Gordon Kuhn

Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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Reception 13-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A little while later, I stepped through a portal leading to the Starstation, accompanied by Avalon, Shiori, and Persephone (with Cerberus cheerfully bringing up the rear). Sariel was there waiting for us, along with Abigail, Professor Tangle, and my mother. The four adults appeared to have been deep in conversation when we showed up, but cut it off the moment we appeared. 

“Girls,” Abigail started, walking up with the others right behind her, “you made it back. We heard the visit to the… alien space pirate ship was fairly productive?” Even now, after just over a solid year of being involved with this stuff, she still sounded like she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. Which, to be fair, was a feeling I could totally understand. 

“You could say that,” I replied dryly, with a glance toward the others before gesturing at the white-haired woman and three-headed robot dog, who were both curiously watching this whole thing. “Abigail, this is Persephone and Cerberus. Persephone, this is my–” 

“Older sister!” she blurted excitedly, bounding forward with both hands outstretched as though to grab the other woman’s. At the last second, however, she stopped herself and very clearly clutched both hands to her stomach. “I’m sorry, it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m not supposed to grab people unless they say it’s okay. I forget that a lot, but not as much as I used to.” Straightening up to her full height, she very deliberately asked, “May I please shake your hand?” 

Abigail seemed a bit taken aback, which was a pretty normal reaction to Persephone. But after taking a moment to collect herself, she glanced briefly toward me while nodding slightly as though to say she understood. Then her eyes shifted back to Persephone as she extended a hand politely. “Of course, it’s nice to meet you, Persephone. Thank you so much for intervening to help my little sister, my daughter, and the others with that monster who attacked them.” 

With a little squeak of happiness, Persephone took Abigail’s hand in both of hers and eagerly pumped it up and down. Her smile was broad. “Of course, of course! I couldn’t let anything bad happen to my– I mean to Flick before I even got to know her! Because getting to know someone is very important whether it’s before something bad happens to them, or before you give them sweet and adoring nicknames. Which you aren’t supposed to call them until they say it’s okay.” She wasn’t quite ‘reading off the back of her hand’ obvious that time, but it was still clear that she was reciting what she had been told and didn’t fully understand it.

“Precisely,” Mom agreed, stepping closer before holding her hand out for all three of Cerberus’s heads to curiously sniff. “Everyone takes things at a normal pace and we all get to know each other. And whatever happens, happens. No one is obligated to do anything.” As she said that, Mom was looking directly at me, holding my gaze until I nodded with understanding. Finally, she turned her attention fully to Persephone. “Would you mind taking a walk with Sariel? She can show you where you’ll be staying. Everyone should settle down for now, and perhaps we can have you over for dinner tomorrow to meet Felicity’s father.” That last part was clearly added as a concession to show that she wasn’t actively trying to keep Persephone away from me. This whole situation was incredibly delicate and more than a little awkward. So far, the Revenant-Seosten had very cheerfully gone with the flow, and honestly seemed to be trying to accommodate us, as well as understand why we felt the way we did. It was obviously alien to her, which made me wonder how much of that was just the fact that she was what she was, and how much was the fact that she spent so much time alone. Even when Manakel had been nice to her, he still sent her away for extended periods.   

In any case, Persephone readily agreed before turning to me. Her voice was just as bright and cheerful as ever. “It has been very interesting to meet you, Flick! I’m glad I could help before, and I hope I can be helpful later too!” Her head was bobbing rapidly, eyes literally sparkling a bit with power. “I won’t say that I’m glad you killed my Mannikins, because I still really miss him. But I am glad that the person who inherited his gift was as pretty and nice as you.” 

Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? Opening and shutting my mouth as I fought to find words, I finally settled on, “Uh, well I’m glad you’re okay with uhh, with everything.” Yeah, wow, put that speech on a Hallmark card. Wincing, I rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “I mean, I’m glad you’re–I’m looking forward to getting to know you later.” God, what was with me being awkward about this whole thing? I mean, beyond the fact that it was super-awkward and confusing to begin with, of course. 

Thankfully, Persephone didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled and gave me a happy wave before skipping off to where Sariel was waiting. Both of them headed out the door together, leaving Avalon, Shiori, and me to give a full rundown of everything that had happened up on the ship to Abigail, Mom, and Professor Tangle. At first I wasn’t sure why the latter was there, but then I remembered that before she’d had that whole… situation the year before where she’d been in the hospital for so long, she had actually been the Explorer Track advisor for the first years. Explorers, as in the people who focused on going to other worlds and documenting everything about both them and the various new Alters they encountered. Yeah, I supposed her being involved in a conversation about a space pirate ship full of various strange and potentially brand new alien beings probably made sense. Especially once she started asking very specific questions about what and who we had seen up there. She wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I had the feeling she didn’t really need to. Between Abigail as a lawyer, Mom as sheriff, and Tangle as both a professor and someone who knew exactly what sort of questions to ask in this specific situation, the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so being quite thoroughly interrogated about every little detail of our time on the ship. Not that it was bad or anything, just… very thorough. 

Finally, we told them that Doug and Theia had gone with Dare and Apollo to check on something back at the Atherby camp, and Mom said they would talk to that group soon. Then she offered us a smile. “Thank you, girls. I know it’s not fun to stand there and answer a bunch of questions, but you took it like champs. Why don’t you head on in and get some dessert or something? Then rest, it’s been a long day, and I believe everyone is going back to school tomorrow?” 

Abigail gave a firm nod. “That’s right, we don’t want everyone falling behind in classes just because you all managed to squash a genocidal cockroach. Besides, I may still be very new to all of this, but I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of excuses for more days off as the year goes on.” 

“Trust me,” I muttered, “you’re not that much newer than at least Shiori and me. And you’re probably right. Actually, at this point, the year going on without any more sudden interruptions to our class schedules would be so shocking I might just keel over.” 

“Which,” Avalon pointedly added in a flat voice, “would necessitate a change in our school schedule.” 

“Yeah, see?” I gestured. “Can’t escape it. So you’re right, we should probably go to all the classes we can manage while it’s an option.” I didn’t add that it would be nice to go back to doing something as normal as attending school again, after everything that happened with, as Abigail had put it, that genocidal cockroach. But from the look on everyone’s face, I didn’t have to. They already knew. There was a brief moment of silence before Mom reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Go on,” she urged me. “Have some fun, get some rest, and be ready for school tomorrow. Plus, I think Tabbris and Columbus have something to show all of you.” 

That was right, Tabs had said they were working on something together. I’d forgotten, thanks to everything that happened on the ship. But now I was back to being profoundly curious about that whole thing. And hey, I could actually go find some answers now. 

That in mind, I gave my mother and sister both a hug. Then I hesitated before shrugging and giving one to Professor Tangle as well. Why not? After everything that happened last year, she could probably still use plenty of them. Hell, she was technically related to Avalon to some extent, but I don’t think the two of them ever really got into that. 

Once that was done, I followed Mom’s suggestion by heading out with my girls. Avalon, Shiori, and I made our way through the corridors before reaching the forcefield elevator leading down to the miniature town where the houses were. It was (simulated) night by that point, but plenty of people were still out walking around in groups or alone, and we ended up chatting here and there before finally making it to the house. Once there, I breathed in and let it out, smiling a bit to myself. 

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked, watching me curiously. 

My head bobbed. “Yup, I’m happy. This is two nights in a row I get to sleep in my own bed.” 

Nudging me a bit sharply with her elbow, Avalon retorted, “Let’s try to raise that to a much higher record than two, huh?” 

“That’s the plan,” I agreed while rubbing my side. “And now that I don’t have Fossor hanging over my head anymore, maybe it’ll actually happen. But hey, come on, I was promised a surprise from my little sister, and I aim to see what it is.” 

“Haven’t you had enough surprises already today?” Avalon demanded with a squint. 

“It’s okay,” Shiori quickly assured her, “this one won’t want to marry her. I mean, probably.” 

“You’re both incredibly mean,” I complained before heading toward the door. Before I got there, however, the sound of voices coming from the backyard made me adjust course to walk around the house. The other two followed, and we met a very excited Choo as he came charging around the corner, happily grunting and squeaking. Naturally, we stopped to greet the big pig, giving him rubs, pats, and scratches, much to his satisfaction as he snorted and tried to rub up against all of us at once. Shiori produced a half-full bag of popcorn from the theater and set it down for him. If he hadn’t already adored her, that definitely would have done the trick. He tore the entire bag apart getting to the popcorn, and ate the greasy remains of the bag itself too. 

Accompanied by one very happy Jekern, we continued around to the back of the house. As expected, Columbus and Tabbris were there. And they weren’t alone. Nevada was with them, along with Gordon, Jazz, and Eiji from next door. All of them seemed to be inspecting something that had been laid out on the table that we couldn’t see, and there was a spirited discussion going on about something that had to do with how ‘cool’ the something was. 

Before any of us could say anything, Nevada abruptly turned and gestured in my direction. “Well, why don’t we let the birthday girl herself decide how cool it is?”  

“Flick!” Tabbris jumped up from the table, half-falling over before catching herself. “You’re back!” Her surprise really showed just how intently she had been focused on whatever this project was, because she apparently hadn’t been paying attention to our connection. 

“Sorry,” I teased while nodding over my shoulder. “Should I go back? Maybe there’s another person waiting to fall out of the sky and declare us married. I could go for a guy this time.” 

That earned me a sharp jab in both sides from Avalon and Shiori. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz both stepped around the table to come more into view as they greeted us, with Eiji following suit. I didn’t know the huge Asian-Canadian boy that well, aside from the fact that he was the second-smartest person in our grade behind Vanessa. Well, that and he also had a rhino that transformed into a motorcycle (and a backpack), which automatically made him awesome. 

With a visible smirk, Jazz too-casually started to ask, “So Tabs was right? You went and got–” 

“I did not go and get hitched,” I immediately interrupted. “No one’s married. I mean, obviously a lot of people are married. Even around this station. But not me. I am absolutely and definitely not married to anyone.” After a brief pause, I amended, “Except possibly danger. I might be married to that. But that’s only because it’s hung around and been a part of my life for so long, it’s become kind of a common law sort of thing. Which is gonna make it really suck if I ever decide I can’t stand being around danger anymore, because then it’ll take half my stuff.” 

