quick nod. “That’s over on Fleet Street.”

Virginia’s expression was blank. Her mouth opened and then shut before she managed, “And that is…”

Laughing, an act he seemed to take any excuse to indulge in, Giles spun on his heel. “Right, follow me. I’ll get you there in one piece. Can’t be too careful, city’s a right dangerous place. Fun, and well worth living here. But you’ve got to know where to step, and where not to step, if you follow my meaning.”

As Virginia again began to follow the boy, he continued the conversation. “So where’d you come in from, anyhow? If you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t seem like any girl I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

She smiled even as the wolf’s sense of smell drew her attention toward a building where meat was being prepared. “I’m quite certain that I’m not,” she murmured before answering, “The New World.”

That made the boy spin around, facing her. “Truly?” he blurted while pacing backward, his eyes as wide as hers must have been while she had been staring at the crowds. “You’ve been to Jamestown?”

Only long enough to find passage aboard a returning supply ship, Virginia thought before simply nodding. There was no need to get into details about her history. “I have. It was… quieter than this.”

Chuckling, Giles gave another easy nod. “I bet.” Whistling low then, he shook his head in wonder. “Now Mum’s definitely going to want to talk to you. So will my father. They might just let you stay with us without work if you tell them stories of the colony. Mum would be forever in your debt for what that kind of news would do for her gossip with the other women, and Father’s just as curious.”

Before she could even respond to that, he had already moved on, babbling away. “Like I said, Mum always needs new gossip. She loves it, she does. And in a city this big, there’s plenty of it floating around. Hard to find news outside of the city though, especially about the colony. That’s why they’re gonna love you. But in the city, that’s another story. So many people just moving in and moving in. Place just keeps getting bigger. There’s more than two hundred thousand people here, you know?

She hadn’t known that. Not only had she not known that there were that many people in London, she wouldn’t have guessed that there were that many in the entire world. Virginia had grown up first in the tiny, forgotten colony and then in the wild, rarely venturing far into civilization until just recently.

Still, she managed to swallow back most of her surprise. “That’s a lot,” the girl murmured quietly.

Giles’s grin grew larger, and he started to respond excitedly before stopping short. A frown touched the boy’s face as he turned to look up and down the narrow side street that they had been making their way down. “That’s funny,” he murmured. “Where is everyone? Francis usually opens up the pub by now.”

The building that the boy pointed toward was dark and apparently empty. The entire narrow road was silent. In the distance, Virginia could hear plenty of conversations, both public and private. The rest of the city remained as busy and loud as it had ever been. And yet, this particular street was utterly silent.

And… she sniffed. Death. The rotten, awful stench that filled the entire city to her sensitive nose had distracted her, just like the noise from the rest of London had deafened her to the silence within this particular street. And yet, through it all now that she focused, she could smell more death than she had smelled since that fateful night at the colony. The night that her parents had been killed along with all of her friends. The night everything had changed for her, when the monsters had become all too real.

“Giles,” she started while tugging the sword free of its place at her hip. “Go back the way we came.”

But he wasn’t listening to her. Before Virginia knew what the boy was doing, he was already moving up a nearby set of steps to the door of a large building that appeared to be some kind of warehouse.

She hissed his name again, but the boy’s only reaction was to glance back her with a blank look before continuing to the door. His movements were sluggish, his earlier joyful personality somehow faded.

Suppressed. He was under a spell of some kind, Virginia realized even as Giles opened the door into the warehouse and calmly walked inside. She didn’t know how, exactly, but he had been enchanted. She’d seen that kind of spell before, or one similar to it. One of the shamans that Tiras had taken her to in order to learn her own magic had performed something like that to direct people away from his hut.

This one, however, had led Giles into a dark and quiet building, and she very much doubted that it was for anything good. Showing her teeth in a low wolf-growl as its spirit tried to rise up in her, Virginia immediately followed after the boy. The idea of leaving never entered her mind. Giles had been kind to her, had been helping her. She wasn’t just going to leave him to whatever this magic-user had in mind.

Inside the warehouse, the stench of death was even more overpowering. Virginia had barely taken a step inside before the wolf in her was struggling to leave again. Whatever was in here, whatever was happening, the Amarok within her blood wanted nothing to do with it. She had to forcefully clamp down on the wolf instincts, taking a moment to get herself under control before continuing on.

And then she stopped. She had been right about this being a warehouse. It was one wide open room, one that would normally be filled with crates of supplies. Now, however, there were no such crates. Instead, human bodies littered the floor. No… littered was the wrong word. The corpses weren’t simply tossed into random piles. They were clearly strategically positioned. Some were set together, side by side. Others were positioned in groups of three with their heads touching one another, legs facing outward in a sort of tri-pointed spoke formation. Still others were curved into L shapes on their sides, curled up into balls, or broken entirely to force their bodies into awkward or impossible contortions.

