Gus

Fusion 1-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: check the first comment after the chapter for some fantastic new character art by Coshiua. 

We rode the elevator (well, I called it an elevator, it was more like a mobile forcefield with glowing walls that surrounded us) down toward the living areas in groups of about ten or so. The people who would be living together in each house. In this case, our group consisted of Avalon, Shiori, Rebecca, Miranda, Columbus, Doug, and me along with that Jason/Danuja guy (the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic), the Relekun Kersel, and the cat-girl Triss. Not to mention Salten and Choo.

Tabbris was here too. She’d be living with us, while going to school in her own group. It was a deal we’d come up with. Our dad and a few others thought that Tabbris should have a chance to be with people closer to her own age some more. But they also knew that separating us would be a bad idea. So we came to an arrangement that she would live with us and also attend some of our classes and training (as well as participating in missions she could help with), but attend most of her classes with the younger groups. She was basically far beyond what they would be learning, of course, but Abigail and Dad both said she could benefit from being around people her own age at least for a semester. After the semester, if she really didn’t like it, they’d revisit the situation. 

Staring down through the forcefield floor, Rebecca murmured, “Holy crap. There’s a whole town down there. Look at all those houses. And… wait, are those other places over there more living areas?” 

“It’s like the spokes of a wheel,” I explained, watching as we descended toward the hill in the middle of the area gradually (I was pretty sure the elevator had been purposefully slowed down to give each group a chance to see where they would be living). “Each spoke is a different general city type. See those cliff dwellings over there to the left of the human area with the giant… uhh, bug people flying around?” I indicated the mosquito-like beings with humanoid faces. “They’re called the Teun. They helped build this whole place. They’re like… really good at architecture and design. And to the right, that place that looks like the volcano area of a video game with the red canine-people? Those are the… umm… Tabs?” 

“Lupera,” she reminded me. “They’re miners from the same world the Akharu and Vestil come from.” 

Right, the Akharu (the original source of vampires, like Senny’s dad), Vestil, and Lupera all came from the same world, along with one more sapient race. There was something about a war on their world between all of them, the Akharu won some kind of ‘throne’ or something that made them unbelievably powerful, but then the Vestil cursed them so they had to replace all their blood constantly or they’d freeze up and become paralyzed. It was a whole thing. 

The elevator was almost down by then, and I quickly pointed before it was too late. “Anyway, we’ve got the modern Earth neighborhood right over there. See, each block is rectangular. Sixteen houses per block. Two next to each at either end for four on the ends. Then six more down each side, back to back, with a little walking park or garden area in the middle. There’s six blocks, all arranged in a hexagon, with the streets along both sides and a bigger park in the middle. See that big building right in the center of the park area? There’s a gym there, and a theater for watching movies and stuff.”

Six blocks with sixteen houses per block. Ninety-six houses. Roughly ten people per house, equalled nine hundred and sixty people in this school. Well, that many that were considered old enough to live in separate housing rather than the younger student dorms. And it was closer to a thousand. A thousand college-aged students, divided between Alters, Natural Heretics, and Crossroads or Garden students. This was… gonna be a trip and a half. 

By then, we were down. As we all stepped away from the elevator, Triss spoke up. “Wow, did you live here before or something?” There was a faint Russian accent to her voice. When I looked that way, her ears flattened a bit against her head and she took what seemed to be a reflexive step backward. She didn’t pop her claws or anything like that, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t take all that much. Whatever had gone on in her past, she was incredibly wary of Heretics. Which I didn’t blame her for, even if it made me wonder exactly why she had agreed to come and live with us. Maybe it was just part of getting past those fears or finding out if we were serious about making things right? I wasn’t sure. 

I did, however, know that I needed to be careful about how I acted around her. And around Kersel too, for that matter. The Relukun boy was watching me just as suspiciously. So, I simply nodded. “Yeah, I ahh, spent some time out in Seosten space. A few weeks or so. It’s a long story, believe me.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Jason asked, “Wait, so you just… lived in Seosten space for awhile? You weren’t a…” He looked me up and down, clearly trying to come up with the best word for it. 

“A slave?” I shook my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that. Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is that me and some others ended up out in Seosten space, then Tabbris and I got separated from them, Athena found us, and we stayed here while waiting for the rest of our group out there. Eventually, we made it back here to Earth.” 

Shiori piped up, “And by eventually, she means after years and years and years–” 

“Or a couple months,” I corrected with a little smile, taking the other girl’s hand briefly. “Months that felt like years.” 

“Felt like centuries,” she retorted, giving me a look that made me blush. 

“I… ahhh…” I coughed, trying to collect myself. Glancing to the smirking Avalon didn’t help. Nor did the sound that Salten made, which sounded awfully suspiciously like an outright snicker. “Um. Anyway, Tabs was there too.” Gently nudging the smaller blonde girl at my side, I prompted, “She’s the one with the perfect memory, if you ever need to know where anything is.” 

Bouncing a bit beside me, Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, it’s a really big space station. We have to take that elevator up to go to class every day. And for food, if you don’t make it in the house. Chef Gisby is a super good cook. He’ll make anything you want.”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “Gisby likes it when you make things a challenge. His memory is just as good as a Seosten, and he’s put basically all of it toward memorizing every recipe in the universe. If he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, just describe it and he can get close.” 

With a chuckle, Jason spoke up. “Sounds like a Natural Gordon Ramsay Heretic. Wait, is he…” 

“He’s–” I started before pausing. “I don’t know what species he is. But he’s definitely not human. Don’t worry, you’ll see him pretty soon. Probably for dinner tonight, I’m sure he’s got his people busy getting ready for that.”  

“He does, indeed,” Professor Dare agreed. She had teleported down ahead of us rather than use the elevator, and now approached with a raised hand. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s go see your new house and get you settled in while the next group comes down.” 

That was another reason for the elevator to be moving slowly. Not only did it give the group aboard a chance to see what they were coming down into, it also gave the group that had just arrived time to be taken to their house and shown where to go. Dare wasn’t the only one showing us around (there were a couple other elevators full of students that were also being escorted by staff), but it spread out the arrivals just enough. 

Glancing up as we started to watch, I saw the next forcefield lift start to descend. Sands and Scout would be on that one. Err, Sands and Sarah. Yeah, she was trying to go by Sarah more nowadays, even if it was hard to remember. She preferred Sarah in a normal, casual setting and Scout on missions or in official training, but still answered to either whenever. Mostly it was interchangeable, which was still a pretty big step for her from the way she’d been when we first met… a year ago (Jeez that still felt weird to think). I was trying to remember to think of her as Sarah whenever possible, because that was what she wanted to go by. And I understood that. 

Not only was Scout going by Sarah, but both the twins and their mother weren’t going by Mason anymore either. They were using Larissa’s maiden name of Lucas. Yeah. Scout Mason was now Sarah Lucas. Weird, I know. Sands, of course, was still Sands. I was pretty sure nothing in this universe would make her start going by Sandoval more often. 

Either way, Sands and Sarah were in the group behind us and would be taking the house right next door. Vanessa and Tristan were living there too, for two sets of twins, along with Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, and Harper’s old teammate Eiji. The tenth member of their group was a boy called Ruckus, an Alter who seemed to be made entirely of hundreds of metal coils, like a… like a Slinky. Or several of them. Yeah. His legs were a pair of big slinkies, along with his arms, with a slinky in the middle for his body and a head that was basically a slinky set onto its side with the ends connecting. His eyes were two glowing red orbs that seemed to peek out from between the vertical coils of his head. 

Jokai was there too, making their house one of the ones that had eleven people. Mostly because Jazz wasn’t going to live anywhere without him.  

As for our group, we followed Professor Dare through the street, passing a couple other houses where students who had already been brought down were looking over their new places and getting settled in. A few looked over as we passed, calling out greetings or just watching. But most of them were busy moving in or just getting to know each other. I could see Alters and humans alike staring at one another. Some were more comfortable than others, but it was even more clear that this whole thing was going to be a big… adjustment for everyone. 

Eventually, we reached the house we would be staying in. It was the third house down from the corner on the second block. The place was a two-story Colonial-style house, painted white with a dark red front door. There was a wide, spacious front porch lined by a knee-high white railing, set between taller pillars both at the corners and on either side of the front door to leave an opening. The same was duplicated above on another porch that wrapped around the second floor, though there was no opening in the railing there. There were four large bay windows in the front, two on the first floor on either side of the house, and two right above them. The roof was slanted, with several spots that stuck out from it with rectangular windows. The attic. 

Dare was already walking up to the front door, waving for it to open. As we trooped up the steps to the porch after her, she explained. “Four bedrooms on the first floor. See the two big windows there? There’s the same thing in the back. Two bedrooms in the front, two bedrooms in the back. That goes for the upstairs too. If you come in here…”

We followed her in (Choo and Salten waited outside along with most of our bags that we left sitting there), and found ourselves all standing in an entrance hall. The floor was wood, the walls pleasant but simple white, with a couple of nondescript paintings. To the left and right were doors to the front bedrooms. The corridor itself continued on past two more doors on either side. Those doors were open, and looking in as we passed revealed bathrooms. Big ones. 

“As with the bedrooms,” Dare explained, “the two bathrooms are repeated upstairs. Four total.”