Everyone stared at me for a moment after that whole spiel, before Eiji leaned over a bit toward Gordon and quietly (but intentionally audibly) murmured, “I see what you mean.” 

Tabbris had already bounded over to where I was, catching my hand. “Is she cool, at least?” 

Feeling a slight flush across my face, I exhaled before nodding. “Yeah, she’s cool. It’ll be good to have her around. And she’s got this big robot dog with–” 

“Robot dog?” Now I had Columbus’s attention as he turned to face me, having been intently focused on doing something with whatever he was working on at the table. He had his goggles down, but I could feel his eyes staring at me intently. “You mean like a cyberform?”  

“Like a cyberform,” Shiori answered for me. “But not the same. Cerberus. You know, the Cerberus? He’s this big metal dog with three heads and he can fight ghosts and get even bigger. We didn’t get to see the big version yet, but she said it makes Amaroks look like his puppies!” From the sound of her voice, it was clear that the other girl could not wait to see something like that. She was incredibly excited about the prospect of Cerberus’s big form. 

Obviously, everyone had questions. Including Nevada. So, the three of us spent the next few minutes explaining what had happened. Not only with Persephone, but with the ship as well. They were all incredibly interested in that entire thing, especially when I brought up the anti-Whispers runes, and the fact that the person responsible for them was apparently an enhanced-intelligence troll who was looking for a ship connected to the original Tabbris. 

Yeah, that got a big reaction from my Tabbris. She wanted to know everything that had been said about that, absolutely everything. I repeated every word, and explained everything we had found out. Which was fair, considering he was her namesake. It just took awhile to get through, and I needed a bit of help from Shiori and Avalon. But eventually, the others were up-to-date. 

When we were finally done, Gordon was the first to speak, his voice as calm as ever. “Let’s hope they find this Occillo guy and he feels like answering questions.” After a brief hesitation, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “The Whispers are important to Douglas. Which means they’re important to the rest of us. I mean, his old team.”

“Damn straight,” Jazz agreed. “Doug gets real intense about those things whenever they come up. He doesn’t actually get into details about what happened out there, but it was pretty bad.”

Eiji had been sort-of standing in the background through all that. Okay, well, not really in the background. The dude was six and a half feet tall and built like a damn NFL linebacker. He may have been almost as academically inclined as Vanessa, but he looked like he belonged in the WWE or something. The point was, the guy was enormous and didn’t really ‘blend in’ very well. But he had been quiet throughout most of that, simply watching as we explained what had happened. Once in a great while, he asked a clarifying question. But it was clear that he had been brought up to date about most of this stuff at some point. Unsurprising, since he shared a house with Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Sands, Scout, Aylen, Jazz, Jokai, and Gordon (and that boy-made-of-slinkies named Ruckus whom I didn’t know anything about but probably wasn’t relevant to this).  Between all of them, Eiji had been given enough details to follow along with most of this conversation, only needing a few bits of clarification.

Now, he spoke up. “If these Whispers are actually more widespread than that single contained colony world, they’re important to everyone.” 

Nevada gave a quick nod. “Exactly, gold star or whatever, Eiji. Sounds like we need to find this Occillo guy for several reasons, including getting everything he knows about the Whispers so we can be ready to deal with them.” Pausing, she added with a beaming smile. “Well, that and who doesn’t wanna meet a brilliant, intelligence-enhanced cyborg Indiana Jones troll? That sounds fucking awesome to me, and whoever disagrees gets an F in any of my classes.” A quick cough and correction followed that. “I’m kidding, nobody gets an F. Don’t tell Abigail I said that, she scares me.” 

We talked just a little bit more about that situation, before Tabbris finally bounced up and down eagerly. “Okay, okay, we get the point! Come on, let’s show her the new stuff. It’s all ready, right?” 

Exchanging brief glances with one another at that, Nevada and Columbus paused before the former nodded. She was grinning even more than she had a moment earlier. “Oh yeah, they’re both ready. I mean, you could probably get away with tinkering with them a little more, but it’s good enough. We can always make improvements later.” 

“What’re you guys talking about?” I demanded, looking back and forth between them. “And–wait, you called me birthday girl earlier. It’s definitely not my birthday. And I didn’t exactly have a great one this year anyway.” 

“That’s why we wanted to give you late presents,” Columbus informed me. “To make up for that. First, here.” He reached back to the table, taking a black metal bracelet thing and handing it over. “It’s like the one that Broker guy gave you before, the one that got broken or lost or whatever when Fossor took you.” 

Taking the bracelet, I blinked before asking, “You mean…” 

“He means,” Tabbris quickly put in, “it’s connected to Jaq and Gus! You can use it to see through their eyes, teleport them back to you, or teleport yourself to them.” 

“But that last one is only if you’re within about a hundred feet,” Columbus noted. “Sorry, we couldn’t get it out any further. You can still see through their eyes up to about ten miles though.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t apologize. This is awesome. Amazing. Seriously, I missed this thing. Thought I’d have to track Broker down again to get a new one. I can’t believe you made one yourself.” 

“With some help,” Columbus reminded me, glancing toward Nevada. 

She, in turn, giggled. “Hey, not as much as you’d think considering how new you are to the whole thing. Pretty soon, you’ll be making this stuff by yourself.” 

“You can play with that later!” Tabbris informed me. “Now you’ve gotta see the big thing.” 

Raising an eyebrow as I attached the wristband in place, I asked, “This isn’t the big thing?” 

Prompted a lot of snickers and excited looks between everyone else beyond Avalon, Shiori, and me. Whatever this was about, they all thought it was really cool and couldn’t wait for us to see it. 

‘It’, as it turned out, was a pair of gloves. Dark blue and black gloves with a metallic sheen to them. Columbus passed the thing to Tabbris, who passed it to me, quickly insisting, “Put them on, put them on, put them on. Please?” 

Well, who was I to argue with her? Shrugging, I did so. Of course, the gloves fit me perfectly, like a second skin. “Well, I’m definitely styling now,” I announced while holding both hands up and wiggling my fingers. 

“Check the back of the right glove,” Columbus urged. 

I did so, blinking at the outline of a Great White shark that was emblazoned there. “Hey, it’s Princess Cuddles.” 

Quickly, Tabbris told me to run my thumb across it. So I did, and the emblem changed to that of a Mako shark facing one direction, while a second rub of my thumb switched it to a Mako shark facing the other direction. I had two Mako sharks, Brody and Quint. There were also emblems of the Lemon Shark Simpson, the Bull shark Sherman, and the gorgeous blue-and-white (I’d never been sure of his species) Jabberjaw. 

“Wow, pretty emblems,” I remarked. “But–” 

“It’s more than emblems,” Columbus informed me. “Check the left glove. Feel the little button against the side of your index finger? Push it with your thumb and hold it down.” 

It took a second, but I found the tiny little button he was talking about. There was a slight click when I pushed it. Nothing else happened, at least at first. But after about three seconds, I felt the emblem on my right glove grow warm. And then? Well, then Jabberjaw appeared floating in the air right beside me. I jumped, jerking that way and half-falling while most of the others snickered. 

I wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t an illusion. Jabberjaw was floating there. Not in empty air, but in a bubble of water that was just slightly bigger than he was. As he swam in a circle around me, the bubble went with him.

Tabbris immediately explained, “See, the gloves generate a bubble of water, and summon the shark that the image on the right one is set to. Now you can bring your sharks with you to places!” 

As soon as he realized I was there, the beautiful shark quickly swam (through the air) over to me to get rubs. Hesitantly, I glanced to the others before getting a confirming nod that it was okay. Then I reached out, my hand passing through the bubble without breaking it so I could rub his head. “Oh my God, you guys really… you really made these just so I could bring my sharks around with me? Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t teleport living things further than a hundred feet with this tech.” 

“Yeah,” Nevada confirmed. “That’s why you need this.” She picked up what looked like a regular little vial with a sealed lid on it, handing it over. “Your sharks are in there. Bigger on the inside and all that. Believe me, it’s big enough that they’ll be fine. Just make sure you check their food supply once a week or so and add more fish.”

I was holding a vial that could fit in my pocket, and it had all my sharks in it. Not only that, I could use my new gloves to bring any of them out and let them float around me in a bubble any time I wanted to. Staring between the vial and Jabberjaw (who was interestedly swimming through the air over to where Tabbris was), I opened and shut my mouth a few times. “Guys, this… you… this is amazing. Seriously. You didn’t have to–but you really–” I swallowed hard. “Thanks.” It was all I could manage. At least, until another thought occurred to me. “Oh my God!” 

“What?” Columbus quickly asked. “What’s wrong? Did–” 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I assured him. “I just thought of the best thing ever. Quick, give me a target.”

The others all looked at each other in confusion, but Nevada reached into her pocket and then tossed something. As she did so, it expanded into a full archery-like target before landing on the ground, rocking back and forth briefly. “That work?” 

“Yup!” I chirped. Then I waved to Jabberjaw. “See you soon, buddy!” With that, I pushed the button again and the bubble with him inside vanished as he was returned to the safety of the vial, which I had already set in my pocket. Then I stepped closer to the target, judging the distance before rearing back. In the process, I activated the glove once more. As the emblem grew warm, I cocked back my fist and then swung it a good three feet or so away from the target. In mid-swing, the bubble with Jabberjaw appeared once more, crashing through the target and breaking it into splinters. 

“Hah!” I blurted, a broad smile finding its way to my face. “Screw the falcon punch. 

“I can shark punch!” 

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Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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Learning Days Daze 2-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Abigail wanted us to have a well-rounded education. Which meant learning both Heretic and Bystander lessons. Wait, we had Alters in school now. So it really wasn’t ‘Heretic’ lessons. Supernatural lessons, maybe? Either way, she wanted us to learn both that stuff and the regular old lessons like Math, English, and so on. Just like back at Crossroads, though with fewer classes, since we were only going to them in the morning. To that end, they’d made up a system of having one day where we would have two mundane classes and one magical-type class, then the next day we’d have the opposite, two magical-type classes and one mundane class. 

Today, Tuesday, was a two mundane, one magical class day. Specifically, my schedule for the day consisted of Calculus first, then Trials of the Sea, and finally History of Africa. Though they were apparently going to teach us about both mundane and supernatural-type stuff in that last one, so maybe it counted as both. 