All were naked, and blood connected each body to every other body. Lines of the blood were drawn from corpse to corpse, with various designs spread throughout the open space between them as well as the walls and, as she looked up, the ceiling as well. There were faces drawn in the blood along with runes and more that she couldn’t make out through the dim lighting, even with the Amarok’s vision.

Finally, the fragile bones of small animals, likely vermin and birds, were arranged just as carefully throughout the room, some on the blood and others around it. Here and there, some bones lay in neat piles, while others were clearly meant to be seen as specific designs similar to the blood runes.

Giles was moving carefully, yet inexorably toward the last remaining open spot within that room of death. A knife was waiting for him, left right where his enchanted mind could use it to end his own life.

She caught his arm before he could take another step. As the boy distractedly tried to pull free, Virginia yanked him around. The strength of the Amarok quite thoroughly beat the boy’s own strength, and she easily hauled him back to the doorway. “Giles,” she informed the boy flatly. “I’m very sorry for this.”

Then she beat the boy upside the head with the hilt of her sword, dropping him to the ground in a heap.

“Well, that wasn’t very polite, was it?” a voice from the far side of the room opined. When Virginia snapped her gaze that way, her gaze took in the sight of the man who stood there. He wasn’t a warrior, that much was clear from the start. His form was too soft, his skin unhardened by either work or battle.

Yet, she also knew from the first sight of him that he was likely the most dangerous being she had ever laid eyes on. And that included any and all of the monsters that had destroyed and murdered her colony.

“Now I’m going to have to kill the boy myself,” he complained before pausing to correct himself. “Well, not really myself…” At a gesture from the man, a handful of shimmering, almost see-through figures appeared hovering in the air around him. “But you know, personal effort. I put a lot into that spell. Do you know how much work it took to make sure each person that came through would position themselves exactly the right way before they…” He drew a finger across his throat demonstrably.

“Ahh, well. I suppose the spell will be even better once we add in the blood of a… what are you, again?”

“My name is Virginia Dare,” she informed him, vaulting over the short railing to land in the middle of the room. Her foot kicked one of the carefully positioned bodies out of the way before her sword lashed out to break apart one of the intricate piles of bird bones. “And you aren’t killing anyone else, necromancer.

His soft hands clapped a couple of times, mockingly. “Very good. Too many of your people wouldn’t know what any of this was. But you–” He paused, sniffing a little with a slight smile of appreciation. “I smell wolf blood in you. But you’re not a werewolf, no… you’re one of those… oh what do they call themselves in your language? Heretic, I believe?”

She had no idea what he was talking about. Tiras hadn’t talked about ‘heretics.’ He had mentioned others like her, others whose blood mixed with monsters and allowed them to become something more than human.

Still, she wasn’t planning on asking the necromancer any questions. Even if she could trust the answers, which she doubted, there were far more important things to focus on. Such as ensuring that this spell of his, whatever it was, was never completed.

To that end, Virginia kicked aside another body before turning to cut her sword straight through the neck of a third. A normal blade of its size and shape would have had to saw for some time, yet hers cut straight through, severing the head from the body immediately.

And yet, the necromancer simply chuckled. “My dear, you are wasting your effort.” To demonstrate, he gave a snap of his fingers. Immediately, the bodies that she had kicked aside hauled themselves back into position, while the one whose head she head removed reached dead hands up to push it back on. In front of her staring eyes, the flesh literally knitted itself back together.

“But, just to show that there’s no hard feelings,” the necromancer added thoughtfully, “I will do you the favor of not killing the boy. After all… your blood will make a much better addition, I believe.”

Flipping her sword around once more to direct the point at the man, Virginia hissed, “You’ll find that I’m not easy prey, necromancer.”

“Well, of course not,” he replied with studied patience. “If you were, your blood wouldn’t make an excellent addition to the spell. Do try to keep up.”

Before she could say anything in retort to that, the soft-looking man gave a flick of his fingers. “Bring her,” he ordered the ghosts that hovered on either side of him.

The two spirits flew at her, arms outstretched. Before they could reach her, however, Virginia pushed her thumb against one of the runes on the hilt of her sword. A softly murmured incantation made her blade begin to glow with a soft violet light.

As the first ghost hovered in front of her, Virginia flicked her hand through it. The ghost gave an eerie smile as her hand passed through, then reached for her arm to hold her.

Which was precisely when she drove her glowing sword up into the thing’s chest. It made a noise, eyes widening as the enchanted blade actually seemed to hit something solid. The magic she had learned thanks to Tiras’s connections with the shamans allowed her weapon to harm the ghosts as if they were solid.