Then we reached two open archways on either side rather than doors. The left archway led into a large living area with TV and game stuff. The right archway lead to a pleasant-looking kitchen and dining room with a window overlooking a small garden and the house next door. 

Just past the two archways was a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, with a door next to them. According to Dare, that led to the basement, where a laundry room and small gym were. 

“On the second floor,” she explained, “there is a library of sorts above the living room, and a magic testing room above the kitchen. It’s heavily protected, but it is still only to be used for relatively minor magic practice. Anything bigger or more extensive must be done in the designated training area upstairs. And by upstairs, I mean through the elevator into the rest of the station.”

Finally, we reached the doors leading to the back bedrooms on either side, and the rear door. It led to the rear side of the porch, just above a fenced off back yard. 

With an uncertain voice, Triss raised a hand. “I don’t understand. There are ten of us, but you have only pointed out eight bedrooms. I mean, I’m not the best at math, but eight is fewer than ten.”

Dare nodded. “Yes, there are two more bedrooms in the attic. The living space up there is slightly more limited, but with only two bedrooms, they’re about the same size as the ones down here.”

Doug raised his hand. “So, are you guys assigning bedrooms, or what?”

With a smile, Dare gave a slight shake of her head. “Nope, figuring that all out is part of your first job as housemates. We’ll step in if we need to at any point that people in a house can’t agree, but let’s try to work it out amongst yourselves. Similarly, we will not be patrolling who stays in what bed. You’re all either over eighteen or very close to it.” Her eyes flicked briefly to me with a certain tenseness before she pushed on. “You are all essentially adults, and we will treat you as such so long as you do not give us reason not to. Everyone gets a bedroom. What you do with that bedroom is up to you.

“Now, I believe you all have some exploring to do to can stake out what rooms you want. I need to go get the next group. If you have any questions, let us know. Otherwise, there is food in the kitchen for lunch and we’ll see you at dinner. Good luck.”

With that, she left, and the eleven of us stood there in the corridor looking at each other for a few long, quiet seconds. No one really seemed to know what to say first. Which was weird, considering most of us knew each other pretty well, except for Jason, Triss, and Kersel. 

Finally, Miranda clapped her hands. “Right, okay. So, unless anyone else has any better idea, I was thinking we’d write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat or something. Then we can walk by each room and take out a name. That person gets that room.”

Kersel lifted his wooden head a bit. “Sure you don’t have some kind of paper manipulating power to get anything you want?” It sounded like one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke at all, but more of a challenge. Yeah, this was going to be interesting. 

Before Miranda could say anything to that, Rebecca quickly spoke up. “The rooms are all the same, no one’s going to care enough to start cheating or anything. We’re just dividing them up faster.”

With a broad smile, Jason put a hand on the Relukun boy’s back. “Yeah, buddy. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fair. So let’s do this, I’d kinda like to stow my stuff.”

We did. Following Miranda’s suggestion, we pulled names from a pot that we found in the kitchen, matching everyone to a bedroom. In the end, the four downstairs bedrooms went to Rebecca and Shiori in the front, and Columbus and Miranda in the back. Upstairs were Avalon and Jason in the front, and Triss and Doug in the back. Kersel and I were in the attic. 

The stairs leading up to the attic were in the middle of the second floor corridor, basically right as you came off the stairs from the first floor. You just kept walking up the next set. The attic had a large open area at the top of the stairs, with only two spots set out for bedrooms, one at the front and one at the back. They were apparently more narrow than the other bedrooms, but wider, taking up the whole front or back wall respectively. There was also a single bathroom directly between the two rooms, but other than that, it was all empty. I wasn’t sure what this large open space in the rest of the attic was for, considering it was big enough to have a whole dance competition in. Maybe we were supposed to figure out what to do with it ourselves, or something.

Either way, Tabbris and I nodded to Kersel, who gave a polite, yet clearly dismissive bow of his head before heading into his own room. Which left the two of us standing there. 

“Well,” I started, “let’s go in and check out our new room, huh?”

I opened the bedroom door and stepped inside what turned out to indeed be a pretty spacious room, though one that was, again, much wider than it was deep. There was just enough room from the entrance to the wall for the large bed to be set in (with the head against the wall and the foot facing the door) while leaving space to walk past it to reach either side. On the other hand, as promised, there was plenty of width to the room to make up for the lack of depth. To the left of the bed was a dresser and a desk with a computer already waiting, along with a smaller dresser to the right. There was room on that right-hand side for Tabbris’s bed, once we let Dare know where she was staying. So, she’d have furniture of her own. And I was going to see about getting a couple of those privacy screens installed like they had at Crossroads so we could both have our own me-time. I wanted Tabbris to know this was her room too, as much as mine, and that she had every right to her own privacy. 

“Huh, not bad, huh?” I asked while stepping over to look out one of the three windows spaced along the width of the room. We were in the back, so the view looked out over the yard, and leaning over a bit allowed me to see next door. Eiji’s cyber-rhino was already there, making noises at Salten and Choo, who were investigating him through the fence. 

Tabs bobbed her head quickly. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. And umm… tonight, we try the thing again?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “tonight we try again. 

“And this time, hopefully I can keep Fossor’s sister here long enough to get something useful out of her.”

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Fusion 1-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We appeared at the back of what looked like an ordinary auditorium or theater. Rows upon rows of seats stretched out on either side of the narrow aisle we were in, leading down toward a large stage. Our seating area was the fourth from the left wall, with one more section to the right. In those other sections were more people of varying age groups, younger to the left and older to the right. Everyone was being directed to find seats. 

“Well, hello again.” The voice came from a man stepping in front of our little group, a familiar figure, with a scruffy, unshaven face, unkempt blond hair, and a pinstripe suit.

“Mr. Reinswield!” Tabbris blurted, quickly jumping that way to embrace the man. “Hiya!”

Sure enough, it was the former Eden’s Garden Heretic-turned-teacher we had met during our last stay here. The man looked surprised, but returned the embrace, murmuring, “You seem a bit more comfortable in your own skin, puella.” 

“We found Mama,” Tabbris declared with a bright smile. 

The man returned her smile, squeezing her again. “Well, that is very good news. But come, we can catch up later. Let’s find some seats for you before this assembly gets started.”

He guided us to a row of empty chairs, and everyone began filing in to sit down. I stayed back, however, waving for the others to go on. My gaze was centered on the man, as I swallowed hard. “Sir,” I started quietly, “I’m really sorry. I… I asked my friend from Eden’s Garden if she knew anything about a Sonya Eulcid, your… your old student, but she didn’t have a chance to ask around before… before she had to leave.” My head shook guiltily. This was the girl he had gotten himself banished to Seosten space by trying to stop her being being turned into a Heretic and losing her innocence when he was posing as a Bystander teacher. No excuse for still not finding out what happened to her felt good enough. “And things have been so busy all this time that–” 

He held up a hand to stop me. “I understand, Flick. Trust me, I do. And now we’ve made it back to Earth. We’re here. If Sonya is alive… I will find her.” His gaze met mine with a wince. “Though it has been so long since I have been here that… some help in that regard might be useful. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Earth in the decades since my disappearance.” 

My head bobbed rapidly. “Of course. Anything. I’ll help you find her. So will Miranda, I know. We talked about it, we just… there wasn’t a way to…” Shaking that off, I waved a hand while pushing on. “We’ll find her. Seller can probably help, he’s my ancestor and knows a lot about–” 

“The sellsword?” Mr. Rienswield raised an eyebrow. “He is your… interesting.” For a second, it looked like he was about to say something else. But in the end, the man just raised a hand to gesture to the seats where the others were. “Yes, we’ll talk about it soon. I may even be able to find answers among my new colleagues here. But for now, I know your sister is quite eager to ensure this presentation comes off without a hitch.” He offered me a wink.  “Let’s not add to her nerves by throwing hitches onto the stage before anything even starts, hmm?” 

It was hard for me to imagine Abigail ever being nervous. At least, not in a situation like this. In a fight maybe, or worried about her daughter or me… yeah. But nervous about talking to a bunch of students? Still, I nodded and squeezed in to find my seat by Avalon. Tabbris took the seat on the other side of me, with Shiori by her. There was enough space in front of us to put our bags down, most likely to accommodate various-sized species. Plus, when I actually sat, the chair itself adjusted to fit me perfectly. Looking around, I saw larger beings, Alters who were bigger than an average human, on seats that had grown to match. Giving a quick look around, I could see just how… eclectic of a population we had in this auditorium. True, it was about three-quarters human or human-passing, a mix of Bosch/Natural Heretics and Alters who didn’t stand out. But it was also one quarter Alters who could not have passed as human without the Bystander Effect. Beings of all different shapes and sizes scattered in groups throughout the room. They bunched up together, some clearly making a point of staying away from Bosch Heretics. And, of course, there were plenty of Heretics who were staying away from Alters. Even though we’d all chosen this side, that didn’t mean everyone was instantly comfortable with each other. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were the boogeymen for entire generations worth of Alters. And Alters had been the ‘evil monsters out to destroy humanity’ for Bosch Heretics for hundreds of years too. This was… definitely going to take time. But that was a big part of what the whole school thing was for, to get us interacting in a… closer to casual environment. In between all the violent life and death stuff happening back on Earth. 