I had no idea what Trials of the Sea was, to be honest, but it sounded awesome. Although I was a little sad that we wouldn’t get to have Blackbeard as a guest speaker. The Committee members who were sympathetic or totally on our side still couldn’t act openly like that. The word that they had come to talk to us would somehow get out and then there would be hell to pay. 

The Committee were also still missing Elisabet. The last I’d heard, Jophiel had managed to work out through help from Sariel that her lover wasn’t on Earth and hadn’t been since the moment she disappeared. They knew she was alive, and not on Earth. That was about it. What had happened to her, where she went, what kind of condition she was in, all of that was blank. 

Jophiel wasn’t taking it too well. But, to her credit, she wasn’t letting that stop her from teaching us. Yeah, Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had some lessons with her over the summer. Even without Elisabet around for demonstration purposes, Jophiel still knew a hell of a lot about working together in a possessor-possessed partnership, and she taught us as much as possible. She’d set time out of her schedule looking for the woman she’d loved for hundreds of years, a woman who was now missing and could be anywhere in the universe, to teach us. She’d even worked as much as she could on teaching us that power-sharing spell, though it was slow-going. It was a very powerful spell, and it turned out we had to cast it ourselves. 

I had my issues with the way Jophiel did some things, but I had to respect that she was doing all this. The thought of focusing on… anything while Avalon or Shiori might have been missing like that was… impossible. Hell, I didn’t know how they had done anything back when I was missing. 

In any case, Jophiel taught us a lot. Even if every time we’d seen her, she looked more haggard, and not at all like… well, like I was accustomed to her looking. She was tired, emotionally wrecked, drained of almost everything she had. And still, she taught us for hours. She was patient, she didn’t yell or curse at us. At least, not outwardly. In short, she was a great teacher.

Which made the fact that we still had no idea where Elisabet was somehow even worse. 

Sighing as I shook that thought out of my head and walked the rest of the way through the connecting tube (filled with visions of the solar system from somewhere around Saturn) leading from the elevator room to the classrooms, I found myself stepping into what looked like any old high school on Earth. Seriously, there were lockers along the walls, kids getting stuff out of those lockers, a janitor mopping up some spilled milk or yogurt or something, and more. There was even a sign on the nearby wall above the lockers welcoming students to our new school. Hell, this looked more like an ordinary public high school hallway than Crossroads had. 

Well, except for the fact that some of those students were obviously not human. Nor was the janitor. He was an Orc of some kind, though one with four arms. Two of those arms were being used to hold the mop he was wiping up the milk with, while the other two steadied the bucket. 

Oh, and the sign welcoming all of us was some kind of projected magical hologram or something. As I watched it, the words changed from a generic welcome message to a room number and directions. It was telling me where to go for my first class. Along with a reminder note about which locker number was mine, and a countdown before school would start. It just knew all that and was able to change for each person looking at it. 

I had six minutes. Plenty of time to get to the lockers. Thanks to Abigail, I knew that Shiori, Avalon, and I all had them next to each other. There were benefits to being related to the principal.

Doug and Ruckus split off to find their own lockers, while Avalon, Aylen, and I went for ours. Aylen’s was directly across from Avalon’s, with a female Menmeran (the really muscular frog-like people) already standing at the next locker over from that one when we arrived. Aylen gave a little curtsy-bow and said something to the Menmeran girl. Apparently she was greeting her by name, calling her Pret. I only knew it was her name because Pret responded by saying Aylen’s name and doing the same kind of half-curtsy thing that Aylen had done a moment earlier.  

“She lives in the house on the other side of theirs,” Avalon informed me. “The one on the corner. We were talking for awhile last night.” 

Nodding thoughtfully, I asked, “Man, this school really is different, huh?” 

Avalon snorted once, glancing to me before replying, “Gaia would like it.” She swallowed very faintly then. 

“She will,” I corrected. “When we get her out and back here.” My hand found Avalon’s, squeezing briefly as she returned my smile silently, but clearly gratefully. Then we separated to get our stuff. 

Which was right when a pair of hands covered my eyes from behind, as a voice whispered, “Guess who.” 

“Uhhh…” Pretending to think about it, I offered, “The girl whose clothes and pocket contents my item-sense is almost as familiar with as my nose is familiar with the exact soap she uses?” 

Sulking just a little at that, Shiori took her hands off my eyes and pecked me on the cheek. “Powers make games like that too easy. I’m gonna take you by surprise someday, I swear.” 

With a smile, I turned and put both hands on either side of her face. “Shy,” I said quietly, “not being startled is not the same thing as not being surprised. And believe me, you surprise me every single day just by being the ridiculously amazing person you are.” With a little smile, I leaned in and kissed her gently, shivering as she gave a tiny whimper and clutched at me. 

Finally stepping back, I moved to the nearby locker while asking, “So is Choo back at the house?” As I spoke, my thumb pressed against the reader. It wasn’t just reading my fingerprint. Apparently it read some kind of magical signature or… something, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Either way, the scanner went from red to green after I held my thumb against it for a couple seconds, and the door clicked. I opened the locker, finding all the books I was going to need for the semester already stacked neatly in there, as they were for everyone. My finger moved along them until I found the one for Calculus, pulling it out before tucking the book under my arm. 

Shiori was nodding, finding her own locker to open it. “Uh huh, he’s in the back yard with Salten. I think he really likes it here.” With a little smile, she glanced toward me while adding, “He liked it at the camp too, with all the kids. I can’t believe how much he likes being around people.” She had her own calculus book out by then, shutting her locker with a quiet, “Maybe it’s because he had to hide for so long before, back at Crossroads. He got really lonely in his pocket world.” 

Reaching out to catch her hand, I assured the girl, “Well hey, he’s here now. And I think he and Salten are really getting along.” With that, I glanced over to Avalon, who had closed her own locker to join us. “Though we should probably put some stuff out in the yard for them to do.” 

The others agreed, and we walked toward class with Aylen. Sands and Sarah were just outside the room, talking to Eiji Ueda and Gordon. The big (huge, he was six and a half feet tall and built like a truck) Canadian-Asian boy looked over as we approached. “Oh hey, I ahh, hope you guys don’t mind. Rebecca said it’d be okay if Raphael chilled in your backyard with your buddies.” 

Raphael, of course, was Eiji’s cyberform rhino. As far as I could tell, he and Eiji were almost perfectly matched. Both were enormous, but also incredibly smart. Eiji read very nearly as much as Vanessa did, and was just about as likely to know the answer to any given question. And, as far as I knew, he was a totally normal Heretic-born student. Aside from the fact that he was from Canada, which apparently was some kind of big deal. There was a so-called ‘King of Canada’ there that Heretics stayed away from. Even the Committee left him alone, which… yeah, that confused, intrigued, and worried me all at the same time. I’d been promised that we’d learn about the King soon, and that was something I was definitely looking forward to. Just who and what was this King of Canada that he could make all of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden too afraid to challenge him? 

Avalon told the boy it was fine and that Raphael could visit any time. The more those guys were entertained, the better. Porthos, who was riding on her shoulder, make a sound of agreement before using her hair to swing over to the opposite shoulder, landing there while pointing to the classroom with a trumpeting sound. 

“You know this is math class, right?” Avalon dryly asked the cyberform gecko while heading in. “Not dueling class.” 

Shiori went in behind Avalon. But before I could follow as well, Sarah spoke up, taking my attention. “Brom says he’ll meet us in one of the magic testing labs up here tonight right after dinner for the next session. If you’ll be settled in enough by then.” 

Right, Sarah had actually been working with Brom too. Necromancy was a lot harder to learn without inheriting (or stealing) an actual power for it, but it was still possible. At least, learning the basic stuff was possible. Sarah had said that she wanted to learn as much as she could, because knowing how to do something was a big step toward knowing how to undo it. That and she had this whole thing about being prepared for every eventuality. 

It was that thought that made me glance toward her left arm. Even though it had been almost two months, the thought that it wasn’t a real arm at all, but a magitech solid hologram of one still made me do a double-take every now and then. It looked real. It felt real. I tended to forget the truth unless I was actively thinking about it, or whenever she shifted it to one of its other forms.

“Sure,” I finally replied, shrugging. “I’ve gotta ask him some questions anyway.” Questions about getting a certain ghost back so I could talk to her and get some actual help with my own increasingly pressing necromancer problem. It was clearly time to think outside the box with this whole thing. 

“Sorry, guys,” Sands informed us, “I still think the whole necromancy thing is creepy. I mean, I get it. Useful, gotta know it to fight it, don’t throw away any potential advantage. I just… yeesh.” 

“Does this mean Sarah doesn’t get to store her rodent practice corpses in your house?” I teased, watching Sands turn several different shades of green before snickering. 

“Outside,” she informed me (and Sarah, probably). “All necromancy stuff has to be done outside. And especially nowhere near the kitchen.” 

All three of us shuddered, collectively remembering the fact that Crossroads’ chef had, for some time last year, been a zombie manipulated by Fossor. That was… an unpleasant thought, to say the least. 

“Okay,” I started with a quick headshake. “Now that we’re all thinking about something we really don’t want to, how about we get into class? I hear Calculus is really fun.

“Of course, it was Vanessa who told me that, so…” 

******* 

“Welcome!” a voice called grandly, its deep baritone filling the air, “to the Trials of the Sea!”

The place for our second class wasn’t technically an actual ‘sea’, though only because it technically wasn’t connected to an ocean. Size-wise, it almost might as well have been. It was a lake located within the station itself. Only in this case, the lake was about the size of Lake Superior back in the US. In other words, it was three hundred and fifty miles long and about a hundred and fifty miles wide. 

It was a lake… on a space station… three hundred miles long. I just… I couldn’t even fathom the size of this place. I really couldn’t. Someone back in Calculus had brought up how much room the station was taking up in the sun and Eiji had reminded them that over a million Earths could fit in the sun. It would take one point three million Earths to fill up the entire sun. This station, even with a lake this size in it, only amounted to a drop in the bucket if that bucket was the size of Texas. 

The point was, there was a lot more to the station than just the areas we were generally staying in. We’d had to take a portal to get down here, and I was sure there were more parts of this place that other teachers would have us use at some point. That or we’d end up around them for one reason or another. 

