Harper Hayes

Interlude 30B – Avalon

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Hours after Flick and the others were banished to Seosten space. 

A scream, raw and primal, filled the air as a table was upended, books, papers, and random writing implements scattering in every direction along the floor with a terrifying crash.

“I told you!” the beautiful, dark-haired girl blurted in a rush as she stared at the nearby woman, the only other occupant of this small, out-of-the-way office where she’d managed to escape interrogation by the Committee stooges. “I told you I shouldn’t have a roommate! I told you!”  

Gaia Sinclaire gave a slight nod, her voice quiet and even. “You did indeed tell me that, yes.”  

Avalon turned her head sharply, avoiding her adoptive mother’s patient, caring look. She didn’t want to feel better. She didn’t want to feel safe and protected. She wanted… she wanted… With a frustrated growl, the girl lashed out once more. Her fist hit the nearby wall hard enough to leave a crack in it, an impressive feat for one without any kind of supernaturally enhanced strength. It also hurt, but she welcomed the pain. Physical pain was better than this anguish.

“But you didn’t listen. You didn’t listen.” Her voice cracked, breaking a little as her head shook violently back and forth. “And now look. What happened, just because you wouldn’t listen?”

After waiting a moment to ensure that she was actually expected to answer the question, Gaia inclined her head while replying, “You found someone to open up to, someone you care about.”

“Yeah,” Avalon spoke in a flat, dull voice while her head dropped so that she could stare intently at the floor. “And now look at what that got her. She’s gone. They took her. They… took… her.”

Snapping her head up to glare at the woman with anger that was never truly meant for Gaia herself, the girl demanded, “If you hadn’t made us roommates, they wouldn’t have her now!”

It was ridiculous, absurd. She knew that even as the words left her mouth. Before they left her mouth, even. Both she and Gaia were fully aware of just how wrong what she’d said was. But she still had to say them. Saying something was as close as she could get to doing something.

“My dear Valley.” Gaia’s voice was soft, and came from directly behind Avalon as the woman’s hands settled on her shoulders gently. “I didn’t put the two of you together because I thought that you would never experience any pain or loss because of it. I didn’t introduce you thinking that you would somehow avoid ever knowing the true anguish of the other being in danger.”

“Then why?” Avalon’s voice was plaintive, as she turned to face the older woman directly. “Why would you put us together like that when you knew that it would put Felicity in danger, after she was already in danger? Why would you make things even worse for her, even harder?”

Gaia slowly lowered her hands, resting them on Avalon’s shoulders once more as she spoke clearly. “Avalon, loss and fear of loss is a part of life. Some people say that you have two choices, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with people that you care about, or closing yourself off completely so you never have to risk losing anything. But what they don’t understand is that by closing themselves off, they’ve already lost. In their fear of what they could potentially lose, they’ve actually lost every possible bit of love and friendship they could have had.

“You want to know why I put you two together even though it put you in danger from Felicity’s enemies and her in danger from yours? It’s because the two of you make each other stronger.  You have taught her more this year about protecting herself than she ever would have learned without you. And she has taught you as well. She’s taught you to open up, to trust others. And where Felicity is right now, she is going to survive because of what you taught her. She is strong, and she has that strength, in part, because of you. The two of you make each other better people. You need each other, and she is going to need you when she gets back here.”

Avalon lowered her gaze while shaking her head for a moment. Her shoulders were hunched, and it took time for the girl to find her voice, shaky as it was. “You… really think she’ll be back?” She didn’t sound like herself, even to her own ears. She sounded like a little girl. “They have her. They took her. They’re probably–” She cut herself off, unwilling to continue that thought.

Slowly, Gaia reached out. Her finger found Avalon’s chin, tilting her head up so that the girl had to look into her eyes. “Of all the many powers that I possess, none allow me to see the future with that kind of clarity. But I can tell you this much with the same certainty that I use when saying that the sun will rise in the morning. Felicity Chambers will make those people regret taking her. She will bring them pain and misery, and for many of them, underestimating her will be the last thing that they ever do. Will she make it back here? I believe so. And we will do everything, everything we can to make that happen. You have my word. But never, ever let yourself believe that things would have been easier if you had not opened up to that girl. Life is for living, Avalon. You are meant for much greater things than simply locking yourself away.”