Reaching down to my bag, I opened up the side pocket, taking out Jaq and Gus before setting them on my shoulders so they could look around. Then I produced Herbie, letting him sit on the armrest. Once he was arranged and comfortable, I looked over to Avalon. She had Porthos out, though he was down on the floor having what appeared to be an intense conversation with Choo, who by that point was as large as a normal warthog. His growth was also supposed to accelerate even more around now, apparently. In another month or so, he’d be as tall as I was. It was hard to imagine the tiny sneezing electric-pig as this big, dangerous figure. And also weird to think that there were several more smaller Choos stacked up inside of him, nesting doll-style.

Just another example of the fact that things had changed. And were still changing.I didn’t know what was going to happen this year. But if it was anything even remotely like last year… yeah, I would have to enjoy the relative calm while I had the chance.  

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked in a whisper, leaning over to rub Herbie gently. 

I nodded. “Yeah, I just… that’s Mr. Reinswield, the guy I told you about. And I never found out what happened to Sonya Eulcid, that girl he wanted us to look for.” 

Overhearing that, Miranda, who was seated on the far side of Avalon, leaned forward and looked down at me. “I can ask around, find out if she’s part of the group that rebelled. I probably should’ve done that already, it’s just–” 

“We’ve been busy, yeah.” Grimacing, I nodded. “Can you just check next chance you get? She’d be way too old to be part of this whole school thing, but maybe she’s still out there and has a kid or something here.”

The other girl agreed, just as the lights on the stage came up, while the ones over the audience dimmed a fair bit. Apparently the introduction and orientation speeches were about to start. 

Focusing on the stage, I saw some teachers from Crossroads. Not just the ones from the first year, but a few from higher years too. And there was Hisao, standing by a few other Heretics he was quietly talking to. I was guessing they, like him, were the ones from Eden’s Garden.

Of course, there were also Alter teachers, both ones that had been here already and a couple who had been recruited from on-world, thanks to both Wonderland and Prosser’s people. 

Basically, we had a lot of different teachers from a lot of different groups, to go with all the different students. 

Oh, and Abigail, of course. She stood there on the stage, deep in private conversation with Professor Dare, Miss Handsy (the school administrator lady whose body consisted of a green flesh ball with a bunch of tentacles stretching out in every direction to act as both arms and legs, with a smaller ball for her head connected to the larger one), and one of the Eden’s Garden teachers. With the lights down over the audience, all the attention was on that stage. Abigail glanced our way, said something else to the others, and then stepped up to the front. Her mouth opened, before she stopped herself and reached into her pocket to produce a small light blue rock, which she spoke a word into. The spell on it glowed briefly before fading. 

“Good morning,” Abigail started again, her voice magically magnified to fill the room. “Err, wow. Wow, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Good morning–orning–ning…” Making her own echo while a few people snickered and others just stared, she shook her head. “Magic. It uhh, it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Mostly because I only found out it existed a… less than a year ago. It’s still very new to me. All of this is. I’m still a beginner in… every sense of the word.” 

There were some audible murmurs to that, which Abigail allowed for a few seconds before speaking up again. “Then why am I the one standing here talking as though I have any authority? Why am I talking to you instead of any of these people behind me who all know a lot more than I do about all of this?” 

Watching the general agreement with her questions, my big sister added, “For that matter, you all already have so much to grow into here. You’re sitting in this room alongside people you would have run from, hunted, fought, even killed just a few months ago. Many of you have been told your whole lives that the people sitting ten feet away from you right now were monsters. Some of you have lived in fear of being hunted and killed since the day you were born. And now in these past few months, you’ve been told that we, together, are going to try a different way. You Heretics have been told that your entire society, everything you are, has been manipulated; that while you have done a lot of good, others used and manipulated you to make you into the very monsters that you were trying to protect the innocents from. You’ve all been told that everything you know, everything that has been fact for you since before the United States even existed, is changing. 

“In just these short few months, you have all been trying to understand this, trying to come to terms with it. And now you’re here, expected to live and learn and even fight alongside people who have been your enemies for generations. That is so much to ask of any of you. But you’re here. You came to try. But now you get here, you’re among these people, many of whom make you uncomfortable, or even afraid. And you look up here, and you see the person talking to you has barely even known anything of your society, of your existence, for less than a year? Why am I here? What could I possibly present to you that wouldn’t be better coming from someone who has understood you for so much longer? After all, I’m barely even a Heretic. I don’t fight. I barely have any power at all. I’m one step removed from a total Bystander.”

From where he was sitting a bit further down the line, Jason whispered, “Is she trying to talk herself out of this job, or something?”

Smiling a little to myself, I quietly replied, “Just wait for it.”

Abigail let whispers like that go on for another few seconds before she spoke again. “But here’s the thing. That’s exactly why I’m here. Because I didn’t grow up in this society, in this world. I am not here in spite of the fact that I am a terrible Heretic, I am here because I’m a terrible Heretic. I don’t know much about fighting. Almost nothing, really. To the chagrin of my colleagues, I assure you. But I know about learning. I know about injustice, about righting it, and about making others understand it. You do not need the person in charge of this school to be a warrior. You don’t. As I said, that’s what all these people behind me are for. Your principal does not need to be a demigod. She needs to be a principal. That’s headmistress for those of you who might be confused right now. But please don’t call me that, because it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’ve stepped into a Harry Potter fan fiction. And let’s be honest, this entire thing is kind of teetering on the edge of that as it is. 

“I am Principal Fellows. I’m here to organize your teachers, to be the person who talks without any previous personal history in your society. I’m here to teach you, to learn from you, and to listen to you. I’m here to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, Alter, Bosch, or Natural.”

Visibly considering that for a moment, Abigail shrugged. “Besides, considering everything I just said about this being new to everyone, I guess it just fits the theme to have someone who is new to all of it anyway. You all have history. Learn from it, grow from it, but do not allow it to dictate your future. There’s a lot of dirt in everyone’s pasts here. You can use that dirt to bury this whole thing that we’re trying to do. Or you can use it to grow the seed we’ve got into something truly beautiful. It’s up to each of you.” 

Asenath appeared then, stepping across the stage to whisper something in Abigail’s ear. The other woman looked to her, nodded, then turned back to us. “And now that I have… hopefully successfully talked myself out of and then back into this job, we’ll discuss a few particulars. 

“First, you are all being initially grouped by general age level. If you are of a species that matures slower or faster than humans, we have attempted through discussions with you and others of your kind to put you into the appropriate group. Those who are more experienced than their age group generally is may test into higher groups. But do not attempt this lightly, because you will be judged by several critical eyes, in subjects including your physical, magical, and mental faculties.” 

Tabbris nudged me at that, and I smiled a bit before nodding. We’d already gone through arranging for her to live with me, though she was going to be visiting and learning with the younger groups too, just to have time with people her own age. 

Abigail was still explaining. “Our groups begin at age twelve, and each covers two years, up through twenty and twenty-one year olds. Five age groups, which is how you’re sitting right now. If you are in the first two sections here, those who will be twelve and thirteen by December thirty-first, and those who will be fourteen and fifteen, please stand up.” Abigail waited for those first two sections to rise, before explaining, “You are part of our trainee program. For now, please follow Miss Senny here to your dorms, where more will be explained and you can drop off your bags and get settled in. Staff members will be happy to answer more questions throughout the day, and we will all discuss this more at supper this evening.” She indicated Asenath, who descended the stage to lead the first couple groups out. 

Once they were gone, Abigail focused on the third section. “Next, our students who will be sixteen and seventeen years old this year. You will also live in dorms, but separate from the younger groups, as your training and education requirements are different. You may also, if you wish, participate in certain low-danger missions for–” At that point, she had to stop talking for a moment because of the whoops and cheers going up from that middle section. A few quiet words from the staff members in the aisles there quieted the students, and Abigail continued. “That is, if you wish and if your staff mentors sign off on you. These will be missions of mercy, helping those who need us.

“Now, please follow Hisao, the nice gentleman standing right there, to your dorms, where you will be given more information. As I said, use the rest of the day to get settled in and direct any questions you might have to your staff advisers. We will meet again for dinner, and classes will begin tomorrow.” 

She started to move on, but one of the students from that section raised a hand and blurted in a loud voice that carried really well, “What about those of us that are still human and were supposed to get to visit the Edge this year? Are we just boned?” 

A small smile touched Abigail’s face then before she shook her head. “No, you’re not ‘boned’. We have plans to assist all interested human students with potential Natural bonding. Ideally, this will happen when you are younger in order to allow a longer bonding process. But it will work here as well. As I said, there will be details when you reach your dorm. You’ll be able to sign up to match with Alters who have volunteered to help bond with others like you.” 

With that, Hisao led that group out, leaving two more. Ours and the twenty and twenty-one-year-olds. Once it was just us, Abigial focused our way. “And finally, our adults. Or those who will be adults within the next couple of months.” She smiled just a little, a goofy gesture that vanished a moment later. “Instead of dorms, you will live in houses in one of this station’s… neighborhoods. You will be assigned your house to live in, but if you and another person would like to change places, you may do so if both of you agree. Generally, each house will have ten people living in it. These will be a mixture of Alters and Heretics. If there are problems that simply cannot be settled, we will assign people to new homes. But do try to remember that our entire goal here is for everyone to learn to live in harmony together.