We were also on a boat. A ship. Right, ship was the proper term. I knew that much. It was an old wooden sailing vessel floating along in the middle of that lake. The portal had deposited all of us out here. And by all of us, that was about thirty students. Not everyone had every class at the same time, of course. There were way too many students for that. Of the ones here with me, I had Shiori (Avalon was in a different class this time), Jazz, Jason, Tristan, Triss, Miranda, and Koren. 

The man who was talking stood just a hair over six feet in height. His frame was muscular in a lean sort of way. His black silk pants were loose, billowing slightly in the artificial breeze. He wore a white and gold silk shirt with some ruffles to it, and the exposed skin of his arms (the shirt was sleeveless) and chest (the top few buttons were undone) was heavily tanned over skin that was already a natural Middle Eastern dark. His black hair was long, falling just past his shoulders, and he had both a goatee and a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes were the only openly unusual part of him (aside from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous in every way), considering they were a deep, striking gold color. 

Koren had her hand up. When the man looked that way, she asked, “Err, why is it called that? Why are we on a boat? And who are you?” Ticking them off on her fingers, she paused before nodding definitively. “I guess that’ll work for the first three questions.” 

Giving her a smile that was a mixture of gold, silver, and ruby teeth, our instructor casually replied, “And a good first three they are, Miss Fellows. I’m not just saying that because your mother’s the principal either.” With a wink, he started, “As for why we’re on a boat, that’s because every class we have will take place here or right down in the water. Or under it. Be it in this station’s water, one of the Earth’s oceans, or even the seas of a whole new world, our classes this semester will always take place there. Not in a classroom. In my experience, you learn by doing. And we will be doing a lot.” 

With a broad (very metallic) smile, the man waved a hand. “And we’ll do it in style! While having fun. Because I promise you all, having lived as long as I have, if you’re not having fun, then why the hell even bother?” 

Turning, he grabbed the nearby rope and used it to haul himself up onto the nearby railing. The man stood there, staring out over the water with a heavy, contented sigh. “The oceans are a great mystery, boys and girls and everything in between. They are rough and harsh and gentle and loving. They are dark, they are open, they are cold and they burn with the fires of a thousand, thousand, thousand mysteries. Monsters and creatures beyond your wildest imaginations and your deepest nightmares lurk there, along with wonders you could never conceive. Entire civilizations lay beneath the waves of all the oceans of the Earth. Worlds of mystery and fascination, of monsters and fables are all out there. And we will find them. We will see them. We will seek them out, explore them, and learn all the secrets I can teach you. You stay with this class and I will take you beyond all of your dreams. We will find the monsters and our fortunes in the world far beyond the land. Beyond both in distance, and in mystery.” 

“You asked who I am, and that is your answer. For all the times I have put the ocean behind me, it has never lasted. Because its power and mystery will forever call to me. The danger and wonder of what lies beneath the next wave, or beyond the next island, is one that I can never truly ignore for long. It is everything I am. It is everything I will ever be. 

“I am Sinbad, and I am here to show such wondrous things.”

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Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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The secret Crossroads prison (or this one, anyway) turned out to be located in an old long-since abandoned mining town somewhere in southern Kentucky. Or, to be more precise… under said mining town. Despite the outward appearance of a few broken-down, cobweb-filled buildings, there was, apparently, an entire elaborate underground complex that had been constructed a mile and a half down. And every inch of that one-point-five miles was filled with various magic spells, traps, alarms, and other contingencies to keep the prisoners in and uninvited guests out. 

It was also a god damn hornet’s nest, because the very instant that the group of Atherby/Rebellion aligned Heretics and werewolves moved through the portal and appeared on a low hill just along the side of the ‘ghost town’, they were met with heavy response. Automated turrets appeared both from the ground and from the supposedly empty, broken-down buildings. Drones erupted into the sky and began to open fire as well, and several Crossroads portals opened up, releasing actual Heretics. A few of those had Cyberform partners to mix in with the drones and turrets. It was, in short, absolute and total chaos. 

Which, of course, was the plan. All this group had to do was keep the attention of the prison’s first line of defense. Guinevere and the others involved with the primary distraction would (hopefully) keep Crossroads from sending reinforcements immediately. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but a couple minutes was all they would need. Keeping the guards busy until the infiltration group could break down any anti-transportation powers that were in there and get out with Sean and the rest of the prisoners. That’s all they had to do. They didn’t have to win, just… survive. 

Unfortunately, that ‘surviving’ bit was going to end up being a bit easier said than done. In the mere twenty seconds that had passed since this attack began, it had already become a full-fledged warzone. Gunfire, laser blasts, balls of flame and ice, chunks of electrified sharp metal, bursts of intense gravity, and more were flung every which way. Entire sections of ground, some rather large, simply tore themselves up and went flying toward one enemy, only to be caught by another and returned. A blast of purple-tinted lightning, bright enough to blind one looking directly at it, crackled through the air before being converted into a chunk of frozen ice at a touch. A figure zoomed at super speed across the crater-filled dirt and grass, only to be struck from the side by a powerful wave of kinetic force, sending the figure sprawling. 

On one knee at the edge of a three-foot deep crater, Scout brought her rifle (Nothing) to her shoulder, peering through the scope. She cycled through several possible portals she had already set up in the midst of this chaos before settling on one that gave her a view of the sky. One of the drones flying overhead passed through, pausing briefly to reorient itself in order to open fire at someone else. But Scout took it out first, firing three quick shots through her series of portals that hit the drone repeatedly, sending it flying sideways before it exploded. 

Before she could adjust, she felt the sudden appearance of someone appearing through a portal or teleportation. Their hand caught her arm with a violent curse, and she felt it suddenly grow… hard. Her left arm had turned to stone, and it was already starting to spread up to her shoulder and down over her hand. She couldn’t move it, her rifle simply falling from her grasp. 

Then something hit her own attacker from behind. Scout fell hard onto her side, a shock of pain running through her as she twisted to see. Doug. The boy was about ten feet back, but he’d sent two metal coils from the palm of his hands to wrap around the person who had attacked Scout. 

She was a Heretic, of course, a short woman with fiery red hair and even more fiery eyes. As the metal coils yanked her away from Scout, she jerked her arms and both coils shattered under the force. This was no trainee, but a full Heretic. Strong enough to shatter coils that were made of what amounted to solid steel, and with the ability to turn someone’s arm to stone at a touch. 

Even as the woman spun toward Doug, Scout grabbed for the rifle with one hand. Before she could do anything with it, however, a pair of what looked like metal wings erupted from the Heretic woman’s back. One of the wings lashed out, smacking Nothing from Scout’s grasp and cutting her remaining arm pretty deeply in the process. The other wing moved just as quickly, pushing right up close to her face in a clear, sharp warning. 

“Stay down, girl,” the woman snapped testily, “before you get hurt. And you.” Her hand rose, extending toward Doug before she made a sharp gesture that brought the boy flying helplessly toward her before dumping him on the ground at her feet. “Both of you can cool off in–” 

Cool off was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because in that instant, the woman suddenly spun to the side while bringing her metal wings in front of herself as a shield. Her danger sense had warned her just in time, before a three-foot-wide fist made of ice collided with the wings in a blow that sent the woman stumbling back several feet. 

Gordon. The boy was covered in ice armor that made him much larger than he should have been. The burst of intense cold from the blow enveloped the woman as he sent as much of the power inherited from his father as he could into her. Instantly, the woman’s skin began to turn white-blue, her eyelids frosted over, and a rapidly thickening layer of ice rose around her. 

And then, in a burst of fire, it was gone. The Crossroads woman let out a loud, violent scream as she let loose with the ball of fire around herself, melting the ice and singing both Scout and Doug. Another ball of fire appeared between her hands, before hurling its way toward Gordon. 

“No!” With that cry, a much smaller ball of fire suddenly appeared. It intercepted the large one, absorbing it and preventing the fire from hitting the ice-encased boy. A second later, the ball of fire shifted, transforming into a small, unassuming-looking girl. Rebecca Jameson. One of her gifts allowed her to transform into an orb of either water, fire, earth, or air, and (among other things) absorb/collect any of the same element she directly contacted in that form. 

Seeing the girl appear where the fire had been, the Heretic woman summoned some kind of green goo in her hand before flinging it that way. Before Rebecca could move, the goo took her in the chest, expanding quickly to almost completely envelop her. She was yanked to the ground with a yelp, unable to stand.

Scout couldn’t use her rifle right then, unable to reach it from where she was lying (and unable to hold it properly with one arm turned to stone anyway). But she could still help. With a thought, she summoned her Tzentses-given power to conjure small items made of solid energy in order to create a dagger, flinging it at the woman’s shoulder from behind. Nearby, Doug had managed to click his pen to create a spear, which he hurled at her as well. 

Both weapons stopped an instant before they would have struck the woman. The spear from Doug hit some kind of forcefield, while Scout’s energy-dagger was caught by an opposing power. The woman growled, arms rising. With that, part of the ground rose up as well, coils of rock and dirt appearing all around the group. “That,” she announced, “is enou–” 

In mid-sentence, a glowing orb appeared at the woman’s feet, and she was instantly yanked down toward it. The orb was one of Jazz’s gravity-manipulation balls, as the girl herself dropped her invisibility (she’d been moving very slowly to get close enough without being seen), one hand outstretched to keep the orb up while her other hand pointed that way, mouth opening to shout, “Now!” 

With that, the Heretic woman, held against the ground by the orb, was set upon by an army of… rats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other small rodents. Dozens of the creatures, all that Jazz had managed to recruit around the camp using her power to vocally control any non-intelligent animal that met her gaze, and stored in a specially prepared extradimensional bag for just such an occasion. 

The army of rodents swarmed the woman with a loud series of chitters and squeaks. A dozen were instantly blasted away by a single laser from her hand, and several more were vaporized when the woman sent a second laser from her eyes. Their teeth could not even penetrate her skin. They were a nuisance at worst, not a threat. The gravity orb as well became an afterthought as the woman used a power of her own to negate it, pushing herself up. 