By that point, Avalon’s eyes had closed. Hot, wet tears stung as they escaped to fall freely along her face, leaving her make-up runny and splotched. “But it hurts,” she protested weakly, shaking a little as she clenched her fists tightly. For a moment, she stood like that. “It hurts so much.”

“I know.” Gaia’s voice had softened even more, and she carefully, gently gathered her adopted daughter into her arms, pulling her close as she whispered, “I know it does, my dear, sweet girl.”

The two stood like that for a few minutes before Gaia’s head turned just as there was a simple, quiet knock at the nearby door. She gave Avalon another brief squeeze, then turned and spoke without raising her voice above the gentle whisper she had been using. “Yes, Counselor?”

The door opened then, and Calafia took a single step inside. “Certain members of the Committee have been insisting that we speak to Avalon. But,” she added after giving the girl in question a brief glance, “I believe they would settle for speaking with her mother instead.”

“They will have to settle for that.” Gaia’s voice was firm, brooking no argument. “And they will have to wait until I’ve finished here. Give me another few minutes and then I’ll join you.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment and agreement to that, Calafia paused. Her eyes found Avalon, and she spoke carefully. “For what it’s worth, I hope we find her. And the rest of them.”

Once she had stepped back out of the room, and Gaia indicated it was safe to talk again, Avalon immediately asked, “Have you said anything to her yet? About… about her showing up at Felicity’s house, about helping her father beat the Bystander Effect, about any of it?”

“Not yet,” Gaia answered softly. “That is a conversation that must happen when she is ready to have it. Pushing the issue too soon would be unhelpful.” She looked to the girl then, her voice even more gentle. “Will you be alright for a few minutes while I speak with the Committee?” She raised a hand, snapping her fingers to create a portal nearby. “You may wait in my office.”

“You know I won’t be okay until we get Felicity back,” Avalon replied in a dull voice, already turning to walk that way as she continued. “But yeah, I’ll wait there. Might as well.”

Then she stepped through the portal and into Gaia’s large office with its two-tiered structure, holographic globe in the domed ceiling full of various green, yellow, and red flares marking possible Stranger sightings, and the set of ‘windows’ that the headmistress used to watch over various parts of the world. Specifically, her eyes found the window that had overlooked Felicity’s house while her father had still been living there. It was different now, a view of some random, closed-down video rental store in some random city. Why it was important, Avalon had no idea.  

Sighing, she took a seat at the headmistress’s desk, resting her arms and head on the smooth, polished surface. For a few minutes, the girl did nothing but sit there, eyes closed as she fought against the despair that threatened to overwhelm her despite Gaia’s words. Felicity. Why did they have to take Felicity? Why couldn’t she have stopped them? Why didn’t she… why didn’t…

The girl sighed once more, cursing out loud as she sat up abruptly, trying to knock her own thoughts out of the jumbled mess they had become. She wanted to do something, wanted to accomplish something. But what? Charmiene was dead, and they had no idea who her partner was. What could she possibly do besides sit here at the desk and accomplish absolutely noth–

Standing up so fast that the chair she had been sitting in tipped over and hit the floor, Avalon pivoted and started to move. Crossing the room at something approaching a sprint, she went straight for one of the nearby bookshelves. Whispering a prayer that the thing she was looking for was still there, she started taking books out and flipping through them. The books were spelled so that most people couldn’t even take them without setting off an alarm. Hell, the entire office was spelled that way. But Avalon was one of the very, very few people who were allowed.

It didn’t take long to find it. Halfway through the third book, there was a small metal box inserted in a cutout section. Opening that quickly, the girl took out a small, simple-looking metal key.

“Got you,” she snarled under her breath, not referring to the object itself. Straightening, the girl strode to the nearby door. Grasping the knob, she shoved the key into the lock, taking a breath before quickly shoving it open, stepping through, and letting the door close behind herself.

She wasn’t in the hallway. Or any hallway. Instead, Avalon found herself standing in a dimly lit room, facing a very familiar prison cell with an even more familiar figure standing on the other side of the bars, as if he had somehow been waiting for her to arrive.

“Hannah.” Trice somehow made her birth name sound like the world’s most vile curse. His hands moved to grasp the bars in front of him, making it immediately clear that he wished they were around her throat instead. “What happened? They end up killing that little girlfriend of y-”

Her foot lashed out, kicking the cell door hard enough that it rattled violently, making Trice take a reflexive step back before he caught himself. “Oh,” he announced then, seeing the look on her face. “I guess something bad did happen, huh?” His smile dropped. “Good. I hope it hurts.”