“As with the group before, you will be allowed to participate in voluntary aid missions, as well as combat missions for those who have passed a certain level of training and psychological certifications, both of which will be tested and renewed once per month and also at the discretion of faculty. But beyond simply passing your training and psychological evaluations, you must also keep up with your schoolwork. Yes, school even for you, though not quite as long. Generally, your school days will last from nine in the morning until lunch, one hour for each of the three classes you will have each day. Then you will have lunch, followed by training and any missions that have been requested or volunteered for. Again, your participation in these missions is not required in any way, shape, or form. They are not mandatory and never will be. And you may opt out of any. But if you do wish to participate, you must keep up your schoolwork, and pass your evaluations.” 

Raising both hands to forestall all the hands (and tentacles and claws and hooves and… more) that were going up, Abigail assured everyone, “I know, I know, you all have questions. We’ll get to them, I promise. Let’s try to get everyone to your houses so you can put your stuff away and get settled in, like the younger groups. Professor Dare and Kaev here will lead you out.” For the latter name (which was pronounced Cave), she indicated a green gelatinous figure who looked a lot like a full adult-sized version of the Flubber figure from that old Robin Williams movie. 

Dare and that Kaev (I wasn’t sure if they were male or female, or if it mattered) left the stage, walking up the aisles. Well, Dare walked. Kaev sorta… bounced. It was like he or… she or… they were on one of those toys where you sit on the ball and hop with it. Complete with an audible ‘boing’ after each motion. 

Looking over to Tabbris and the others, I shrugged. “Well, I guess we should go see our new home, huh? 

“Let’s hope we don’t end up going to war against this one too.”

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Fusion 1-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

This is the first chapter of Year Two of Heretical Edge. If you need to see the first year’s table of contents, check right here. To start with chapter one of the Year One, go here

The bruised, battered, yet still handsome man smiled through the blood that coated his rugged face. His voice was worn and haggard. “That’s the thing. See, a gun’s like a politician. There’s good ones, bad ones, they should all be kept away from children, and… just when you think they’re completely empty…”  Abruptly, his hand snapped up with the pistol, slamming it into his attacker’s face hard enough to knock several teeth out. “They still make an impression.” 

The thug fell backward, while Lou Devereux caught the pistol that fell from his hand, spinning with this actually loaded weapon to begin firing at the men surrounding him before they could react. At the same time, he was hurling himself up and over the nearby counter, taking cover even as those who were left frantically began to shoot back. The music, which had quieted for the long-time action hero to give his line, suddenly launched into a pounding, frantic rock song for the scene. 

It was really too bad there was no one in the theater who was in any condition to enjoy it. I’m sure it was a really great action scene. But we were… sort of stuck in the middle of our own. 

“Flick!” Sands shouted from one side of the theater near the entrance. Even as she called out, the brunette girl was hurling a rock up and over the seats, down toward the screen. 

“I got it!” I shot back, using a very small burst from my staff to launch myself up on top of the seats from where I was. Landing with one foot on the back of one seat and the other foot on another, I threw myself that way, leaping from seat to seat to catch up with the thrown rock as it arced lazily up and over. It descended, too far away from me still. But my staff lashed out, and I extended the length of it to about twice normal, hitting the rock like it was a ball to send it the rest of the way toward a figure running for the emergency exit. The rock passed just over their shoulder, crashing into the door before the spell on it triggered, expanding the rock into a full, huge boulder blocking the exit just in time.

In the next instant, still recovering from that swing as I balanced on the back of two seats, my head jerked backward to avoid the wild swing of a massive glaive. My attacker, springing up from where he had been crouched, snarled and spat angrily. He, like the figure I had just blocked from leaving, were Glerhns, which looked like a cross between a wolf, a pig, and a man. Shiori said these guys looked like furry Gamorreans, something from Star Wars. 

Whatever they looked like, this one was really pissed. He snarled something in his own native language and stabbed at me with his enormous glaive, trying to run me through. Or, more likely, trying to make me dodge backward right into the path of the second glaive already being very quietly swung at me by his buddy behind me. Even his snarled threat or curse or whatever was clearly intended to cover the sound of the other guy so I wouldn’t know he was there. 

But I did, thanks to the power that allowed me to sense items within my range. I sensed the weapon, the figure’s clothes and armor, all of it. I knew he was there. 

So, instead of dodging the way they wanted, I jerked my staff up and back with one hand, shrinking it back to normal size to intercept the glaive coming at me from behind. At the same time, my other hand snapped forward, conjuring a portal in front of myself. The glaive from the first Glerhn went through the portal and out the other end… right behind me. He stabbed his buddy right in the chest, both figures giving grunts of surprise (one with far more pain and blood involved). 

With one hand, I used my staff to smack the glaive out of the second Glerhn’s faltering grip after catching its swing. At the same, my finger found the button on the staff to send a cloud of sand out, which I directed straight into the first figure’s face. And not just any sand, this was suddenly superheated. Thousands of tiny grains of sand hot enough to burn through wood were hurled into his face, and the wolf-pig man lost any and all interest in attacking me for the moment. 

While he squealed and fell backward, I was already spinning around the other way. In mid-motion, I hopped backward off the top of the seat and landed smoothly on the sticky floor. My staff was already lashing out, the bladed end (thanks to Jaq, one of my cyberform mice) cutting straight through the stumbling figure’s throat to finish him off entirely. My gold aura flared up, but thanks to my Seosten partner and adopted little sister riding shotgun, I wasn’t fatally distracted by a rush of pleasure. 

At the same time, just as the blade end cut through that Glerhn, I triggered the grappling hook (also known as Gus) at the opposite end of the staff. The hook shot out, attached to an energy cable as it was driven through the chest of the stumbling first Glerhn, who was still screaming from the burning sand attacking his face. The hook went through him before retracting to yank the figure back toward me, Scorpion-style. As he stumbled and half-fell, my hand caught his arm and I was suddenly possessing him. 

He was panicked, terrified from the grapple sticking through his chest. Yet I also sensed everything he and his friends here had intended to do to the innocent Bystanders. They’d intended to do far worse than simply kill the humans they found here, so my sympathy for him was somewhat muted. Still, I shut him down, shoving the figure into unconsciousness while Tabbris scanned his mind for what we needed. He might’ve deserved to die for the things he did, but there was no need to be evil about it. He could just go to sleep and not wake up again. 

Hopping out of the figure a moment later, I finished him off for good with a quick slash of my empty hand as my fingernails grew as hard as steel to tear through his throat. He fell and wouldn’t get up again, bleeding out quickly from his throat just like his partner as my gold aura flared once more.

Then I sensed him, the last Glerhn lunging up from the seats behind me. Already, he was in mid-lunge with his glaive coming down in an overhead swing, moving too fast for me to turn or raise my weapon. 

So, I didn’t move at all. Instead, I focused on the first dead figure on the floor, sending a single command of defend! In response, the deceased Glerhn lunged back to his feet while lashing out with his own weapon. The sudden attack from his dead friend took the living figure completely by surprise. He’d been focused on lunging at me right up until the glaive went through his chest. He collapsed to the floor, and I released my necromantic control over the other body, allowing him to fall as well. 

Hey, you’re getting pretty good at that, Tabbris informed me excitedly. Mr. Bones is gonna be happy. Oh, and uhh, you got really, really minor strength boosts from those first two guys. Nothing too big. And that third guy made it so you can uhh, call back anything to your hand no matter how far away it is as long as you were holding it in the past… like, two or three seconds. 

Thanks, I sent back. I’m pretty sure that’ll end up being really useful at some point. 

My guys taken care of, I looked around quickly, just in case. But things seemed to be under control. The Glerhn who had been blocked from fleeing out the emergency exit by the magic boulder had tried to run for the exit on the opposite side of the room. Unfortunately for him, he’d been met by Avalon, who put him down, along with two others who had been waiting there for fleeing Bystanders back when they’d set up this death trap for innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, Sands was standing over another body near the entrance, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Doug at the opposite entrance, panting as he pulled the sword conjured from his pen out of the back of yet another Glerhn, who collapsed to the floor in a heap while the boy’s light turquoise aura flared to life. Finally, a glance up toward the projector room showed me Columbus giving a thumbs up to show that he’d dealt with the guys up there. 

“We’re good,” Avalon announced as she approached, pausing to touch her communication badge just to make absolutely sure of what she had just said. “Gerardo, we’re good?”   

There was a very brief pause, during which I held my breath. Then Sean’s voice came back (still sounding oddly old even after all the time that had passed since we rescued him from the Crossroads prison). “We’re good,” he confirmed. “All civilians are safe and accounted for.” 

His reply made me breathe out in relief. It had worked. This theater had been set up as a trap to let the Glerhn capture and… do very bad things to innocent civilians. We’d had to fight them, but we also didn’t want to get a bunch of civilians caught in the crossfire. So, I’d used the fact that I didn’t register as a Heretic until I used my powers to safely enter the theater without being noticed. I’d pretended to be looking for someone, making my way through the half-full theater while depositing dozens of coins that had been enchanted by Sean. On activation, they had transported everyone with a coin out of the room, sending them to a nearby park where head been waiting to make sure they arrived safely and without any unwanted visitors. Thanks to the Bystander Effect, their confusion would be quickly forgotten. I wasn’t sure what it would tell them, but hopefully they would eventually get to see the movie they’d come for.

Either way, they were safe and the Glerhn were down. So it was a win. And a bigger win than that, considering–

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts as she, Sands, and Doug approached. “You get it?” 

