Gaia Sinclaire

Suspects 24-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

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Suspects 24-01

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-06

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“I understand that you had a rather important conversation this earlier today with Avalon and Shiori.”

Jumping a bit at the sound of the voice, I blinked up guiltily to see Gaia standing there. I’d been sitting on the bench beside her office door, waiting for her to get back. And apparently, I had been so absorbed with writing in my notebook that I hadn’t even noticed the woman’s approach. Though, to be fair, if she actually wanted to sneak up on me, it really wouldn’t have mattered how much attention I was paying.

“Errr.” Belatedly getting over my surprise at her appearance to notice what she had actually said, I found myself blushing even more. Coughing, I decided the safe response was to ask, “She told you?”

Smiling faintly, the woman gave a slight nod. “Yes, she was surprisingly open about it. Normally I’d have to coax her into opening up, but this time she came straight to me, and talked about how she felt. I suppose she really needed to talk to someone about it. And as you have no doubt noticed, there aren’t really that many people whom Avalon trusts enough to have that sort of emotional conversation with.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “I guess not. I think she opens up a bit to Scout, but that might be because Scout doesn’t say much.” Hesitating after that, I peeked back at the woman as my own nerves made me ask, “What do you think? A-about what we said and—and all that. Is it weird or… or dumb?”

The look on the red-haired woman’s face softened. “No, Felicity,” she murmured. “It is most certainly not dumb. Being open and honest with the people you care about is a good thing. You didn’t string either of them along, you didn’t make any promises you couldn’t keep. You told them how you felt and you did it before there were any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. That is never dumb, I assure you.”

Her hand reached out to find my shoulder then before she continued. “As for weird… well, you have to look at the lives that we lead. Weird is very much in the eyes of the beholder. What is strange and unsettling for others is what works for you. As you’ve obviously already heard, relationships among Heretics tend to be slightly different from what you are accustomed to among Bystanders. When one’s lifespan varies so significantly and when one is almost always in danger from one direction or another, having multiple romantic liaisons is encouraged more than not. Can you guess why else it would be?”

I paused, thinking about it for a second before straightening. “Because if you’re romantically involved with more than one person, there’s less chance of you completely shutting down forever if you—if you lose one of them. Because there’s others to help prop you up and get you through it. And since there’s so much fighting and killing, losing someone you care about like that is… probably not exactly rare.”

Gaia gave a silent nod, pursing her lips slightly with a thoughtful look before speaking. “No, it is not rare. You…” She paused again, eyes clearly looking at something far in the past. “You learn to live with losing things that you care about and moving on, once you have had an opportunity to grieve. And there are those within the Heretic community who believe that having other companionship helps to move beyond that loss more easily. Others disagree. I don’t believe that Professor Mason has ever been with another person that way since the loss of the twins’ mother.” Pausing, she looked to me. “Of course, there are other reasons beyond potential death for multiple relationships to be encouraged that way.”

Again, I thought about it quietly for a few seconds before making a guess, “I know that Heretics, umm, explore and colonize other worlds. And that probably means there’s a lot more deaths to get a foothold on a new hostile world. So if there’s more than one relationship, there’s… um, more chance of babies?”

“That is one way to look at it, yes,” Gaia confirmed with a slight wince. “Of course, that reasoning is never outright stated. But it is simple enough to see the supposed logic of. More romantic partners, in many ways, equals a higher chance of more children. And beyond that, having multiple romantic partners means that if one dies, the person is more likely to have someone else to continue their line.”

“Wow,” I muttered under my breath while shaking my head, “That’s kinda creepy if you think about it.”

The headmistress started to say something, but stopped abruptly and turned to look down the corridor. A few seconds later, the sound of approaching footsteps finally reached me, just as two figures came into view. Vanessa and Tristan. The two of them were each carrying a glowing blue orb about the size of a baseball. The temporary passes that Gaia had given them so they could come here after curfew.

“Okay, guess I owe you ten bucks,” Tristan remarked casually to his sister. “The office was this way.”

“Uh.” Raising a hand as the two neared us, I asked, “Why would you bet about where something was against someone with a perfect memory that’s been here long enough to already know that much?”

“Particularly,” Gaia added a bit pointedly, “when you have both already been to this office before.”