That was all it took. In truth, it would have taken even less. As soon as the boy finished speaking, Avalon was already moving. Her arm snapped up, as her gauntlet created a glowing energy construct in the shape of a blunt pole. It slammed into the boy’s chest, forcing him backwards as she moved forward until he hit the far wall. She held him there, unlocking the cell door with the key while the boy grunted. She tossed the key over her shoulder and to the floor, far enough away from the cell that she would have to use an energy construct to get it back.

Then she was inside the cell, shutting the door behind herself with a definitive clang. With that, she’d locked herself in the same small space as the boy who had been trying to kill her all year.

Trice was staring at her as she kept him pinned against the wall. Meeting his gaze, Avalon announced flatly, “No powers. They don’t work in here. And nobody else. No lackeys, no friends, no bodyguards, no spies. Just the two of us.” Her chin rose. “You’ve been trying to kill me all year.”

With that, she deactivated her gauntlet, freeing the boy as she snarled darkly, “So bring it.”

She didn’t have to tell him twice. The second the energy pole holding him back disappeared, Trice was already moving, and he was still incredibly fast. Despite the time he had spent locked up in the room, the boy’s reflexes and speed hadn’t dulled much, if any. He was suddenly right in front of her, fist swinging for her face while he snarled furiously, “That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch!”

Avalon pivoted, snapping her arm up to deflect the incoming punch. Even that, with her gauntlet blunting most of what was left of the impact, felt like her arm had been hit with a hammer. Pain exploded in her. Good pain. Physical pain. Pain she could understand.

She embraced it.

With a grunt, the girl caught hold of Trice’s outstretched arm, slamming it down into her rising knee as she drove her leg upward. She heard the snap as the bone cracked, and Trice gave a slight inhale of restrained pain. Then his other fist connected with her face, and her head was rocked backward like she’d been hit by a truck.

He hit her again, twice more. Once again in the face, and then in the stomach while letting out a primal bellow of anger. Then he went for a full backhanded blow with the back of his fist. As it came around, Avalon ducked at the last second before pivoting as she popped back up. Catching his arm with one hand and shoulder with the other, she gave the boy a shove against the nearby wall, slamming his face into the concrete there. Then she yanked him back by the hair before slamming his face even harder into the wall.

His flailing elbow caught her in the gut, and Avalon stumbled backward, releasing him. Instantly, the boy spun with a kick that took her in the chest. Pain. More pain. She staggered, while Trice drove the heel of his hand toward her face, hitting her nose hard enough to break it and send blood spraying.

With a violent, crazed scream, the boy grabbed her hair with the hand connected to his cracked arm. Yanking it up so that she had to look at him, he reared back before driving his fist toward her face once more.

Her arms snapped up and together, trapping Trice’s own arm between them just before his fist could reach her. Then her foot lashed out, kicking him in the knee as hard as she could. As he grunted and stumbled, Avalon smacked his other hand away from her hair before ducking and stepping out to put herself on the outside of his outstretched arm. Her hand caught his wrist then, shoving it against the wall to hold his hand there before she brought her other arm down on the exact same spot she had hit before.

That time, the bone didn’t just crack. It broke. And she was rewarded with a cry of pain, even as Trice spun to grab for her with his other hand.

She stepped into it, but before his fingers could do more than grasp for her, she put her own fist into his nose, rocking the boy’s head backward and dazing him for a brief instant.

“Torv was my friend!” Avalon’s voice, shaky and broken filled the air before she even realized that she was going to say anything. And yet, the words came as quickly and easily as if a faucet had been turned. And like a faucet, they came with water as tears sprang to her eyes.

“He was my friend!” Her fist hit the boy in the face, rocking backward before doing so a third time, all before he could recover.

“He was my only friend!

Pivoting once more, the girl brought her foot up as she spun, kicking Trice hard in the gut to double him over as she continued through the tears. “They turned him! They used magic to fuck with his head! They destroyed him! They–they made my only–” She backhanded the boy before he could straighten up. “–only friend try to fucking–” Stepping in, Avalon caught the boy’s other arm as he swung at her taking the pain on her hand without even truly noticing it as she forced it back to snap his wrist. “–rape me!”