Smiling a little, I stowed my staff away with a nod. “Yup, we got it. Right, partner?” 

My hair turned pink briefly as Tabbris spoke through me. “Uh huh! We know exactly where these guys took the people they kidnapped last week. And they’re still alive. Um… most of them anyway.” At the last bit, my borrowed voice grew slightly less happy. 

“Hey,” Sands put in, “most is better than it could have been. Good thing these guys wanted money for selling their prisoners more than they wanted them for food or whatever.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, gesturing to me. “You should call it in.” 

I nodded, my hair returning to its natural dirty blonde as I touched my own communication badge. “Dare? We’ve got the address for you.” Once the older woman (and my secret grandmother, though I was one of only four people including her who knew that) acknowledged, I carefully recited the location that Tabbris and I had taken from the Glerhn. 

“Good job,” Profe–errr Miss–err… Dare sent back. “We’ll send a team there right now.” 

“You guys need any help with that?” Columbus asked over his own badge, having descended from the projectionist’s room to join the rest of us in the theater. “We could join up.” 

Dare, however, declined. “You’ve done enough for today, guys. Between you and Scout’s team dealing with their transport truck, I’d say these guys are dealt with. Take a break. Come on home and relax for awhile. Don’t forget, tomorrow’s a big day. Thanks. And again, good job.”

Between the four of us, we started gathering up the bodies. I’d wondered about what happened to the bodies of Alters killed out in the regular world like this, and about just how hard the Bystander Effect had to work during potential autopsies. When I posed the question to Dare, she had informed me that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden both tended to have people whose sole job was to collect the bodies put down in these kind of attacks. The Bystander Effect could take care of the whole identifying monsters thing, but it was easier just to take them and avoid any issues. To say nothing of the fact that Bystanders could contract diseases from poking around dead bodies of species they weren’t prepared to defend against. Which was an issue I honestly hadn’t actually thought about up until Dare mentioned it. 

Anyway, that was the normal situation. But now, with us… not exactly part of Crossroads, we had to collect the bodies and place prepared teleportation buttons on them that would take the corpses to a special building that had been set up for them to be safely disposed of. We were kind of stretched too thin to have a group dedicated to retrieving the bodies manually. 

As we sent the last of the bodies away and started to leave before anything else could happen, I took a second to look at the screen. The movie was still playing, currently in the middle of a car chase scene as vehicles screamed their way through the streets of Los Angeles.

“Hey.” Standing nearby, Avalon watched me. “Are you okay?”  She was clearly torn between concern for me and trying to be professional while we were on an official mission. 

Looking away from the screen, I offered her a faint but genuine smile. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry, it’s just…” My hand waved toward the screen. “The previous Lou Devereux movie was playing in the theater I was working in right before I ended up going to Crossroads. It was kind of the last movie I saw while I was working that night. It… I… wow. Yeah, I guess it has been a year, huh?” 

Sands nodded. “Well, I mean, it’s what… Sunday? Yeah, so it’s September ninth.”

“Just over a year,” I confirmed. “I met you guys a year ago. Where does the time go?” I muttered the last bit just to see the incredulous looks I received from everyone present. 

You’re mean, Tabbris informed me, though she sounded just as amused by the reactions. 

I make my own entertainment, I retorted before gesturing to the others. “Come on then, before we have to explain to some poor usher what happened to all the guests.” Thankfully, we’d timed the fight to take place during one of the loudest parts of the movie, so no one had come to investigate. Not yet, anyway. Leaving was probably still for the best. 

So, we did. Together, we made our way out of the theater emergency exit, without setting off the alarm thanks to the minor and very weak control over technology power Doug had picked up a couple weeks ago. Once in the parking lot, we headed toward a van that was waiting. On the way, Valley caught my hand and our fingers interlaced. I smiled over at her, winking. “Not a bad night.” 

“Getting better every second,” she replied before squeezing my hand pointedly. Then she glanced to the side and nodded that way. “Oh, ah, you should probably take care of that.” 

I looked that way, seeing the small, furry figure poking his head around the side of a sedan. “Right, I’ve got it. Be right there.” Squeezing her hand one more time, I let go before heading that way. 

The figure by the car seemed to reflexively shrink back a bit as I approached. He was about three feet tall, and looked kind of like a teddy bear crossed with a fox, with three tails. He wore a shirt, pants, and jacket meant for a little kid, with bright cartoon characters. Apparently he was known as a Feursel, though this one’s name was Karf. 

“Hey, Karf,” I started as gently as possible. Though I’d interacted with the Feursel before, with Kohaku, the little guy was still pretty skittish. For good reason, of course. “You okay?” 

It took him a second to answer, fearful as he was. But the little guy finally gave a quick nod before hesitantly asking, “Th-the people?” 

I smiled a little. “They’re safe. They’re okay. You did good, Karf. All those people in there are alive, and we sent a lead about where the others that were taken are to our friends.” Karf had been the one to find out what the Glerhn were up to and, despite clearly being terrified, had taken the information to some friends of his who knew about the rebellion. Through those contacts, he’d eventually come to talk to Kohaku and me, and we set this whole thing up. I didn’t care how skittish he looked now, Karf was one brave little dude. 

When I reached into my pocket, he quickly jerked backward reflexively. But I held my other hand up placatingly. “It’s okay. It’s alright, I promise. Here, Ms. Kohaku wanted you to have this.” Extending my hand slowly and carefully, I opened it to show him a couple golden rings and a few gemstones, all of which were apparently fairly valuable. 

Eyes slowly widening, the small Feursel whispered almost reverently, “Shinies.” 

I nodded. “They’re for you, go ahead. You can trade them for things, right?” His head bobbed up and down, but he still hesitated for a few seconds while I held the rings and gems out before finally taking them with a quick swipe of his hand. His eyes snapped up to me as though afraid I’d do something very bad to him for taking what I’d offered. When I didn’t, he smiled before looking down at the things in his paw, speaking very fondly and happily. “Shiny.” 

“There’s this too.” From my other pocket, I produced a necklace with a pearl at the end of it. “But don’t sell this one. Keep it secret. See the pearl? You hold that and say ‘Help me Risa.’ That’s it. Say ‘Help me Risa’ while you’re holding the pearl and she’ll know you’re in trouble and where you are. She’ll come to help you, or someone will. Just keep that safe. It’ll also trigger automatically if someone takes it from you by force.” 

Staring at the necklace, he slowly took it while hesitantly whispering, “Heretics save the Karf?” 

“Kind of surprising, huh?” I smiled and nodded to him. “We’re trying to change things, Karf. Just be careful out there, okay?” 

He met my gaze with a solemn, “You are to be careful also, the Flick. You are to be careful too.”

Promising that I would, and that I hoped to see him again, I headed back to the others. They were waiting by the van. 

“Everything good?” Doug asked, after looking up from his phone. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Little dude’s just fine. Now let’s get out of here. Dare’s right, tomorrow is a pretty big day.

“After all the time she’s spent putting it together, Abigail would definitely kill me if I missed her first day as headmistress of our new school.” 

Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 78 – Herbie (Heretical Edge – Non-Canon)

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Please note, the following interlude is a joke that should not be taken seriously. It is just for fun and is meant to be a silly one-off parody of sorts. If that kind of thing is not something you enjoy, you can safely skip this one and not lose any plot. Except you might still want to read the tags at the bottom, as they are factual. 

Three small stones rolled quickly through an empty grass field. As they reached the middle of the field, the two smaller rocks stopped, while the third, slightly larger one rolled on another few feet. Then it too came to a halt. The pitch-black stone had been truly chiseled and handsome once, though the years had not been kind. Years of work. Years of keeping the Mother Stone safe.

“Corporal Anthracite, front and center!” the dark rock bellowed.

Immediately, another stone, this one not quite as dark and somewhat smaller, came rolling up from another patch of grass. He passed the two bodyguard stones, who rolled aside to admit him before resuming their position of watching for any unwelcome intruders.  “Corporal Gary Anthracite reporting, Commandant Obsidian!” There was a bit of nervousness and anticipation to the corporal rock’s voice. He had been waiting so long for this day. He knew just how important it was. Not just for them. For everyone. For everything.  

“How long, Corporal?” Darrius Obsidian asked, adjusting his tone a little. He had the instinct to snap, instinct born of centuries of hard military work. But Gary was a good Anthracite. And a good rock in general. There was no need to take things out on the kid just because he was nervous. They were all nervous.

“Sir,” the corporal quickly replied, “according to the scouts, ten minutes. The field’s secure. We have four snipers on the trees there, there, there, and there. They’re Scoria, sir, they know what they’re about. Any punks show up, they’ll regret it.”

“Good,” Obsidian murmured thoughtfully, his mind already racing about the possibilities. “We can’t have any interruptions. Not with this. It’s too important. There’s too many people trying to make sure this goes sideways.” He looked over to the younger rock. “You’re not relying just on the snipers, are you?”

He was rewarded with a quick headshake. “No, sir. We have a full squad of Sylvinites and Itacolumites waiting just over the ridge there. Shit goes down, they’ll send those intruders straight to the bedrock.”