Grinning cheekily, the blonde boy shrugged. “I had a really good feeling about that other hallway.”

Chuckling, Gaia gestured to her office door then, and like before, it dissolved like a gradually slowing waterfall until the room beyond was revealed. As the wood magically faded away, Tristan leaned closer to me and whispered under his breath, “I swear, that just looks more awesome every time I see it.”

I knew how he felt. Nodding quickly, I followed the twins and Gaia into the office. “So, do you really think you can transfer the anchor spell from me to Vanessa?” I asked tentatively while looking around.

“I have no doubt that such a thing is possible,” Gaia answered simply. “The question that remains is how difficult and time-consuming it will be. Which is what we are here to find out right now.”

She led us into the middle of the enormous room, and I glanced up to see the holographic globe of the world set into the domed ceiling with all the green, yellow, and red flares that popped up randomly. As I watched briefly, a couple of the flares (one red and one green) turned gold and then disappeared.

Inevitably, my attention moved from the holographic ceiling globe to the ‘windows’ at the back of the room. Specifically, to the one window in particular that showed my own neighborhood with our house in plain sight. It was just as late there as it was here, but I could see two figures standing in the backyard. Asenath and her mother. The two of them were watching the sky while apparently chatting.

Right, I’d actually forgotten that Gaia had a view over my house in her office. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that to Asenath at some point, though I wasn’t sure what it would have changed. Maybe if there was a problem, it’d be good if she knew there was a way to get Gaia’s attention? On the other hand, if there was a problem, and Gaia happened to be watching at the time, she’d probably notice.

“What are the lights for?” I found myself asking, mostly to distract myself. When Gaia looked at me, I raised a hand to point up at the colored flares in the globe. “Those. What do the colored flares mean?”

Vanessa nodded quickly, looking relieved that I’d been the one to ask. “I’ve been wondering that too.”

Glancing to the ceiling, Gaia watched the random lights for a moment before answering. “Each of the lights that you see there show a reported or suspected Stranger sighting or event. Green is a non-violent situation, yellow is potentially dangerous, and red is quite threatening. Black would be for someone such as Fossor, a potential world-ending threat. When they fade out on their own, it means that the situation was resolved in some other way, most likely because the threat disappeared. When they turn gold, it means a Heretic killed the Stranger or Strangers involved and resolved the situation that way.”

My mouth opened, but Vanessa beat me to the next question. “There’s lights all over the globe. I thought Crossroads only operated in North and some of South America and most of Western Europe.”

Gaia nodded once. “Yes, for the most part, Crossroads officially claims all of the United States, most countries in Western Europe, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in South America. Those are the areas that we consider ‘ours’, though Eden’s Garden also lays claim to several of the same areas, so it can become rather… tricky diplomatically. For the most part, we often try to work around each other.”

Raising my hand before realizing the absurdity of that, I coughed and just spoke. “Professor Vandel said there’s a different Heretic group that covers Mexico. One that isn’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”

“The Hunahpu and the Xbalanque,” Vanessa put in then, looking to me. “They’re actually one group, named after their founders. Um, it gets kind of involved, but the short version is that in Mayan mythology, these twins named Hun and Vocub Hunahpu were really good ballplayers. They went to the Underworld and ended up being sacrificed by the Lords there. But Hun’s head was put up in a tree and spoke to a woman that came by. Then he—I mean it—the head spat in her hand, which made her pregnant. Honestly, I think the Mayans were kind of confused on the logistics of what makes a baby.”

She shook that off before continuing. “But the point is, she got pregnant and had a new set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Those two grew up to be the big hero twins. Like the Greek’s Heracles. They defeated the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and a lot of other stuff before being turned into the sun and the moon. Their whole story was supposed to show how Mayan people could kill demons themselves, even if only in the afterlife that they didn’t have to be helpless forever. There’s more, but yeah. That’s the myth. The real Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Heretics who fought ancient Strangers and created a group meant to fight them. They’re two sides of the same group. The ones who call themselves Hunahpu focus more on physical fighting and hunting, and the ones that call themselves Xbalanque focus more on magic.”

Chuckling, Gaia nodded. “Very good, Vanessa. Yes, the Hunahpu and Xbalanque claim all of Central America and a sizable portion of Mexico. We do have some relations with them, allowing us to create what are essentially embassies within some of their territory. The same goes for places like Australia, France, and most of the Middle East. We have embassies in those places, even if we don’t claim them.