Her knee hit the boy’s gut then, and she barely remembered moving that close to him. “You think I wanted to kill him?! You think I wanted to kill my friend?!

“It was them! It was the same fucking people that you’ve been helping, you stupid, pathetic, arrogant son of a bitch!”

Trice slumped a little, and she drove her knee up into his gut again before turning to throw him to the floor. Then she was on top of him. She couldn’t see anymore, the tears fully blinding the girl while she drew her fist back and lashed out, feeling the boy’s face under her blow before she did so again, and again. Then she simply grabbed his shoulders, shaking him.

“We could have helped each other! We could have made them pay for it, for your brother! We could have avenged him, could have made them pay for what happened to Torv! But you are so fucking stupid that you let them manipulate you! You’ve been helping the people who were actually responsible for your brother’s death, you stupid piece of shit!”

Her sobbing had taken over. She couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t even breathe properly, let alone hit the boy anymore. All she could do was sit there atop him, head down as her tears fell freely. Yet still, the words came, in a voice that was weak and broken. .

“Torv was my friend. They took him away. And you helped them.

“You helped them.”

The sound of the cell door opening should have drawn her attention, but she didn’t move. Arms went around her, gently lifting Avalon from her place on top of the boy she had beaten in more than one way.

“My brave girl.” Gaia whispered, hoisting her up before turning to carry her from the cell, before the door closed behind her to leave Trice where he was.

“You knew.” Avalon whispered, her voice cracked and dry. “You knew I’d go in there.”

They were back in Gaia’s office then, as the woman quietly replied, “I knew what you had to do. I know you.”

“How did you know… that I wouldn’t kill him? Or that he wouldn’t kill me?”

Gaia carefully set her down in a bed that had appeared from nowhere. Her hand gently touched Avalon’s face. “As I said, my daughter.

“I know you.”


It had been a long day. A long day of trying to keep herself together, of trying to be the best she could without… without Felicity. Yet, as the sun set, Avalon found herself out on the beach. Instead of looking to the ocean, however, she turned and walked into the jungle.

For over an hour, the girl strode through the darkness, ignoring the sounds and cries of the animals as they moved all around her. She walked away from the beach, away from the school, away from everything, until there was nothing but wild plants and beasts in every direction.

Until she was completely alone.

Except she wasn’t. She would never be alone. They wouldn’t let her. They would always be there, watching and waiting for their chance to take something else from her.

“Well?!” she finally demanded in a shout while turning in a circle with her arms raised into an expectant shrug. “You wanted me so bad, where the hell are you now?! I’m right here!” Continuing her slow pivot, the girl scanned the darkness, openly shaking with uncontained emotion.

“You hunted down my mother!” she called, anger twisting a knot into her stomach. “You killed her! You turned my abusive fucking father into a vampire just so he could keep trying to hurt me over, and over, and over again! You used magic so that my best friend tried to rape me, and made me kill him! You made me kill my best friend, the first kid who was nice to me! You drove me away from the only place I felt safe! You made all these other people try to kill me, you enslaved my teammate, you murdered another classmate, you tried to kill or enslave everyone else on my team, and now you’ve taken away my–” She choked. “Now you’ve taken Felicity!”  

She was still turning in that slow, deliberate circle, eyes scanning the darkness fruitlessly. “So where are you?! I’m right fucking here, you fucking cowards! Do something! If you’re so powerful, if you’re so god damn terrifying, then fucking do something, you fucking cowards!

Silence. Her words, her demand, was met with nothing but total and complete silence, save for the sounds of the surrounding jungle as the rest of the animals went about their business.

Nothing. No one came. As she stood there, waiting for another long minute, Avalon trembled with unconstrained emotion. Fear, anger, remorse, grief for the life she had never been allowed to have, for the mother she would never know, all filled her.

“Yeah,” she finally spoke, her voice slightly quieter. “That’s what I thought. For all your fucking power, for all your fucking armies and your entire gods damned empire, you are nothing but a bunch of fucking cowards.”

Once more, her words were met with silence that dragged on for over a minute before the sound of crunching leaves made Avalon’s gaze snap that way. She had just raised her hands, shifting into a defensive position, when a familiar figure came into view.

“… Hayes?” Avalon stared. Sure enough, Harper Hayes, the weirdly chipper and bubbly girl with more scratch and sniff stickers than anyone in the world actually needed, was stepping into view.