“Hm,” Obsidian grunted, “they’re good kids, but Sylvinites and Itacolumites can both be pretty soft. You sure they’re up for this?”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Gary assured him, “they’ve got back-up. They’re just the quickest ones in. We’ve got the Skarn trio and half a dozen Eclogites rolling through the bushes. Trust me, Commandant, we’re ready for this. We spent two weeks clearing this place out and making sure it’s clear for this. We are good to go.”

“And your man,” the commandant prompted after giving a slow look around the field. “He’s ready? You’re sure he’s the right one for a job like this?”

“Sir,” Corporal Anthracite replied firmly, “he is the only one for a job like this. Believe me when I tell you, if he can’t get it done, there’s no one in this world that could. He’s the one.”

Watching him for another moment for any hint of doubt and finding none, Obsidian finally relented with a pointed, “He better be. I’m not exaggerating when I say the fate of the Mother Stone depends on it. We’re putting all of our lives in the hands of your man. So to speak.”

“He’s up for it,” Anthracite insisted, turning a bit. “In fact, here he comes now.”

Both rocks turned a bit, watching as a third, smaller stone approached them. Once more, the two bodyguard rocks waited for a sign from their leader before moving aside to allow the newcomer admittance. He rolled to a stop, bowing a bit in recognition. “Commandant Obsidian, Corporal Anthracite, sorry for the delay, sirs. I was saying a few last words to my little pebbles since it’ll be awhile before I see them again.”

Lifting his gaze a bit in surprise, Obsidian quickly asked, “You have children, Agent?”

“Ah, no, sorry, Commandant,” came the response. “I’m afraid I haven’t been blessed with my own. But I volunteer in the Big Boulder program. They might not be mine, but I love those little pebbles. It’s gonna be hard stepping away from the home slab for so long.” His voice was a bit wistful as he thought about the tiny rocks he was leaving behind for this.

Clearing his throat, Anthracite looked back and forth between the other two. “Ahem, yes. Commandant Obsidian, may I officially introduce you to Agent Dacite.”

“Agent Dacite,” Obsidian greeted him with a simple nod. “I hope you know how long we spent looking for the right rock for this job. Years, son. We spent years interviewing every single bit of slab and rubble out there. The corporal’s vouched for you, and we’re all hoping he’s right. Because if he’s not…”

“I won’t let you down, sir,” Agent Dacite promised, standing as straight and tall as a semi-spherical rock with no legs could manage. “I know what’s at stake. I’ll protect that girl with my life.” He added a sly grin at the end, his voice lightening just a bit. “And hey, if we pull this off, maybe we’ll have something to say to the Sling boys in Tehran who haven’t shut up about how they took down that Goliath guy. I mean, sure maybe he was a giant, but get something new to brag about, right?”

With a tiny, reluctant smile of his own, Obsidian coughed. “Believe me, Agent Dacite, you do your job here and those Sling boys’ll be the ones buying you beers. They’ll buy all of us beers. Hell, you pull it off and I’ll buy everyone any kind of beer you want. Just get it done. Protect the kid. No matter what.”

“No matter what,” Agent Dacite agreed before looking toward the middle of the field, where the subject of their conversation had just appeared. Not that she was visible through the school bus that had brought her. But he knew she was there. His future partner. The person he would protect from all the many, many terrible things that were waiting for her. The girl he would die for, if it meant protecting her, for the sake and safety of the Mother Stone.

Felicity Chambers. His human.

He just hoped they got along.

*******

Flick Chambers was the best partner anyone could ask for.

Well, for a human, anyway. And Herbie, because he was Herbie now and always would be as far as he was concerned, would let himself crumble to dust before allowing any harm to come to that kid. His sword had been pledged to her protection since before he’d received it, of course. This was his job. But now? Now it was personal. He was that girl’s protector, her guardian stone. And may Mother Stone break apart should he ever abandon that duty.

And what a duty it was. That kid was brave, he’d give her that much for sure. But she had a habit of attracting so much trouble. At least he had help now, even if they were raw recruits. And former enemies at that. Not that it was really their fault. They’d been the tools of their previous owner. But now they were here, and he was going to make damn sure they were ready for anything that came their way.

“Ambush maneuver Kappa!” he called out while resting up on the windowsill of the room that his human shared with Avalon Sinclaire. He could see the whole area from here. Including the floor, where the two cyberform mice, Jaq and Gus, stood at attention. As he barked out the command, both of them sprang into action. Jaq ran to the nearby door, scrambling his way up the side to perch on the small wooden lip just above it. Meanwhile, Gus went for the nearby desk, climbing to an open spot just under the drawer before setting himself there at what would be about knee level for a human.

“Good boys!” Herbie praised them. They were kids, they needed to hear it. They needed encouragement. “That’s right. Jaq, you see an opening from up there, you take it. Necks, throats, ears, you can do a hell of a lot of damage. And Gus, you sneak your way into any bag they’re carrying, or hit a wrist, a knee, anything to disarm them. Excellent work, you two.”

The mice chittered excitedly, resuming their place in the middle of the room. Both were fairly quivering with eagerness. They were ready to fight, ready to do anything it took to keep their human alive. Just like Herbie himself.

Yup, the kid definitely did well when she picked up these guys.

As a reward, Herbie rolled off the windowsill, dropping to the floor. He made his way over to a nearby toolbox, using his sword to flick the latch open before rolling up the side of it. His sword dipped down into the box, producing several metal washers, which he tossed out to the floor. To their credit and his deep satisfaction, the mice stayed perfectly still, though their eyes followed the treats longingly. They wanted to move, wanted to feast. But they were too well trained.

“It’s okay, go for it, boys,” he proudly assured them. “You’ve earned it.” He watched then, smiling to himself as the cyberform mice dove onto the metal washers, quickly downing them. Yes, sir, he was definitely glad to have the help. These kids might’ve been young, untrained, and wet behind the ears. But they were loyal. They were competent. They were the best young rookie troops he could have asked for.  

And with the way Flick collected enemies like some humans collected… well, rocks, they’d need all the help they could get.

******

“I’m sorry, Mother Stone.” Herbie’s voice was quiet, as he sat perched on top of a fallen log, his eyes focused on the lights twinkling in the sky far above.

Was one of those lights his home? Was one of those lights the Mother Stone from which he had come? No. No, they were too far away for that. So far away that… none of those lights would be the Mother Stone. So far away that… that he was afraid he might never see her again.

They were in Seosten space. Hours earlier, he, Flick, and the other kids had been transported up to that Seosten space station, and from there to this world before running for so long to find these hiding place where they could finally rest. Now the humans were sleeping and he was standing guard just outside of the cave they were holed up in.

Here, so far from the home that he had known for so long, Herbie felt all of the worries that he tried so hard to set aside. He worried about how he would protect his human, about how his little pebbles were doing, even about how Avalon, Scout, and the rest of their team were. For magma’s sake, they were a billion light years away! If anything happened to them while he and Flick were stuck out here, he would… he would…

He’d never forgive himself, he knew that much. Damn it! How had he let that evil psycho bitch take them by surprise?! He should have seen it coming. He should have warned Dare.

No. No, he couldn’t dwell like that. He couldn’t let mistakes cloud his mind. Especially now. He’d made a mistake, yes. He’d learn from it. He’d grow from it. And he would make damn sure nothing happened to these kids out here. Whatever it took, no matter how many enemy forces he had to cut through, he would get Flick and her friends back to Mother Stone.

Her friends… and that new Seosten kid. Boy had that ever been a surprise. Herbie had been so taken aback when Tabbris revealed herself, he’d nearly rubbled himself. And that explanation, the realization of just how much help the kid had been… he’d wanted to hug her. Especially once he realized how scared she was. Poor kid.

She was family. He’d vowed that even before Flick had accepted the girl. Seosten or not, she was family, and he’d make damn sure she was safe from all this.

Hearing a noise behind him, Herbie turned slightly, only to find Jaq and Gus there, watching him. He offered them the most reassuring smile he could, tipping his snazzy hat. “I know, guys. You’re worried too, huh?” When they answered with a pair of quick nods, he rolled off the log to drop in front of them. “Don’t worry, boys. We’re okay. Doesn’t matter where we are, or how far from the Mother Stone we go. She’s watching over us. And we’re watching over each other. You got that? We watch each other’s backs. And we take care of our humans.”

The two mice chittered affirmatively, each rising onto their hind legs before giving a firm, sharp salute.

That time, the smile that he offered the pair was much easier to summon. Herbie was proud to call them his troops. No… his partners. “Okay, boys. Let’s scout the perimeter. You two stay together. Shout if you see anything suspicious. And I mean anything. We’re in unfamiliar territory here. You even think you’ve got a whiff of trouble, you holler and I’ll come rolling. We’ll deal with it together.”

There was another quick pair of affirmative squeaks, and the two mice scampered off into the bushes. Herbie watched them go before turning to roll the other way, to check the opposite side of the area surrounding the cave where the humans were sleeping.

Yes, being away from the Mother Stone was terrifying. But this was the job he had volunteered for. No matter how scary it got, he would stick with it. He would do his duty. He would protect his human. And her newfound little sister.

Someday, he knew, they would make it back to the Mother Stone. Together.

******

Well, things had certainly gone to hell pretty damn fast. One night, and not only was Gaia Sinclaire now imprisoned, but the rest of them had been driven right out of Crossroads itself.