“In other places, we have no such luxury,” she continued. “Places such as the jungles of Africa are too much of a Stranger stronghold for any Heretic organization to establish more than the slightest foothold in. We lose far too many people simply trying to ensure that the worst threats within those areas stay contained there rather than spreading over the world. Penetrating deep enough to eliminate those threats permanently has proven impossible. They are simply too entrenched and dangerous to risk it.”

Remembering another thing that Vandel had said, I pointed up at the globe. “Like Canada? It’s supposed to be really dangerous to send Heretics in there too. Which is kind of weird, honestly.”

Gaia smiled faintly. “Canada has been claimed by a very powerful Alter. He is not actually malevolent, though you’ll be taught otherwise in your classes. He is proud and reacts to violence in kind. He rules his dominion fairly but decisively, and does not respond well to invasion. He and his people have killed many Heretics who attempt to impose a Crossroads or Eden’s Garden authority in his domain, enough that the Committee and the Victors have elected to leave Canada alone, for the most part.”

Remembering what the entire point of this little sidetrack had been, I asked, “So there’s Crossroads Heretics all over the world, not just in the areas that we say belong to us. Either through embassies, or these little… umm, I guess the best word would be expeditionary forces. That sounds better than invasion, right?”

“Both would be correct,” Gaia confirmed. “Though you should refer to them as expeditions in public.

“I believe, however,” she went on then, “that we have gotten off-track. I’m sure that Vanessa and Tristan would like to sleep at some point tonight. So let’s see what we can do about that anchor spell.”

Tearing my attention away from the hologram, I nodded and let the woman go to work. I still had a lot more questions. Those, at least, were never in short supply. But they could wait. For the moment, the important part was letting Gaia move the anchor spell over to Vanessa instead of me.

Hopefully, that way what had happened to Roxa wouldn’t happen again. Because considering everything that had happened so far, it wasn’t a matter of if I would be unexpectedly teleported to another world again, but when.

******

As it turned out, it was going to take a couple more sessions for Gaia to transfer the anchor spell. Petan and his people had done their best to make sure the spell wouldn’t be erased or negated by the Seosten curse that had left Tristan trapped on the other world. Which meant that, while she could still adjust it, even Gaia was going to have to put more effort into it than she’d expected. Which kinda showed just how powerful Nicholas Petan and his people were, honestly.

Now it was the next day, Sunday. Gaia had asked me to go back in the next night for another round with Tristan and Vanessa, since she didn’t want all of our next couple actual tutoring sessions to be taken up with that. Instead, she wanted to get it all done in a few days and move on. Which I couldn’t blame her for. And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of plans to do during the middle of the night anyway.

At the moment, I was sitting in the library, scribbling in my notebook again while waiting for Doug to show up. The two of us were supposed to work on our little project for Hunter track, so he’d asked me to meet him that afternoon. I just happened to be early enough that I was fully engrossed in my notebook when my item-sense poked me with the realization that someone had just come close enough for it to pick up.

Glancing that way while closing my notebook, I found Doug doing his best to ‘casually’ move close enough to see what was written in it. As I glanced up, he froze before gesturing. “You already start?”

“What?” I blinked, then glanced to the closed notebook before shaking my head. “Oh, no. This isn’t—this is something else.” Shoving the book away in my bag, I turned back to him. “Sorry, I figured I should wait for you. Ready to figure out what this thing is and how to kill it?”

Doug paused then, squinting at me for a second. It looked like he was about to say something else, the suspicion on his face rather obvious. In the end, however, he just gave a faint nod and pulled out a chair across the table from me. “Yeah, let’s get it done before Harper and Virus be—I mean Harper and Russell beat us.”

Taking out the file that Hisao had given us, I set it on the table. “Okay, so here’s what we know. The deaths happened in a small town in Kansas. Barely six thousand people. So far, there’s been four deaths. Three were children, ages nine, seven, and four. The other was an adult woman. But she was pregnant and the… the attack focused on her stomach, killing the fetus. Which means it was still probably focused on the child, not the mother.”