“Hi, Avalon!” Harper chirped, waving a hand, which sent the assortment of bracelets she was wearing spinning and jangling. With her other hand, she held up the camera that was hung around her neck. “I was just getting some really good shots when you shouting. Couldn’t tell what you were saying, but it sounded like you were in trouble. Um. Were you in trouble?”

Was she a threat? Was this a trick? Avalon didn’t let her guard down, watching the girl intently. Sure, from all appearances, Harper Hayes was just an ordinary, innocent little… well, Mini-Nevada. But still…

Finally, the girl shook that off. “I’m fine,” she replied flatly. “Just working out stress.”

“Oh, yeah!” Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Sure, cuz of your… I mean, cuz you know who is still missing and–Uh, do you think they’re okay?”

Somehow, the awkwardness of the response lowered Avalon’s guard a little more. “I don’t know,” she answered with flat truthfulness. “But they better be.”

Coughing, the pink-haired girl gave an awkward nod. “Oh, well, yeah, I bet you’ll kick their asses anyway. You and your mom and all the…” She trailed off then, kicking at the dirt before looking up. “Listen, I know I’m not… like, part of your little group or anything. You don’t know me, and you probably don’t care what I think. But… but I’ve seen Flick fight, and… and wherever she and those other guys are, it’ll… it’ll take a lot to hurt her. I mean–” She stopped herself, taking a breath. “I think they’ll be okay. I hope they are.”

For a moment, Avalon just stared at the girl. A dozen possible responses filled her mind, some of them not very nice. Finally, she just lowered her head and gave a slight nod while muttering, “Thanks.”

“Sure!” Harper grinned. “Us Gauntlet-sisters gotta stick together, right?” She held her own up demonstrably. Unlike Avalon’s, the other girl’s generated various kinds of bombs, like fire, water, deafening, and so on.

“Right.” With that flat, unconvincing response, Avalon turned on her heel to walk back the way she had come. The Seosten wouldn’t try anything with Harper there. If they had even been nearby in the first place.

But she’d moved barely thirty feet before something caught her eye. Blood. There wasn’t much of it, just a small spot on a nearby tree. For a moment, Avalon paused, staring at the little splotch. It could have come from anything. The jungle wasn’t a very nice place. And yet…

“Hey!” Harper popped up behind her, blinking. “What’re we looking at? Oooh, is it one of those kakapo? You know there’s only supposed to be like a hundred of them in New Zealand, but some guy moved a few of them out here, just in case they go extinct in the Bystander world. I think that’s really cool, and–”

“It’s not a bird, Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, nodding to the spot. “Just blood.”

“Blood?” the girl blinked that way before drooping. “Aww, do you think one of the kakapo died?”

The emotional reflex to snap at that popped up before Avalon clamped down on it. “It’s not the– I mean, never mind.” Sighing, she reached out. Conjuring the smallest blade through her gauntlet that she could, the girl cut out that part of the tree, carefully taking the bit of wood with the blood on it before dropping the piece into her pocket.

“Wow!” Harper cluelessly blurted, “you collect weird things too? I’ve got this necklace made out of teeth, and each of them is from a different–”

“Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, already turning to keep walking. “You’ll have more things to take pictures of if you’re quiet.”  

Quickly pantomiming zipping her own lips, the other girl walked alongside her. Or rather, skipped alongside her. How she managed to skip through the jungle without tripping, slipping, or crashing into anything, Avalon had no idea. It had to be some kind of superpower.

The blood was probably nothing. Just an animal or something that had gotten snatched by a predator. But just in case, she would get it tested. If, by some random miracle, it turned out to be important, then… well, at least they would have something.

Leaving Harper once they reached the school grounds, Avalon made her way to the dorms. Some people spoke to her, offered encouragement or what they thought of as advice. But she barely acknowledged it, barely even heard it. She just had to get away. She had to get out of sight, had to get to where she could be left alone.

Finally, she made it to her room. Their room. Stepping inside before closing the door behind herself, Avalon took a breath. Slowly, her eyes moved to the other side of the room, to Felicity’s side.

“Please,” she whispered, her voice a strained, weak little plea that made her flinch inwardly. Still, she stepped over that way, sitting on the edge of the girl’s bed before putting her hand on Felicity’s pillow.