But both the rodents and the gravity orb were a distraction. A very effective one, as the woman couldn’t even pay attention to her danger sense anymore considering there were rats attacking her from all sides. She barely saw Gordon’s ice fist rearing back in time to fling one of those metal wings in front of herself, still taking a good blow from it that sent her tumbling. 

The woman ended up on both knees, skidding to a stop after the blow from Gordon. Her eyes snapped up as her power warned her of yet another threat, only to see Rebecca, apparently freed from the goop from before, there with her own weapon deployed. Her backpack, in full enormous cannon-mode, was pointed directly at the Crossroads Heretic, and already in the midst of firing. Once more, the woman was barely able to cross those metal wings in front of herself while summoning a powerful forcefield. 

The cannon blew through the shield and the wings, and even with that much of the shot dissipated, she was still flung a good twenty feet as a long, two foot deep ditch was torn through the ground along the path of the shot right up to the wall of the building she eventually crashed into. Her metal wings were left mangled and partially broken, bits and pieces missing. 

Bloodied and bruised, the woman rolled over, hand flinging out to conjure an eight foot tall, three-foot wide metal wall from the ground, which she sent toward Rebecca. It rushed that way, cutting through the ground it had popped out of as it moved fast as a car (and would probably hit just as hard). Powerful as the girl’s cannon was, it would take another second to recharge even to its least powerful state. The wall would hit her long before then. 

Or it would have. But Gordon was there, his huge ice form intercepting the flying metal wall. At the same time, he flung his hand forward, opening it to reveal Jazz and Doug. Both were sent flying toward the Heretic woman, crashing into her. Doug’s metal coils were back, wrapping their way around her while Jazz simply grabbed onto her arm, gripping tightly with her own enhanced strength. Both held on for dear life as the woman jerked first one way, then the other. 

“When will you kids learn?” the Crossroads loyalist snarled. “You can’t hold me.” With a grunt and a yank of her arm, she broke the coils once more before slamming Jazz and Doug hard into one another, then flung them to the ground in front of her with a curse. 

Her hand rose, but before she could do anything else, a shot ricocheted off of her forehead. It staggered the woman, making her head jerk toward an empty spot in the air just as a second shot from Scout’s rifle came through the portal there, rebounding from her cheek and snapping her head to the side with a sharp curse. 

Scout was laying on her side, using her one good hand to fire the rifle through the portal. She sent more shots that way, but they were caught by one power or another as the woman held a hand up, ready that time. Scout sent another handful of shots through more portals that she had erected around the woman, but none of those hit either. The Crossroads Heretic was ready for each of them, her warning sense giving her time to intercept each shot. 

What she was not ready for, was another shot from Rebecca’s cannon. By that point, it had recovered enough to fire again. As the woman’s danger sense flared up, she spun that way, hand up to intercept another shot from Scout. What she saw instead, was Rebecca’s glowing cannon in mid-firing sequence. 

She tried to dodge, of course. But Doug sent the remains of his metal coils up, smacking the woman in the back as hard as he could. At the same time, Jazz summoned another gravity orb directly in front of the woman. Between both, she was flung toward the orb and directly into the path of the cannon blast. With a scream of power, the blast struck her full on, and she was once more hurtled into the wall of the building. Reinforced as it secretly was, her impact still left a solid dent in the wall, and she fell limply to the ground in a heap. 

Before she could recover, Jazz was there, all-but flinging herself at the woman. She held a rock in one hand, quickly blurting the command word before shoving it against their dazed-maybe-unconscious opponent. The rock glowed brightly before disappearing. A second later, the woman did the same. 

Wyatt had made these rocks. They were all carrying a couple of them. According to him, the spells on the rocks would render the targets unconscious for a number of hours while also teleporting them to some random (relatively safe) location. The woman would wake up eventually, long after the fight was over. The only downside of the spell was that it wouldn’t work against a fully conscious and combative opponent. They’d had to knock her unconscious (or at least close to it) before using them. 

With that finally done, the small group gathered to collect themselves for a brief second. The battle continued to rage around them, but Gordon raised several ice walls around them, and everyone turned their attention to Scout, who stood there with one arm turned to stone. 

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

Scout hesitated before nodding. She hoped so. She really hoped that this rock thing was temporary or fixable. Having to regrow an arm would be hard even for regeneration. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it or be shocked into inaction. They still had a lot to do, even if they’d managed to dispatch one of the adult Heretic responders. One. It had taken five of them to even knock one adult Heretic out of the fight. 

At least there were a lot more here, many far more powerful than Scout and the others. And the group inside… well, hopefully things were going okay there. 

Because she wasn’t sure how long they were going to be able to keep this up. 

********

He knew it was coming. This was the day. Apollo had brought the spell in, and helped him place the very discrete beacon inside a book he was idly scrawling in. It was there. This was the time. They were coming. 

The problem, for Sean, was in not looking like he was waiting or anticipating anything. Because his jailers would definitely notice anything that was off. He had to go through the day like it was any other. Which was part of why he and Apollo had decided it would be better if he didn’t know the exact time they were coming. It could be morning or evening, or anything in between. He just had to play it cool. 

Well, as cool as he could. For the moment, that meant eating his breakfast of quiche Lorraine and skillet-fried potatoes while watching Jurassic Park yet again. He’d taken to watching movies by the year. This week he was up to 1993. 

Speaking in time with Ian Malcolm, he intoned, “That is one big pile of–” 

“–shit,” his mouth finished, as he briefly froze at the realization that there were suddenly a lot more minds inside his head than there had been a second earlier. Luckily, Apollo had quickly taken over to speak for him so any guards paying attention wouldn’t notice the stumble. 

Then there were voices. So many of them he couldn’t keep track, couldn’t hear them all. People talking. It almost made him drop his fork, but Apollo took care of that too, while telling everyone else to stop. 

Voices. People. People besides Apollo. Sean had… well, he’d talked to a few others. Flick had visited him before by possessing Apollo so she could hitch a ride here, just as the group had just done. Vanessa and Tristan both had also done the same a couple of times. But this… the whole group being here, this was new. This was different. 

This was final. His last few minutes in this prison… one way or another. 

The movie continued, as Sean reeled inwardly, trying to collect himself. Apollo kept his face impassive, his body still, even taking the time to have a bite of his breakfast. Outwardly, everything was completely normal. 

You okay, kid? The Seosten man’s voice was gentle, clearly understanding even as he repeated, No one else talk. Not yet. This is a lot. 

I’m… I’m okay, Sean finally managed. He could still feel a lot of their… impulses, their reactions. He could sense their minds. This whole Russian nesting doll thing was pretty shaky to begin with. Who knew how long it would hold up. Let’s do this. 

Apollo took over once more, rising to his feet. His eyes glanced toward the mirror on the wall, and Sean felt the reactions of everyone inside him. 

He wasn’t a boy any longer. For Sean Gerardo, eight years had passed. Eight years. He had come in here a boy of eighteen. He was now twenty-six. 

It was time to leave this prison. Because if he didn’t…

He would be leaving this prison. 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabbris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Summer Epilogue 21 – Avalon and the Victors (Summer Epilogue End)

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A/N – This is the second chapter posted today. If you have not read the previous one, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above to check that one out first. 

Through the light, yet steady drizzle of rain, a red, nondescript SUV pulled into the parking lot of an old motel several blocks from the beach in Panama City, Florida. The vehicle rolled to a stop just inside the driveway, as a tall man in a raincoat emerged from under the nearby stairwell. He crossed to the driver’s side as the window came down. Several words were exchanged back and forth before the man pointed to a spot. It was the only empty parking space on that side of the motel, sandwiched between two heavy-duty vans with delivery service decals. 

The driver’s side window went up once more, and the SUV pulled up to that spot. There was a brief moment of silence as the engine shut off, save for the patter of rain against the vehicles and the roof of the motel. Then the doors all opened at once. Four pairs of feet hit the ground almost as one, as Avalon Sinclaire and Flick Chambers stepped from the back, and Seller and Abigail Fellows emerged from the front. Wyatt Rendell, Miranda Wallbern and Gordon Kuhn emerged from the back a moment later to join the others, and all moved to the rear of the SUV. 

The seven came out to stand directly in the rain, but no rain actually seemed to hit them. Avalon gave a glance toward the water-repellent enchantment badge clipped to her jacket. Wyatt had passed them out to each of them just before they got out of the vehicle. It made the rain divert about an inch around them as they stood watching the big man from before approach.

His name was Croc, one of the Unset. Avalon had seen him around before she was forced to leave Garden a year earlier, though she hadn’t really spoken to him, of course. Flick had had more interaction with the man in her own short visit there than Avalon ever had. 

“Glad you could make it,” the large Native American man rumbled as he stopped in front of them. He hadn’t bothered with any kind of spell to keep the rain off, simply allowing it to run off his short-cut black hair and enormous arms. “Hope the runaround wasn’t too much.” 

Realizing after a second that the others were waiting for her to respond, Avalon cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sudden lump that had formed in it. Being here now, coming to see the leaders of the organization that she had loved so much before they had all turned their backs on her when she needed them the most, it brought up… feelings. Feelings that were best left bashed over the head with a shovel and buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Five false destinations in two different cities,” she managed after another second of collecting herself. “Not too bad. Wyatt thinks you should’ve gone with at least eight and three to be safe.” 

Wyatt himself gave a short nod. “And one of the spots before this should have seemed to be the right one. You could have had us get out of the vehicle, even go as far as meeting body doubles or illusions just to weed out any possible pursuit or deception.” Though his words were the same as he’d normally say, Avalon noticed the man actually seemed a little more… flushed than normal. He wasn’t really looking directly at Croc, but more toward the man’s abs. 

With a wink, Croc replied, “What makes you think that’s not what this is?” His tone was a bit teasing, making Wyatt flush before he looked back to Avalon. “Ah, do you mind if I ask, is it Avalon you prefer, or Miss Sinclaire? Or ahh, your old name? I’m not quite sure what you–” 

“Avalon,” she quickly put in after giving Flick a brief glance. The blonde girl had smiled reassuringly but silently at her, making Avalon’s own heart flip over before she forced herself to focus on the man in front of her. “Avalon’s fine. That’s my name.” She didn’t mind Hannah, honestly. Hannah Aken was also who she was, as she had so defiantly informed her father in his last few moments alive. That was a part of her that she wouldn’t let others take away. But to keep things relatively simple, Avalon would be fine. Besides, it was as close to a Garden name as she had ever received, and she wanted the Victors to use it. 