Most of them, anyway. Poor Sean. Hearing that the kid had been left behind, it was all Herbie could do to stop himself from going right in after him again. Only telling himself that his job was to protect Flick had been enough. Even then, if she’d said anything about going after the boy, he would’ve been right there alongside her. Sean was part of the team. They didn’t leave the team behind.

But they’d had to. They’d had to leave him. For now, at least. They would go back for him, of course. Yet the thought of what those psychopaths might be doing to that kid in the meantime made Herbie’s minerals rumble. He wanted to take his sword and put it through a few toes and fingers.

Five minutes alone in a room with that Ruthers son of a bitch. That’s all he asked. Five minutes. He’d show that guy just what he thought of him. And the rest of his loyal Crossroads stormtroopers.

But now they were in a safe place. And dare he say it, he liked this one better. He’d always enjoyed the time he and Flick spent here at the Atherby camp. It felt more… real than that island. The people here, the other rocks, they weren’t blunted by so many centuries of living under Crossroads Heretic oppression. They were free stones. And he’d already been assured that there were reinforcements waiting to join in should he give the word.

Yes, as scary and dangerous as that whole situation had been, the camp had been the right place to come. He was sure of it. Especially with the rebellion now ramping back up.

“Mother Stone to Agent Dacite.” The voice of Corporal Gary Anthracite drew Herbie’s attention once more, reminding him that he was reporting in. He and the other rock were both meeting behind one of the larger trees on the outskirts of the camp, where they wouldn’t be overheard.

“Sorry, sir,” Herbie quickly replied while drawing himself up to attention. “I was just scanning the perimeter one more time. To be on the safe side.”

“Don’t worry, Agent,” Anthracite assured him, “as I said, we have men surrounding the entire camp. No unauthorized intruders are getting past them. Not without us getting ample warning.” He smiled then, offering a nod to Herbie. “You’ve done well, Agent Dacite. Actually, you’ve done so well that I’ve been authorized to inform you that, if you want, you can go back to your pebbles.”

Blinking once, Herbie tilted a bit to the side. “Excuse me? Fli–the Chambers girl is still in danger.”

“Yes, she is,” Anthracite agreed. “But you’ve gotten her this far. And now that she’s not in Crossroads, we can put other agents on her guard detail. You’ve done plenty. Hell, son, you spent months away from the Mother Stone. Take a load off. Have a vacation. Get back to that Big Boulder program. We can take it from here. We’ve got the whole woods filled with our men. That girl will be safe.”

There was no pause, no hesitation. Herbie shook back and forth. “Sorry, Corporal, I have no intention of leaving. This is my duty, my assignment. Flick, she’s… she’s my partner. I’m not abandoning that when we’ve just gotten started. We get this far, and you think I’m just going to walk away? No fracking way.”

Meeting his gaze intently, Anthracite quietly asked, “Are you absolutely sure about that? This may be your only chance to back out of this assignment for a long time, Agent Dacite. You stick around now and… well, you may be in it for the long haul.”

“Sir,” the dashing young rock firmly replied, “first, with all due respect, you’re not the one who put me on this assignment for the long haul. Flick did, when she threw me through that portal. She brought me into this. She’s the only one that’ll take me out of it. And second, it’s not Agent Dacite anymore.

“My name is Herbie.”

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Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Exodus 44-01

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Something really fucked up was going on.

That sentence basically could have opened almost any story from my life this past year. But this time it was particularly apt. Harper Hayes was in my dorm room where I had been sleeping with Avalon and Shiori, and she had just apparently knocked out another intruder with some kind of electrified knife before informing us that we had to go because Fossor just killed one of the Committee members and got Gaia arrested for it.

So yeah, with extreme emphasis, something really fucked up was going on.

Avalon was already on her feet, Harper’s words (if it was really Harper at all) bringing her up quickly. She grabbed the girl’s arm, giving her a quick shove up against the wall while hissing, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?”

“Valley,” I quickly blurted, tossing a pen to the girl. “Check her.” She caught it with her free hand while still holding Harper against the wall with her other.

Harper, for her part, gave a very soft sigh before extending her arm to the side, using her other hand to tug the sleeve down, exposing her skin. “Fine, do it. But quick, they’re already sending more to take your friends.”

Even as Valley scrawled the anti-possession rune on the girl, I was grabbing two things. First, a small coin that Wyatt had given me. My thumb brushed over it as I quickly activated the thing to let him know something was wrong. With my other hand, I grabbed my phone and pressed the button that would let Tabbris know that I needed her to check in. Wyatt and Tabbris, they were first.

Once the messages were sent, I pushed myself to my feet, trying not to wince. My legs still hurt. They weren’t crippled or anything, but they were definitely sore. Just putting my own weight on them after laying down for hours made a short, sharp pain shoot through me. Ow. Seriously ow. I wasn’t going to be jumping around anytime soon. Just the thought of launching myself with my staff and landing on them made me shudder.

One night. Could we not have one single night where we got to win without things going wrong?

In the meantime, Shiori had moved to check the guy on the floor. Glancing that way finally showed me who it was. October Atrean, one of the guys who had been sent by the Committee to keep an eye on things. Checking him, Shiori looked to me, whispering, “He’s breathing.”

Avalon finished with the rune then, stepping back a bit while we all stared. But nothing happened. There was no Seosten possessing her. Which meant… what, exactly? One of Fossor’s zombies? The thought of the chipper, perky girl I’d gotten to know a bit over that year being a zombie filled me with dread.

But no. I could tell she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t possessed, so…?

“What are you?” Avalon snapped. “Who are you? What–shapeshifter, magic, what?”

“There’s a lot to tell you,” Harper agreed. “But now isn’t the time. Like I said, they’re coming for you. They already arrested Gaia. And by they, I mean more Committee members. They weren’t taking a chance with her, not after–” She stopped herself then, head shaking. “Explanations later. Right now, you want to get out of here without everyone you care about being thrown in Crossroads prison? Then we need to get off this island right now.

“Why should we trust you?” I demanded. “You could be working for… or with, any of like a dozen different people that want to get us out from Gaia’s protection. We have no reason to believe that you–”

Harper spoke then. Not words. Numbers. At first I thought she was listing temperatures, then time limits or something. Then I realized the truth.

“Latitude and longitude?” Shiori blurted. “What’s that supposed–”

“The baseball stadium,” I interrupted, staring at Harper. “That’s the coordinates for the baseball stadium that we fought Ammon at. You… you’re the one who sent that telepathic whisper to Professor Dare, the one who told her we were in trouble and where to find us.”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Harper spoke quietly, yet urgently. “And I really want to answer them. But there’s not time. We have to leave, now.”

Avalon spun on her heel, starting to the door. “If Gaia’s in trouble, I–”

Shiori and I were both there, grabbing either of her arms. I spoke quickly. “Valley, stop. If she’s right–I don’t know who she is or what’s going on with her, but if she’s right, we don’t stand a chance. It’s the Committee, and if they have Gaia–if it’s something Gaia can’t handle…”

I felt Tabbris’ presence then. Not fully. She hadn’t recalled to me completely. Rather, she projected herself mentally, checking to see what was going on. I silently filled her in, letting her take in everything from my mind while urging her to stay at the Atherby camp to tell them. For a brief second, I felt a little more relief despite the insanity of the situation, just knowing that Tabbris was getting help.

“What do you want me to do, Chambers?!” Avalon snapped meanwhile, looking to me sharply. “Just abandon her? I can’t do that. I can’t just let her–if they’re going to–” She half-flailed helplessly, her eyes wide.

“Leave now,” Harper put in before I could respond. “Get off the island, regroup with others, and go from there. You won’t accomplish anything by getting yourself arrested. Nothing except turning yourself into leverage that can be used against her.”

Tabbris had everything by then. She was just as confused as I was, clearly. But she promised to tell everyone at the camp, and to get help. Then I felt her presence withdraw.

Spinning back to Harper in that time, Avalon started to blurt, “And who the hell–” Stopping herself as I quickly put a hand on her shoulder, she took a breath before staring intently at Harper. “We’re going to have a really long discussion after this.”

“Yes,” the other girl agreed. “We are.” She lifted her chin a bit. “But for now–” Suddenly and without warning, she threw her hand out. An invisible force caught Shiori, Avalon, and me, throwing all three of us out of the way. I fell over my bed with a yelp, while the other two hit a nearby wall.

An instant later, a new figure literally dropped in from the ceiling, phasing through just like October had. I immediately recognized him as the other man’s partner, Patrick. His fists were glowing with a violet energy, and the second he landed, the man was already swinging at Harper. In the span of about a second, as long as it would have taken me to blink, he’d already lashed out three times, twice with his right fist and once with his left. It was so fast, so ridiculously fast, that none of us had a prayer of reacting in time.

None of us, that was, aside from Harper herself. She ducked once to avoid the first swing, turned slightly to let the second go past her face, then rocked herself backwards just a hair so that the third would miss as well. Then her hand snapped up, as she slapped two fingers, just two fingers, against the side of the man’s neck.

He dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, collapsing to the floor where he lay unconscious. It was that simple, that quick. Harper had barely moved. Now, she looked to the three of us, just as we finished picking ourselves up.

“They’ll send more. We need to go, right now.”

“We–” Forcing myself to focus despite the several thousand fucking questions I had, I snapped, “We have to get the others. Sands, Scout, Doug, Columbus, Sean, Koren…” My mind was going a million miles an hour. Vanessa and Tristan weren’t here, spending the evening at the Atherby camp with their parents. But the others, we had to get to the others.