Even as I was speaking, a queasy feeling rose in my stomach that I had to push down. Looking over at Douglas, I added, “The report says it looks like the attacks were done by wild animals. Except for the pregnant mother. They said… they said that one looks like she was stabbed in the stomach by something and then everything inside was…” I blanched, looking away.

“Sucked out,” Doug finished for me, sounding queasy as well. “Like punching a straw into a juice box and—oh fuck.”

It took both of us a few seconds to collect ourselves then. Gross, awful, evil. It was a good reminder that not all Alters were pleasant. There were plenty out there that did need to be stopped. But that would be easier if the Heretics would just work with the Alters who weren’t psychotic evil monsters.

“Hey,” Douglas broke into my drifting thoughts. “You okay with this?”

Shaking a little, I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s just figure out what this thing is. Okay, so some people reported a noise like a card in bicycle wheels, that uhh, tok tok tok tok sound.”

“Is it a monster masquerading as a little kid with a bike like that?” Doug asked. “Could be how they get close to these kids and the pregnant mother.”

I thought about it, flipping through the file before shaking my head. “I don’t think so. No one reported any strange kid or anything, and the people who said there was the card in the bike wheel sound said they looked and never saw anything.”

Sitting back in his seat, Doug slowly looked out over the rows of books all around us. “I guess we should start looking up things that eat human children, huh?”

Groaning, I picked myself up and tried not to be sick. “Yeah, remind me to tell Hisao just how much I love this assignment.”

So we looked. The two of us hunted through the shelves, taking one book after another with the oh-so pleasant prospect of looking up creatures that ate children. There were a frankly depressing number of options.

“Could it be a Lamia?” Doug asked at one point, looking up from the book he was looking through. “They’re supposed to have a snake body below the waist and they do eat children.”

Biting my lip, I asked, “But what about the sound? What could they do that would make that sound?”

He shrugged and looked through the book some more. “It says they can remove their own eyes and use them to spy on people. That’s… really fucked up.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before looking down at my own book again. “Hey, wait, hold on. Listen to this. It’s called an Aswang. They’re a shapeshifter. During the day, they look and act just like normal people. They’re so normal, in fact, that the Stranger-sense can’t pick them up while the sun is out. So during the day, they’re just normal people. They have friends, they interact with their neighbors, they even have jobs.

“But at night, they turn into monsters. They shapeshift into things like bats, dogs, even wild boars. And they eat children and unborn fetuses. They use a long proboscis like a mosquito to shove into the womb of the expectant mother and… and take what they want.”

“Sounds close to me,” Doug agreed. “But what about the sound?”

Picking up the book, I read from a particular part. “The Aswang often make a noise that has been described as ‘tik-tik-tik’, which is louder the further away the Aswang is, and quieter the closer it is. This is done to confuse the intended victims.”

“Tik-tik could be mistaken for tok-tok, I guess,” Douglas murmured, sitting back in his seat. “So if it is an Aswang, it’s probably still there, pretending to live a normal life during the day.”

Nodding slowly, I added, “But the Stranger-sense can’t identify it while the sun’s up. It’s like they’re literally two different beings. At night, the normal figure is replaced with the monster. So how do we identify the right one? Maybe it’s someone connected to the deaths?”

Doug, who had taken the book by that point, shook his head. “Nope, look.” He turned it around and pointed to another part. “The Aswang never hunt their own friends or neighbors. It also says that sometimes when they kill children, they make a magic facsimile that goes back home, appears to get sick, and dies. So we should look and see if there’s other child deaths that weren’t reported because it looked like they just got sick.”

“Right, right,” I agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “So we’ll look that up, and then… how do we figure out who the Aswang is?” Even as I finished talking, I snapped my fingers. “Wait, I know. The deaths just started happening, so we look up who recently moved to the city. There’s only six thousand people, there can’t be that many who recently moved there before the deaths started.”

Doug closed the book then, straightening up. “Okay, well, how do we look all that stuff up? It’s not gonna be in the library here.”

I was already standing, grabbing my bag. “We’ll have to ask Professor Hisao to let us go to the town and look up that stuff in their records.”

“Go… to the town?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure,” I confirmed, already walking out of the library. “You didn’t think we were gonna solve this whole thing by sitting in the library, did you?

“We totally have to go sit in a different library to solve it.”

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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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