“Please be okay. I didn’t… I don’t tell you this enough. I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t know how to express it. But I–I need you to be okay. I’m just–I’m drowning here. I can’t do this without you. I can’t… I can’t lose you. They can’t take you away too. They can’t have you. They can’t have you. So you have to be okay. You hear me? I need you. I need you. Be okay, or I’ll…”

Trailing off, the girl just sat there. Her mouth worked a couple times, before she slowly laid down there on Felicity’s bed. Curling up, Avalon wrapped both arms around the pillow, holding it close while her eyes closed.

All these things that she had done, having a heart-to-heart with her adopted mother, having it out with Trice and finally saying everything she wanted to say while also beating the stupid son of a bitch, screaming in the jungle for the Seosten to just stop being cowards and do something directly, all of it was supposed to make her feel better. It should have made her feel better. But it didn’t. None of it did. Instead, Avalon just felt… tired. Tired and alone.

“I miss you,” she whispered in a voice that was almost inaudible.

“I really miss you.”

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Mini-Interlude 46 – Harper Hayes

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the the bubbly and cheerful student Harper Hayes, whom Flick interacted with when she was partnered with Doug during the hunt for the Aswang known as Hyde. 

“Wheee!” Harper Hayes, the bubbly young woman whose pigtailed hair would have been blonde if she hadn’t dyed it bubblegum pink, held both hands out to the side like she was an airplane as the motorcycle she was on all-but flew along the road and down the hill.

“Damn it, Harper!” the boy in front of her, who was actually driving the motorcycle, cursed. “I told you before, hold onto me!” He brought the motorcycle to a stop at the base of the hill. “You wanna fall off and break every bone in your body or something?”

“Sorry, Eiji,” Harper recited in a sing-song voice, still smiling at her teammate. “But I just had to do that one more time, we were almost here. Come on, we have regeneration, you know? And all kinds of powers. I’m not gonna break just by falling off a motorcycle. I got punched in the face by that ogre the other day and I was okay!”

The boy grunted, then stepped off the motorcycle and gave her a long look, which she returned with a bright smile. Eiji Ueda was a Heretic-Born boy who was Japanese by way of Canada. Not that he spent much time there. Harper still wasn’t clear on the whole situation, but there was something about some powerful Stranger basically ruling most of Canada, who didn’t take kindly to Heretics being around. They were very much a minority up there.

Standing slightly under six and a half feet tall and built pretty much like a linebacker, Eiji was also one of the smartest people that Harper had ever met. The only person their general age she had seen who was better at the regular school stuff was Vanessa Moon. Sometimes, she thought that at least half their grade had a crush on the boy, male and female alike.

Stepping off the motorcycle as well, the girl turned to pat it. “Thanks for the ride, Raphael.” In turn, the lights on the front of the motorcycle blinked on and off twice, while the engine made a noise that sounded like a purr.

The motorcycle wasn’t just Eiji’s personal transport. It was also his weapon, a cyberform with the ability to transition between four separate modes. He could be the motorcycle he was now, a large hiking backpack that let the boy carry him around, a suit of power armor that he could wear into battle, or a massive rhinoceros that fought alongside him.  

Harper had been the one to suggest naming him Raphael, after finding out that the Japanese word for a rhino was sai. She thought it was cute.

“And thank you!” she chirped then while bouncing over to hug the boy himself. “You know, for the ride.”

He nodded easily. “Of course, I wasn’t gonna leave you stuck taking the bus to get home for your birthday. Eighteen, huh?”

Her head bobbed eagerly. “Uh huh! But not til tomorrow, technically.” That was one of the rules that Crossroads had. As a Bystander-kin student, you were allowed to go home for a day or two on your birthday. It was easier than trying to have Bystander parents visit the school. Which would… yeah, that would be pretty hard to explain.

Eiji was already turning to look around. He paused, squinting at the nearby wrought iron gates and the sign above them. “You live next to a cemetery?”

She laughed, giggling merrily as her head shook. “Don’t be a silly goose. I live in the cemetery.”

The boy had been starting to nod, before making a slight choking sound. “You what in the who now?”

“Come on!” Pivoting, Harper started to skip to the gate. “I’ll introduce you to my mom.”

“Uh.” Eijin’s feet stayed firmly planted where he was. “This, this mom of yours, is she of the breathing type?”