Also, it was the name Gaia had given her, and she was damn sure going to hold onto that now.

“Avalon it is, then,” Croc agreed. “And Flick, how’re you doing?” He nodded to the other girl before looking over to the one next to her. “It’s Miranda, isn’t it?” Receiving a nod, the man’s attention moved to the woman at the back. “Abigail,” he greeted her easily, getting a small smile in return.

Finally, the man looked to the remaining member of their entourage. “Sorry, you I don’t know.”  

“This is Gordon,” Avalon informed him, gesturing to the boy. “He’s here to ask the Victors something too. You know, while they’re feeling talkative.” She said the last bit with just a hint of the vast reservoir of resentment and anger that she felt toward that group. It was enough to make Croc raise an eyebrow, his gaze seeming to give her another thorough once over. 

Abigail spoke up then. “We’re all here to see what the Victors have to say. Some of us have questions. Others simply want to judge just how honest and forthright your leaders are ready to be.” Her voice was far more diplomatic than Avalon’s, though hers too had a bit of an edge to it.

Giving a slight nod, Croc turned to walk. “I’ll take you to them. They’re waiting in the dining room around the side.” With that, he led the seven through the rain. On the way, they saw a dozen more people standing around. There were two near a bus stop, a couple walking past with a dog, several more across the street seemingly arguing over a map, and more. Though they appeared to be civilians, Avalon knew better. They were Heretics, Eden’s Garden people who were watching for any kind of attack from their own former friends. Where the rest of what had to be hundreds of people were, she wasn’t certain. Probably still spread out up and down the Florida coastline to avoid drawing attention. And these, the ones they could see, were probably only the tip of the iceberg in the area. The Victors would be heavily protected. 

While she was considering all of that, Croc led them to a door with an unlit open sign. “They’ve cleaned the place out so you can have some privacy, but there’s food waiting.” With a small smile, the big guy opened the door while looking to them with a quietly murmured, “Turns out they really like having a chance to eat at actual Bystander restaurants.” 

Letting out the breath that she hadn’t even noticed she was actually holding, Avalon moved through the doorway first. The restaurant behind was fairly dimly lit, though whether that was for ambiance or just to save a few bucks, she couldn’t say. Behind her, the others came through, and Avalon walked toward the only real source of somewhat brighter light in the room, a series of long tables where seven figures sat, clearly waiting for them to approach. 

It wasn’t Avalon’s first time seeing them, but most of those instances had been either from a distance or very briefly. She’d never been important enough for the Victors to pay attention to until… well, until they had believed Trice and his cronies over her and refused to listen to her explanation. That flash of resentment boiled up once more before she pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time for dwelling on that. Not when there were much more important things. 

Instead, she focused on examining the group while Croc moved around to speak to them in a hushed (clearly kept private through powers or magic) voice. Her gaze moved over the group. In the middle of the table sat the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleo Selene. Their somewhat darker olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes made their relationship to Egypt and their more famous mother even more clear than the name of their tribe. The Dust Striders had gone through several names in the past, but they always in some way related to ancient Egypt or the desert. They were also, to Avalon’s recollection, one of the only tribes whose leadership had not changed the entire time that Garden had been a thing. Most of the others had at least varied it up somewhat over time, but the twin children of Cleopatra had kept a firm command over their tribe since its first inception. 

To the right of Alexander Helios sat the old cowboy, Jack Childs. To his right was his partner, the dark haired, wide-faced man called Lamorak. Both leaders of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe were watching Avalon with expressions she couldn’t read. The two men watched her like that for a moment, before Lamorak leaned over to whisper something in his partner’s ear. They too were obviously using something to prevent anyone from overhearing, because Avalon couldn’t make out any of it. 

The woman who sat next to Jack, at that end of the table, had long red hair, with a single bit at the front that was jet black, which matched the faint black flecks in her otherwise gray eyes. She looked young and beautiful, though Avalon knew she had been alive at least since before the black plague. Her name was Aniyah Keita, and she was one of the leaders of the Reaper tribe. The other Victor, the old Native American called Quevias Quarter, had apparently stayed with the loyalists. Their tribe had been split between their leadership. 

Finally, to the left of Cleo Selene, sat the also young-looking Asian woman known as Fu Hao, and her partner in leading the Vigilant Sons tribe, the small man with dark blue hair (dyed from its natural blond) known as Carseus Elsen. It was to those two that Avalon looked and focused on the most. They were the leaders of the Vigilant Sons, the tribe that she was supposed to belong to. The tribe who should have backed her up against threats both outside of Garden… and within. It was they who she felt the most resentment toward, despite herself. 

They were both staring right back at her, and she felt their gazes sizing her up, likely in more ways than she could possibly comprehend. For a moment, as Croc spoke in magically protected privacy, there was silence from Avalon’s perspective. Through that, she stood still, her gaze locked on the Victors of her old tribe. She would not be the first to look away. Not now. 

Finally, Fu Hao stood. The ancient-yet-young-looking Asian woman silently stepped around the table. All eyes moved to her as she moved smoothly and gracefully to where Avalon stood, stopping in front of her. 

“I am told that you prefer the name of Avalon Sinclaire now, after she who has stood by you.” The voice was loud, filling the room to ensure that all heard it, yet also somehow soft. There was incredible power and strength there, along with a soft reassurance that came from a hundred lifetimes of raising and caring for children, grandchildren, and all who came beyond. It was gentle now, but with a clear sharpness lying just behind that cotton coating. 

“Yes, Victor,” Avalon managed past the lump that had formed in her throat. How she had longed for this voice to reassure her before, the days and nights she had spent wishing that Fu Hao would speak up on her behalf when it had really mattered. She fought to keep her own voice, and her gaze, as steady as possible. She would not show any reaction. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing how they could still affect her. Not that it mattered, given how easily they could read her emotions using any number of their powers. But still, how much she willingly showed was her choice. 

“Avalon Sinclaire,” Fu Hao started then, the sound of her voice dropping to a far more personal level. “We… I… am sorry. I failed you. I failed to stand by one who belonged to my tribe. Not through any fault of yours, but because I did not see one person as being worth antagonizing the leadership of the Lost Scar tribe. Whether you were guilty or not… I did not put the time, effort, or resources into determining that I should have. And I certainly did not give you the aid to gain a fair trial that you deserved. That is my failure, and it was one made not from a lack of capability or by any mistake. It was a deliberate choice, one that I should not have made. I put maintaining relations with Victors Bennett and Dalal over you, because you did not matter to me. You were simply one more recruit. I was wrong. Not because of who your ancestor happens to be, but because if we do not stand up for our own, we have no reason to exist.

“I cannot promise to never make such wrong actions again, but I will, to the best of my ability, remember this. I can offer you nothing better than my deepest, most sincere apologies. I am sorry. I was wrong. I will not insult you by assuming you would desire a return to membership within the tribe, though if that were to be something you would like, it would be yours in a heartbeat. I believe, however, that you have moved on. So I offer you instead a promise that anything you need, should it be within my power to provide, I will do so. 

“You have my apology, my promise to remember this moving forward when it comes to others, and my oath to you that I will provide whatever is within my capability to provide. I was wrong to treat you the way that I did. I was wrong not to care, to see you as a simple number. I do not ask your forgiveness, not now. But I will strive, in the future, to be the sort of person who you deserved to have when you needed her, for others who come after.”  

That… was a lot to digest. As Avalon stood there in silence born more of surprise and uncertainty than the stoicism she had originally been going for, Fu Hao was joined by Carseus Elsen. The short man with his heavily muscled arms stepped around to stand by his partner, also watching Avalon. “She’s right,” he agreed. “We treated you like shit because you didn’t matter, because we didn’t see one person as worth risking conflict with the Lost Scar tribe. She’s also right that we can’t make up for that, and that the timing here, you being spoken to now because of who your ancestor is, that’s just… worse. It doesn’t help anything. So… yeah. I’m sorry too. Not that I expect it to change anything, but I am. Truly and genuinely, I’m sorry. We should have been your tribe leaders, we should have been your tribe, your family. We should have had your back and at least made sure you were given a fair shake. We didn’t. No if’s, and’s or but’s. We failed. I… I’m glad you found someone who you could count on. And I hope she ends up alright at the end of this.” 

“You want to make up for what you did by not being there when I needed you?” Avalon finally managed. “Then promise to help the person who was there for me. Gaia. She took care of me when you didn’t, when you wouldn’t. You want to make up for it? Promise you’ll help free her when we get the chance. They’re going to have more security and protection on her than on anything else. We’ll need really big guns, big guns they might not be expecting, to save her. Be those guns. Help us figure out where she is, and help us get her out when we do. That’s what you can do. That’s how you can make up for it.” 

The two exchanged brief glances and silent communication before Fu Hao bowed slightly to Avalon. “You have our word. Our power and resources will be put to freeing Gaia Sinclaire and returning her to you.” 

That done, the two returned to their seats, and Cleo Selene spoke. “Avalon Sinclaire–Avalon. We’re told that you have something quite important that you would like to tell us. Something that will change quite a bit of how we see this entire conflict.” Her eyebrows were raised, as she sat back in her seat and watched the girl. 

For a moment, Avalon was silent. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing both Seller and Flick standing together. They gave her encouraging nods, and she swallowed before turning back to the assembled seven. 

“Yes. Yes, I do. But first, talk to him.” She gestured to Gordon, watching the group’s eyes move to the boy. “He’s got a question for you. Maybe you can answer.” 

With everyone’s attention centered on him, Gordon hesitated before taking a small step forward. His voice was mostly flat, with a very slight tremble of emotion. “Where is my father?” 

That made the group of Victors exchange glances, Jack Childs slowly speaking up. “I’m sorry, we weren’t aware that the father of a Crossroads student was one of our–” 

“Slaves,” Gordon interrupted before the man could finish referring to him as one of their Heretics. “My father is one of your slaves.” 