“And Aylen,” Avalon put in sharply. “She’s Koren’s roommate, so it’s not out of the way. And even if it was, we’re not leaving her behind, not after what she did for us. If things are going wrong…”

“Yes,” Harper agreed. “You were the first targets because you were seen as the most… important to contain. But they’re already sending others for your friends.”

Everything the girl said and did made me want to call a time-out and interrogate her for several hours. But there wasn’t time. As much as I wanted to get actual answers from her (especially about how the living hell she had suddenly become such a badass), we had to get moving.

Wyatt hadn’t done anything yet. Or even responded. The thought of what could be keeping him made me cringe inwardly, but I forced myself to say, “We get the girls first, then grab the boys.. And after that…”

“After that,” Harper put in while moving to the door, “we get off the school grounds. I have a way off the island, but we need to be out from under their security system first. For now, get dressed.” She stopped at the door, seeming to listen for a moment before adding, “And grab anything you don’t want to leave behind.”  

Filing that right along with the list of all the other baffling things about the girl, I gave the other two a brief glance before running to my dresser. Hurriedly, I started to dress, shoving a few special things into my pockets and an extra-dimensional bag I’d been given earlier.

“Let’s go, guys,” I announced, kneeling by the box where Jaq and Gus were resting with their new roommate, Porthos. The two mice and the lizard all looked up at me as I extended my hands down, before the three of them hurriedly crawled up to my shoulders.

“Chambers,” Avalon started, and I glanced up to see the other girl by the windowsill where Herbie had been sitting (I’d gotten him back from Larees earlier). She tossed him to me, and I quickly put the little guy in my pocket before returning the favor by tossing Porthos to her.

Finally, I grabbed my notebook. Giving it a quick glance to make sure everything was in order, I shoved it away inside my bag before straightening. “Shiori?”

“Choo’s still with Savvy and the other kids,” she replied, having already slid into the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before. “I didn’t want to wake the little guy up when we got back. Guess that’s a good thing now. I’m good. Well, not good, but you know.”

We were ready. Which was a good thing, because as I looked to the doorway, I saw that Harper had disappeared.

The three of us quickly moved that way, Avalon going first. She hesitated, then slowly turned the knob and opened the door to poke her head out. I heard her make a noise of disbelief before opening it the rest of the way to step through.

Shiori and I glanced to one another, then slipped out as well. There, we found three Crossroads security people on the floor, soundly unconscious. Harper was there as well, just straightening from lowering a fourth to the floor next to Sands and Scout’s room. “Hurry,” she said quickly. “They’ll be coming in force now.”

The three of us exchanged quick looks. I pointed. “Valley, get Koren and Aylen, I’ve got the twins.” Then I started to the door Harper was next to, leaving Avalon to go the other way. I tried to sprint, but my legs protested too much, so I just sort of quick-hobbled my way there like some kind of old woman with hip and knee problems.

As a group, we had long-since passed each other copies of the keys that let us access each other’s rooms. Since I had the one for the twins’ dorm in my pocket, the door opened as soon as I turned the knob. Letting myself in, I fumbled for the light switch briefly before flicking it on.

The good news was that Sands was there, already sitting up and staring at me in confusion while her hand grabbed for her mace reflexively.

The bad news, because of course we needed more of that, was that the other bed was empty.

“Where’s Scout?” I blurted. “We have to go!” As if for emphasis, Jaq and Gus both chittered at her from either shoulder.

She stared at me in confusion, already picking herself off the bed. “Go? Where are we–”

“No time! Get dressed, grab anything you need. I–” Hesitating, I looked to her. “Fossor. It’s Fossor. He… he killed one of the Committee members, somehow.” While Sands gaped at me, I continued. “He killed one of them and blamed it on Gaia. They’re taking her in now, and coming after us. We have to go. Where’s Scout?”

To her credit, Sands had started getting dressed before I was even halfway through that. She hurriedly pulled on clothes, shrugging into her jacket before grabbing a backpack. “She probably went for a walk,” she informed me. “She does that sometimes, out on the far end of the grounds, near the edge of the shield where the jungle starts.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed a second backpack and tossed it to me, adding, “We, uhh, prepped for something like this.”

Catching what was obviously Scout’s bag, I blinked twice before nodding. “We’ll get her, come on, guys first.”

The two of us moved back to the hall, where Sands stopped short upon seeing the unconscious guards and Harper. “Wha–”

“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “And we’ve only heard like… five percent of it. She’s on our side, she’s helping us get out of here. The rest can wait.”

“Wait for what?” That was Koren, coming out of the other room with Avalon and Aylen right behind her. The latter had Sovereign perched on one arm, who looked as confused as his partner. Which was impressive for a hawk to begin with, let alone a mechanical one.

Both Aylen and Koren stopped short at the sight of Harper, looking just as confused as… well, everyone else except Harper herself. But before they could say anything, Shiori, who was standing by the door at the end of the hall, turned back to us and came sprinting. “They’re coming,” she hissed. “Four more security guys, plus Peterson Neal!”

“That guy is seriously annoying,” Harper muttered, sounding for a moment like the simple teen girl she was supposed to be. Then she waved us to the stairs. “Move, go. We’ll go up to the roof. Go, go, go.”

No one else questioned it. We all turned, rushing for the stairs. Sovereign hopped off Aylen’s arm to fly ahead, smart enough not to call out. Glancing back, I saw Harper touch something to the floor to activate a spell before she followed us, waving the group on. “Hurry,” she snapped, just as some kind of black cloud started to fill the hallway behind us. “It’ll take them a minute to get through that, but you need to move, now.”

Even as she said that, we were already moving up the stairs as fast as we could go. Shiori had moved to help me, putting one arm around my back so I could lean on her. Flashing the girl a grateful smile, I caught the railing with my other hand and kept heaving myself up that way. Sands, meanwhile, activated one of the privacy coins, as did Avalon, just to be on the safe side.

Around and up we went, running up those stairs while the sound of the door opening below reached us. They were right behind us. If Harper was right, the dark cloud would slow them down. But not for long. We had to get the others and get the hell out of here.

The speed with which Crossroads had gone from a place of safety to one of intense danger was kind of terrifying. I’d seen this place as… well, not completely safe, of course. That would have been blindingly naive, after everything that had happened. But now it was so much worse. The news that Gaia had been… had been arrested (was that even possible?!) and that they were all after us had turned everything on its end. The Committee had lost one of their own, and they were sending their goons to take us in.

Goons who, I had to remind myself, probably mostly thought they were doing the right thing. This wasn’t like fighting the Seosten. The vast majority of the people who were being sent to collect us were almost definitely good guys, at least in their own minds. They didn’t know what was really going on. How would they? Everything was set up for them not to know, and Fossor had taken advantage of that. Just like he’d taken advantage of the fact that everyone was exhausted after everything that had happened before making his move.

How he knew what happened, how he knew anything about it, I didn’t know. Escalan’s… body was long gone, and Gaia had done a thorough sweep of every other faculty member to make sure they were… well, alive. But somehow, Fossor knew enough to make his move right then, and I was positive that wasn’t a coincidence.

Passing every other floor (and a few confused older students who were milling around the halls looking around to see what was going on), we reached the top, where a ladder at the end of the hall led upward. Quickly, the seven of us climbed up, emerging on the roof, where we stayed low as the sound of voices outside calling back and forth reached us.

A sound caught my attention, and we all spun back to see one of the security guys floating up to land on the roof. He saw us at the same time, his mouth opening to shout something.

Then Harper was behind him. Her arm covered his mouth, as she did something with her other hand that made the man’s eyes roll back in his head. She let him fall gently, lowering him down before looking back to us. “Now,” she said sharply, “we have to go.”

“Go?” Aylen started. “Where are we going?”

“We have to get off the island,” I informed her. “It’s too dangerous here right now. If they’re taking Gaia… we have no idea how much they know, or what they’ll find out.”

“What?” the other girl snapped suddenly, eyes widening. “No, no, I’m not going–I’m not leaving the island. I can’t.”

“Aylen,” I started, “if they’re taking Gaia away, we don’t know if… if it’ll be safe for people like you and Shiori. Hybrids. We don’t–”

“We’ll come back for him,” Avalon cut in, watching Aylen. “You can’t free him right now, Aylen. Not with the Committee’s people all over the place.”

Realizing just what they were talking about, my eyes widened as I looked over toward the lighthouse. Aylen was part-Reaper. Actually, she’d said that she was a Reaper’s granddaughter. Did that mean that… Holy shit.

“But I–” Looking distressed, Aylen squirmed on her feet before swallowing. “Okay…” She didn’t look happy about it, but she wasn’t arguing. From the spot where he had perched nearby, Sovereign looked just as upset.

“Right,” Shiori started, “so we grab the boys and… uh oh.”

Looking the way she was, I muttered a curse. Because down below, the boys were right there. Right there being escorted out the back door of the dorm by several armed figures who weren’t dressed as Crossroads security.

“Committee lackeys,” Sands muttered, staring that way alongside us. “How do we get them and get to Scout?”

“Carefully,” I replied, just as a shout went up from below that ‘the girls’ weren’t in their rooms and to spread out to look for us.

“Very goddamn carefully.”

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