If anything, Harper laughed even more. “You’re goofy, Eijin,” she informed him while pushing the gate open. “C’mon!”

Behind her, she heard the boy mutter, “Didn’t actually answer the question…” But he followed after her anyway, slipping through the gate before pulling it closed after himself. Then she led him along the path next to the perfectly trimmed grass, leading her friend and teammate to a simple brick building off to the side. It looked like a small church there at the front of the cemetery.

The two them had barely reached the entrance before the door opened and an older woman in her late forties with styled blonde hair and a pair of very jangly earrings that made noise with each motion of her head rushed through to scoop Harper into a hug. “My baby’s home!”

Giggling, Harper hugged onto the woman tightly. “Hi, Mom!”

Somewhere in the background, Eiji muttered what sounded like an excessive amount of gratitude to whatever deity was listening.

Finally letting her daughter down, Harper’s mother beamed at the boy. “And is this your boyfriend?”

“Mom!” Harper blushed, still giggling as she shook her head. “Eiji’s just my friend. He gave me a ride.”

“Well,” the woman gestured. “Thank you for that, Eiji. Would you like to come in for some lunch? I made fried chicken.” She winked then. “It’s super fresh. And I promise, there’s nothing strange or creepy inside. Our family may own the cemetery, but we try not to fall into those kinds of cliches.”

“Ah, no thank you, Mrs. Hayes.” Eiji shook his head. “It sounds great, but I’ve really gotta get back on the road. I’ll be back in a couple days to pick up Harper though.”

“Ms. Hayes, actually,” the woman corrected gently. “I’m afraid it’s just Harper and me.”

“Oh, uh, right. Sorry, Ms. Hayes.” Eiji blanched a little, clearly curious about what had happened, but too polite to ask.

After another minute of brief small talk, the boy apologized again for not being able to stay and made his way down the walk and back out of the gate. As he disappeared,  Harper watched him go. Her smile remained. “I like Eiji,” she announced. “He’s a good friend.” For a few seconds, that smile held. Then she turned to the woman beside her. “And so are you, Karlee.” Her voice, once bright and chipper, had softened, taking on a maturity it had lacked before.

The woman who had been posing as her mother gave a little curtsey. “You know I’d do anything to help. We all would. Have you… have you had any luck?” Her voice was tentative.

“No.” Harper’s head shook. “They’ve hidden the pieces rather… thoroughly.”

“You’ll find them.” Karlee gave a confident nod. “We know you will. But I was serious about the chicken. It’s waiting inside, my–”

“Thank you, Karlee.” Harper touched the woman’s arm briefly, smiling faintly. “I’ll be right in. I just… I need to visit him.”

Nodding in understanding, Karlee moved back inside the house, leaving the girl alone there.

Harper stood there, taking a deep breath before she started across the cemetery grounds, picking her way around the headstones. Eventually, she reached a large stone crypt with a heavy steel door. In the center of the door was a simple engraved circle. She put her hand out, laying it flat in the middle of that circle. After a couple of seconds, the circle began to glow. Then, with a low, grinding rumble, the door slid open. Not outward or inward. Instead, it slid sideways into the stone doorframe, revealing the tomb inside, where a single heavy sarcophagus lay on a stone altar.

She stepped inside the crypt, waiting until the door had rumbled shut behind her. Yet, the room remained brightly lit, through an unseen source. The sarcophagus lay in the exact center of that light, and the girl approached it reverently.

“I’m very close, my love,” she whispered, reaching out a hand to place tenderly against the elaborate coffin. “So very, very close. The Seosten have no idea that I’m there, or that I’m looking for the pieces they stole. I’ll find them. And when I do… when I do, I’ll bring you back.”

It was strange, talking like this after spending so much time adopting the personality she had chosen to convey while pretending to be a simple Heretic student. But then, that was the point. If she was going to remain under cover, no one could suspect she was anything special. She purposefully kept herself around the middle of the pack as far as both grades and their combat training went. She had chosen weapons that would give absolutely no hint as to her true identity. Every move she made was carefully calculated not to give the Seosten any reason to suspect that she was more than she seemed to be.

Thankfully, she had more than enough experience when it came to adopting different personalities. Throughout her long, long life, the girl who now called herself Harper Hayes had worn many identities. Even from the very beginning, from the start of everything, she had been two people: the person others expected her to be, and the person she chose to become. And though there were many differences between the two, one thing had been constant. She was, and would always be, loyal to the man she adored and loved with every ounce of her soul.