Cleo Selene stood from her seat, her gaze laser-focused on the boy in front of the tables. “Are you saying that–” 

“I’m a Hybrid,” Gordon interrupted. “Yeah. My dad is a Hrimthur named Sindri Koraug.” More quietly, he added, “If you know their names. If not, I can–”

“He’s not here.” The answer came from Aniya, as she tapped the table a couple times thoughtfully. “I know the Hrimthur you’re speaking of. Now that I think about it, I can see him in you.” 

Gordon’s eyes focused on the woman, as he swallowed hard. “You–you know him? He’s your–”

Her head shook. “Not mine. He was never part of the Reapers. He’s one of the Lost Scar’s… slaves. But I have seen him. We needed a group of cold-acclimated workers for the world known as T9T2 a year or so ago, and he was there. As far as I know, he’s still part of their workforce.” 

“How is it,”  Alexander Helios began, “that Crossroads has come to have Hybrid students? And how long has–”

“I’m quite certain those questions can wait,” Fu Hao murmured pointedly before looking to Gordon. “We will seek information about your father’s current whereabouts and condition. Anything we find out will be passed to you.” She waited for him to nod before returning her attention to Avalon. “Is that acceptable enough for you to deliver this important news?” 

Avalon hesitated, then inclined her head. “Yeah. And.. yes, I do have news. News that a lot of you and your people probably aren’t going to like. I want to tell you about people known as the Seosten. The people who caused all this. I want to tell you about the people who created this entire situation, who made the Bystander Effect, who use us as their meat puppets in their war against the Fomorians. I want to tell you about them, and… and about my ancestor. I want to tell you the truth about the man you see as a savior, the truth about Hieronymus Bosch and how he was used as much as anyone else.”

“Now hold on just a second,” Jack Childs interrupted. “Just what exactly are you going on about? What’s all this about Sausten?” 

“Seosten,” Avalon corrected. “Say-oh-stun. They’re the alien empire that rules half the universe, created the Bystander Effect so they could make us kill everything not-human we could find in order to make us strong so we’d be good soldiers for them to possess and take against the Fomorians, who control the other half of the universe.” 

“Yeah,” Flick finally put in, “the race of Imperialistic bodysnatchers who manipulate our entire society from behind the scenes and manipulate us into murder-machines are technically the de facto good guys in this situation. I mean, in comparison to the ones who just want to genocide the entire universe.” 

Alexander Helios looked from Flick to Avalon and back again. His mouth opened, but his sister leaned forward to whisper something in his ear, and he remained silent. 

When it was clear that neither he, nor any of the others, were going to say anything, Avalon pushed on. “It’s a lot, I know. The Seosten have been setting up Crossroads from the beginning. They have the ability to possess people, to control them completely, change their memories, all of it. We already know that there is at least one possessing one of the Eden’s Garden Victors. We don’t think it’s one of you, but…” This was going to be even harder. “… but we had to be sure.” 

“Excuse me?” Fu Hao started with a frown. 

Instead of responding, Avalon looked toward Croc. The man gave her a nod, tossing something her way while speaking up. “They’re all clear.” 

Catching it, Avalon showed them the choker in her hand. “This… used to be the ring of Anuk-Ite. It’s one of the only things that can identify when someone is possessed by a Seosten. Croc just checked each of you in the past few minutes while we were talking. You’re clear. Which means the Victor being possessed is one of the loyalists.” 

For a moment, the Victors all turned narrow eyes toward Croc, examining him carefully as they worked through whether they were offended by the duplicity or not. In the end, they chose to let it go, turning back to Avalon as she continued. “So you’re clear. Which means we can move on. And… and for the record, I know none of this is going to be easy for you to hear. No one likes to be told about how they’ve been manipulated at all, let alone for so long. But you need to hear it right now. Because most of all, I want to tell you about how we’re going to change things. About how we have one year to fix this whole situation. We have one year to pull ourselves together.” 

With a frown, Jack Childs spoke up. “Okay, wait. What are you talking about now? First you’re going on about these body snatchers and now you’re trying to–no. No, I think we need to go back to the start. Because with all due respect, this sounds like paranoia born of–”

“Quiet, Jack.”  The words came from Aniyah, the lone Reaper Victor, as she kept a hand on the arm of Lamorak. “The girl’s right about the Seosten.” 

“Yes,” Lamorak himself agreed, rising to his feet. “She is. Aniyah and I have been keeping stuff from all of you until it was time. Now it’s time.” He looked to Avalon, his eternally-surprised expression at odds with the knowing look in his eyes. “I guess if I was waiting for a sign to start talking about Camelot and who our true enemy was, having someone named Avalon show up is a pretty big kick in the pants.” 

“Lamorak?” Alexander Helios started slowly. “You have something to say?” 

“Yeah,” he confirmed, glancing to Avalon once again. “From the sound of it, we have a whole lot to talk about to get everyone caught up and on the same page. 

“So maybe we should go ahead and fill our plates before we get too far into it. Because this is gonna be a long night.”

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Summer Epilogue 13 (Heretical Edge)

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At four-thirty in the morning, the rural bus station in southern Ohio wasn’t exactly hopping. A few figures dotted the seats around the waiting area, most of them curled up asleep with coats and bags acting as blankets and pillows respectively. One grizzled old man in an army jacket sat at a metal table eating a sandwich from the nearby vending machine.

Sitting at a table on the opposite side of the room was a group of what appeared to be ordinary teenagers, four girls and one boy, on a trip. Given the bags and jackets they wore advertising a certain university a couple hundred miles away, they seemed to be just-graduated high schoolers out for a tour of the campus.

Which was exactly what they were supposed to look like. They had even bought tickets for a later bus heading that way, and spoke in front of the clerk about how much fun it was going to be.

At the moment, the five of them were quietly playing poker. To any outside observer, their conversation would appear to be centered around their upcoming university tour. But that was an illusion maintained by the magic coin lying on the table in front of the single male. Their true conversation was much different.

“Lobby’s still clear,” Gordon Kuhn announced, his finger idly brushing the coin in front of him as his eyes scanned the room. “We checked everyone here. As far as we can tell, they’re all ordinary Bystanders.”

“Good,” Risa Kohaku replied through the communication badges they all wore. “Keep your eyes open. With any luck this will be a simple pick-up. We’ve got no reason to think Crossroads or Garden know anything about it, but there is no reason to get sloppy.”

Across from Gordon, the smallest member of their group raised a hand, clearing her throat. “Can I just say,” Rebecca Jameson started, “talking about Crossroads like they’re the enemy is still really weird.” Quickly, she amended, “I mean, I know they are. It’s just…”

Sitting next to her, Jazz Rhodes nodded. “It’s weird. Yeah, don’t worry, we get it.” She sighed then, rubbing her hand over her hair, which had recently been shortened down to only a couple inches long, and dyed a bright neon green. She wore sunglasses with matching coloration to her hair. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

The final two girls, identical twins Sands and Scout, glanced to one another before nodding. The former spoke up. “Yeah, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. We’ve had a lot longer to deal with it. Considering you only found out about this stuff like… under a month ago, you’re doing really good.”

“Well,” Scout corrected her sister idly before looking to Rebecca with a small smile. “And it’ll be a month tomorrow.”

The small girl grimaced a little at that. “A month,” she echoed. “All that stuff at Crossroads happened a month ago, and we still don’t know where my parents are.” After a brief pause, she added in a softer voice, “Or what side they’re on.”

Wincing, Sands assured her, “We’ll find them, I promise. Things are really confusing right now. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what side the rest of their family is on.” Biting her lip, she then offered, “At least your grandmother should be with this group, right?”

Making herself smile despite the worry that she felt, Rebecca gave a quick nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “hopefully. As long as they haven’t gotten separated. Last I heard, Grandma’s group had to go through some place that was full of Garden patrols. I… I just hope she made it. I hope they all made it.”

Jazz put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “She’ll be here. Just don’t let this whole reunion thing make you forget that you promised you’d come to mine next month.” Despite her light, teasing words, it was clear that there was a deep underlying tension and nervousness there.

Rebecca started to say something hopefully reassuring back to the girl, but she was interrupted by Scout. “There.”

The rest of them turned to look. Sure enough, a bus had pulled into the depot. The number on the front and side read forty-six. Bus forty-six, the one they had been waiting for.

Immediately, the five of them stood up. But they didn’t all walk toward the doors. Instead, they followed the plan. Gordon and Rebecca moved to the vending machine close to that entrance and proceeded to casually discuss what to get. The twins, meanwhile, went to the restroom. And Jazz moved to the street-side entrance, pretending to read a flyer there while scanning the sidewalk and street beyond, watching for intruders. Kohaku would already be keeping a close eye on things from her own elevated position on top of a building across the street, but every little bit helped.

The bus had come to a stop then, as the passengers began to disembark. Watching them come through, Rebecca turned from the vending machine and raised a hand in a lazy two finger salute. “Howdy,” she greeted the first arrivals. “Long trip, huh?”

It was code, of course. If she had said nothing, it would have meant that the place was compromised and they all needed to scatter. If she had welcomed them home, it would have meant that their exit point was outside. And if she had said anything about food, it would have directed them to the nearest restaurant for extraction.

Her actual words, about how long the trip had been, would point them to the restroom. Those who knew what was going on, anyway. Bystanders would be clueless.

More passengers entered, as she and Gordon took turns greeting them with some variation of discussing the length of the trip. Through it all, Jazz watched the other doors, tense as she waited to see if there would be any interruption.

But there wasn’t. One by one, the arriving Heretics made their way to the restroom and the waiting extraction point. Sands and Scout were there, pointing them to the portal that had been set up. The portal that would take them to the (for now) final leg of their long journey, the Atherby camp.

Unfortunately, as smooth as the extraction seemed to be going, there was still no sign of Rebecca‘s grandmother. With each passing person and lack of recognition, the girl felt herself deflate a little bit more. She tried not to show it, but she had been really looking forward to seeing the woman again and finally being reunited with a family member. Even though she tried to tell herself that was selfish given what everyone was dealing with, it didn’t really help.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would have to wait for another group, when the doors opened one last time and the driver came in. He was accompanied by two other figures. One was a certain incredibly handsome dark-haired young man with very slightly Asian features. Deveron Adams. Seeing Rebecca there, he gave a brief, broad smile before looking to his companion.

There beside him stood a certain small, brunette woman whose family resemblance to the waiting girl would have been fairly evident even without any other help.