The one she had just driven the sword into made an ugly, awful howling sound before it literally blew apart. Meanwhile, the second had only just realized what was happening when her blade cut through its normally intangible neck and destroyed it as well.

“Now, you see?” The necromancer was still smiling. “I knew you would be interesting. But, sadly, I don’t have more time to indulge myself with this game. Time is precious, after all. Especially when one is dealing with powerful magics. So–” Raising his hand, he snapped his fingers once more. At the gesture, the room was suddenly filled with ghosts. There were at least thirty of them, far more than Virginia could hope to fight off before they would get hold of her, rip her weapon away, and finish the job.

“Ahem, as I was saying.” The man pointed his finger at her. “Bring. Her. Here.”

She could run. Escaping was still a possibility. And yet, if she did so, the necromancer would finish his plot. If not with her, or with Giles, then with another body. He would complete his spell, and that was something that she couldn’t just walk away from.

So, as the horde of dead spirits rushed toward her, Virginia did the only thing she could allow herself to do: she moved to meet them.

The necromancer was right, she wasn’t a werewolf. But she did share many commonalities with them. Including one in particular. As the space between the nearest ghosts and Virginia shrank, she drew her sword back and disabled the spell that allowed her to harm them. Instead, she activated a different enchantment. This one caused the blade itself to turn into flame, its heat almost searing even to her.

Then she used the gift that made her so like the actual werewolves. In mid-step, Virginia’s form abruptly and almost instantly shifted. One second she was human, and in the next, she was a full grown wolf with the hilt of her sword held tightly in her teeth.

She leapt through the outstretched arms of the nearest ghosts, passing through them easily even as they turned solid while trying to catch onto her. More of the spirits tried to catch her, but she bounded through and around them, the agility and speed of the wolf allowing her to run circles around the confused ghosts.

Instead of escaping, however, Virginia tilted her head once she reached enough open space to slow down. The burning blade cut into the bodies that she was running past, the magical flames taking hold almost immediately. Fire spread quickly, especially once she reached the wall and began to run along it, dragging the flaming blade through the material there.

The necromancer shouted something, trying to direct his troops. Yet the Virginia-Wolf evaded the ghosts, spreading fire throughout the room so quickly that less than twenty seconds had passed before most of it was burning and there was smoke everywhere.

It as hard to see, even harder to hear, and impossible to smell. But she knew where she was going. She’d planned the route ahead of time, and her memory was good. Three more steps brought her back to where she had started, and she could see Giles’s unconscious figure laying just by the doorway. One more leap, and she shifted her body back into its human form. One hand caught the sword as it fell from her mouth, while the other caught hold of the boy. Then she gathered herself and leapt through the closed door, slamming into it with all of her strength.

The door blew off its hinges, and she practically flew across the narrow street to hit the far wall before collapsing. Coughing hard to get the smoke out of her lungs, Virginia dropped the boy and turned.

She had barely lifted her eyes before a hand slammed into the side of her head, sending blinding pain shooting through her as she was literally hurled a good ten feet down the empty road. The sword fell from her hand, and she groaned.

The man wasn’t soft. He had smacked her once and literally knocked the fight out of her.

“Do you… have any idea… how long I spent preparing that?” He asked while stalking toward her prone form, his amusement now totally absent as the building burned behind him. “Do you have the slightest idea how much time, effort, and… power you’ve cost me, or how long I’m going to have to wait to do it again?”

She reached for her sword, but the man stepped down on her wrist. She could feel the tendons snapping in it. “You,” he hissed while raising his hand, “are going to pay for your interruption, Virginia Dare.”

The hand started to come down, but there was a sudden cracking sound, and a whip lashed its way around the man’s wrist. He made a noise, before abruptly being yanked backward away from her and sent stumbling into the wall.

Virginia lifted her head, and her eyes found a beautiful red-haired woman. Her eyes were focused on the necromancer as she snapped the whip back. “You won’t harm this girl, Fossor. Nor anyone else today.”

The necromancer… Fossor, apparently, gave the woman a hard stare. “Scáthach,” he spat the name with obvious hostility. “Do you truly believe you can break me alone?”

The red-haired woman didn’t flinch. “Do you truly believe I can’t?”

For a few long seconds, both figures stood there and stared at one another, each silently daring the other to either move or back down. In the end, however, it was Fossor who flinched. Cursing, his hand raised and a horde of his ghosts flew into sight, obscuring him from view. When they faded, the man was gone.

Virginia had just slumped back down, breathing out before the woman reached her. She stood there, hand extended toward her. “What you just did was very brave.”

Swallowing, Virginia reached up to accept the hand. “Scáthach?” she used the name that the necromancer had called the woman.

“Actually,” her new mentor corrected gently, “I prefer the name Gaia these days.”

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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