Seeing Grandma Lillian, Rebecca’s eyes lit up. It was all she could do not to fling herself at the woman. And, given the look her grandmother gave her in return when she was spotted, the feeling was mutual.

They still had to play this cool. Until they were through that portal, anything could go wrong. Out here in the open, exposed like this, loyalist Heretics from either organization could show up any second.

Clearing her throat while fighting to keep the broad, giddy smile from her face, Rebecca intoned, “Long trip?”

The driver, clueless as to the code, gave her a brief, wary nod while muttering, “You don’t know the half of it.” He headed off to get coffee from the nearby machine then, while Lillian winked at Rebecca and moved toward the restroom.

The girl physically ached to run after her. But that wasn’t the plan. They had to make sure everyone made it through. This wasn’t the only bus carrying Heretic refugees, and the second one had already pulled in.

In the meantime, Deveron held the door open, allowing one more figure to come through. Asenath gave Rebecca a tiny nod before walking right past. She and Deveron casually made their way across the lobby before heading for the restroom.

It took what seemed like forever, a torturous twenty minutes to make sure everyone got through the portal. But finally, it was done. There had been no interruption, no attack. The last of the arriving groups had passed through the portal in the restroom without incident.

“That’s it,” Kohaku finally announced. “You’re clear. Take the exit and head home. I’ll do clean up.”

Clean up, in this case, was part of the reason for why they couldn’t simply instantly teleport everyone home. There were spells and certain abilities that could track such transports. Anyone on the loyalists’ side who figured out the general area where a transport had happened could potentially track the destination. That would lead them to the Atherby camp. The solution was this subterfuge, as well as leaving someone behind (Kohaku in this case) to magically wipe the traces of transport so that they couldn’t be followed.

“Good work, guys,” the former Crossroads security chief added, “and thanks.”

That was all the invitation Rebecca needed. Joined by Gordon and Jazz, she all but ran to the restroom. The twins were there, along with Deveron and Asenath. When Sands saw her enter, she gave Rebecca a thumbs up. “She’s through,” the girl assured her. “We’re all good.”

Without missing a beat, Rebecca all but hurled herself at Asenath. Hugging the vampire would have been utterly horrific and terrifying a month earlier. Now, she didn’t care. She held tight while blurting,”You found her! You actually found her!”

“We said we would,” Asenath reminded her with a small smile, returning the embrace. “Though hugs are pretty good payment, I’ve gotta say. I could use more of those.”

Blushing, Rebecca took a moment to embrace Deveron as well. “Thank you,” she murmured, “Thank you for finding my grandma.”

“It really wasn’t that hard,” the man admitted. “She was helping a group of glasswalkers and they… well, let’s just say they were in good shape with her.” Stepping back, he gestured. “But enough of us. Why don’t you head through? She’s waiting for you. And let me tell you, she is one proud grandmother.”

“Yup,” Asenath agreed. “Nine hour bus ride just to make sure no one can track us back to the camp, and she hasn’t stopped talking about you once.”

The thought of that made Rebecca blush, squirming on her feet before looking over to the exit point. The portal looked like a glowing blue square on the wall. Smiling even while trying to contain her overwhelming excitement and giddiness, Rebecca stepped through. She braced herself for the brief feeling of this disorientation and slight nausea that would come from the sudden transport.

The moment cleared, and she was standing on the waiting patch of grass about fifty yards from the nearest cabin, the glistening lake visible to her right.

An instant later, she found herself suddenly grabbed in an embrace that nearly took the wind from her. “Weasel!” her ‘captor’ blurted.

“Grandma!” Rebecca clutched onto the other woman, who was no taller than she. Both quickly stepped away from the portal to avoid the others while still clinging to one another. Rebecca felt like crying, clutching her grandmother even tighter. “Grandma, you made it, you made it!”

In a soft, fond tone, Lillian Patters replied,  “Well of course I did, Weasel. Did you really think I’d leave you out here to camp without me?”

Squeezing the woman as tightly as she could for a moment while fighting to control the tears that were trying to pour down her face, Rebecca tried to get a hold of herself. Finally, she managed a weak, “Mom and Dad?”

There was a brief pause, before Lillian leaned back to look at her granddaughter. Her voice was quiet. “I haven’t heard,” she admitted. “Have you…”

Rebecca‘s head shook. “Nothing. I don’t know if they’re out in one of the groups that haven’t come in yet, or if they’re prisoners, or…” She trailed off, face screwing up a bit.

“We’ll find out,” Grandma Lillian promised while squeezing her tighter. “If they need help escaping, we’ll get them out. And if they need a little help waking up still… Well, we’ll handle that too.”

Choking back the tiny sob of relief she felt just by her grandmother’s presence, Rebecca managed a somewhat teary smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Grandma.”

“Oh Weasel,” Lillian murmured, moving a hand to cup the side of the girl’s face. “I’m glad you’re here too. I am so proud of you making it this far.”

Blushing, Rebecca shook her head. “I haven’t really done much,” she admitted. “I’ve been pretty clueless all year.”

Hesitating briefly, she peeked at the woman. “Is it really true that you were part of the very first rebellion? Right from the beginning, I mean. With Deveron and Flick’s mom.”

“Deveron…” Smiling to herself, Lillian gave a quick nod. “Yup. I knew him back before he killed that Incubus thing, when he still looked all goofy. Jos liked him even then, you know. They were…” She went quiet for a moment, looking away while lost in her memories. “They were always a thing. Even before they knew it. We knew. The rest of the…” Swallowing hard, the woman looked back to her granddaughter. “Your middle name–”

“Joselyn,” Rebecca confirmed, head bobbing quickly. “You remembered her. Sort of, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Lillian agreed. “Somewhere in the back of my mind. I…” She straightened, taking her granddaughter by both sides of the face before leaning in to kiss her forehead. “You are amazing, Weasel. You really are.”

“She is.” That was Deveron, who had come through the portal with the others. He stood there, watching the two of them with a broad smile. “You know, if you stood on each other’s shoulders, you both might reach the height of a normal human b–oww!” He grunted, stepping back as Lillian put her fist in his side.

“Same old Deveron,” the woman muttered, squinting at him. “You still don’t know when to stop talking.”

Grinning at her, the man retorted, “Worth it.”

Despite her words, Lillian was smiling as well, her hand moving to grab onto her granddaughter’s. “Your children and Joselyn’s other daughter, they’re…”

“They’re here,” Rebecca put in, squeezing the woman’s hand. “Wyatt and Abigail and… and Flick. Do… do you want to meet them?”

With a little nod, Lillian agreed, “I’d like that very much. The last time I saw… Zedekiah and Koren together, they were… well, they were still Zedekiah and Koren. And babies.”

“Go ahead,” Deveron urged the pair, glancing back over to the camp. “They’re… over that way, by the lake. Looks like all three of them are there. With the actual Koren.”

Heading that way with her grandmother, Rebecca hesitantly asked, “They said you were helping some Glasswalkers? What happened?”

So, the woman told her about how her memory had come back, and that she had helped the group of Alters escape. “They’re okay now,” she informed the girl. “They made it to another group that was going to take them to Wonderland. That’s–”

“I’ve heard of it,” Rebecca quickly informed her. “The others told me about that place. It’s like a Stranger ha–I mean Alter haven, right?”

Nodding, Lillian looked to the much younger girl. “You’ve learned a lot over the past month, haven’t you?”

“Not enough,” Rebecca admitted. “I’ve been trying to catch up, but… but it’s a lot.” She swallowed hard. “I feel stupid for going along with Crossroads for so long. I mean, they… they hurt and kill a lot of innocent creatures… I mean… people, or… or…”

“I know what you mean,” Lillian quietly assured her. “It’s okay, Weasel. Lots of people fell for their propaganda. Until Joselyn came along that first time, I did.”

“Joselyn… she was pretty special, huh?” Rebecca hesitantly offered, glancing to her grandmother.

Lillian’s smile was both incredibly fond, and incredibly sad at how much they had lost. Particularly time. “Yes. Yes, she is. She’s my best friend, Rebecca. She was my best friend for… for so long. Not since we met. We kind of… fought at first, when we were put together. We argued so much for about the first month or so. Then things changed. She saved my life on a hunt and from there… well, we were almost inseparable. I would have followed her right into a volcano. Actually, I think I did a couple times.” She laughed to herself a little before looking over to the girl. “Joselyn has a way of inspiring people to do ridiculous things.”

Her smile fell a bit then. “And now… now she’s been in this… she needed me and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t help save her twins, and then I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop Fossor from taking her. I forgot her.” Her voice was hollow, eyes filled with regret.

“You didn’t know,” Rebecca quickly put in, hating to see her grandmother like that. “It was magic, they… they erased your memory. You couldn’t have been there.” She squeezed the woman’s hand, staring up at her as their gradual walk slowed.

Breathing in, then out, Lillian gave a slight nod. “I know. But that doesn’t really help very much. Jos needed me and I wasn’t there. I haven’t been there for so long. The things Crossroads did–the things they made me do after they knew how I felt, what I chose… the…” She stopped talking then, blinking rapidly before forcing herself to focus on her granddaughter. For a moment, she just pulled the girl into a hug, needing that connection.

For Rebecca’s part, she certainly wasn’t objecting. Returning the hug tightly, she murmured, “It’s okay, Grandma. The spell’s gone. You… you remember now. And we’re gonna find Flick’s mom, before…”

Hearing the girl trail off, Lillian blinked. “Before what?” she asked with a frown.

“I…” Swallowing, Rebecca gestured toward the lake where the others would be waiting. “Flick’s birthday. Something…”

“Fossor,” Lillian guessed, eyes darkening. “He wants to take her on her birthday, doesn’t he?” Seeing her granddaughter’s hesitant nod, she cursed under her breath. “Over my dead–” Stopping herself, the woman met the younger girl’s gaze. “We’ll see about that. Now come on. I really need to see how my tiny twin tykes grew up. And if their cheeks are just as pinchable as they used to be.”

“Uh, I know you’re a real badass, Grandma,” Rebecca offered, “but you probably shouldn’t try to pinch Wyatt’s cheek.

“That just seems like a really bad idea.”

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Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marina hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marina once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marina started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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