After all, whether she was Guinevere or Lancelot, both served their king.

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Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.


Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all, was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they were still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-07

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As it turned out, we couldn’t go visit the town that the Aswang (if we were right) had targeted right away. Not because we weren’t allowed to, of course. Hisao assured us that getting out in the field was kind of the whole point of being a Hunter. Rather, we couldn’t go immediately because the other two, Russell and Harper, also asked to go see the town themselves. Hisao thought we should be on the same footing by all going at the same time, so he set it up for the next evening (Monday) to take the place of our normal Hunter track meeting. That way, no one got an unfair advantage by checking the town first.

That would happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, I had another appointment scheduled with Gaia tonight so that she could work a bit more on getting the anchor spell transferred from me to Vanessa. But that wasn’t for another couple hours, once curfew started up so she could work without being interrupted.

Which meant that, for the moment at least, I had nothing pressing to focus on. Sure, there was figuring out a way to get information out of Namid, continuing to figure out who the traitor at Crossroads could be, dreading what was happening to my mother, worrying about what kind of trouble Dad was getting into with his investigation into Fossor, training to not be completely helpless when that necromancer piece of shit came for me, hoping Roxa and Mateo’s pack (not to mention Namythiet) were all okay and that they’d track down Pace, and probably even more things I wasn’t thinking about at the moment.

Okay, so I had a lot of things to focus on. But in that particular second, my schedule was fairly clear. So I made my way to my dorm room and stepped inside, taking advantage of the moment of downtime.

As I moved into the room, Avalon looked up from her desk. She had homework from Trigonometry spread out over the surface, and The Bee Gees were playing quietly through the computer speakers.

“Oh,” I paused, then reached back to close the door. “Hi.” Blushing. Why was I blushing so much already? Nothing happened. I’d been in the room with Avalon before throughout the entire last semester. So why did it suddenly feel somewhat… awkward to be alone with her? Was it just because–

“It feels awkward because of what we talked about before,” the other girl interrupted my line of thought while also simultaneously confirming it. “We brought it into the open, so now it feels strange.”

“It felt strange already,” I pointed out before coughing as my head bobbed up and down. “But yeah.”

Avalon considered that for a moment before dropping her pencil on the desk. With a squeak of the chair, she slid back and rose to her feet. “I guess that means we need a way to make it not awkward th-”

She hadn’t finished the sentence before I crossed the distance between us. I had the briefest glimpse of her eyes widening with surprise before my hands caught her shoulders pulled her down while I leaned up to find her lips with my own. It was my turn to kiss her, damn it. And I wasn’t gonna waste it feeling awkward or strange about the change in our dynamic. I liked Avalon. She liked me. Good enough.

Finally, one of us pulled back. I wasn’t even sure which. All I knew was that I wasn’t kissing her anymore. I was breathing hard, trembling a little while clinging to the taller girl. “Oh,” I managed in a weak voice after a few seconds of panting. “That’s… that’s really nice. That’s—oh, wow. Holy crap.”

For a moment, it seemed like Avalon was too taken aback to respond. Finally, she shifted while pointing out, “You started it.” Despite her attempt to sound as dry as usual, her voice cracked a little.

My blush deepened, but I managed a shrug. “I’m pretty sure you started it. Back when you–” Stopping, I swallowed at the memory while meeting her gaze. “When you kissed me before Christmas break.”

“You were going away,” the other girl replied, her voice plaintive as she stared down at me. “I… I didn’t want you to go away for three weeks before you knew how—I had to let you know. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t…” She looked away, eyes downcast for a moment as she fought to find the right words.

“I’m not good at this,” she admitted. “I’m not good at needing people. I’m not good at relying on them. It’s not—it’s not who I am. You know why. I’m sorry, but it’s just—opening up like that, it’s… hard.

“But I need you.” Looking up once more, she stared at me with an expression that was partly intense and partly confused over her own feelings. “I’ve only known you for a few months, Chambers. But when I think about anything happening to you, when I think about what could–” Her voice turned hard, expression darkening as her hands tightened on my shoulders. “I’ll kill them. Anyone that hurts you.”

“Valley,” I murmured, shivering a little at her declaration. “You’re so…” Pausing, I swallowed while glancing down. Face flushing, I quickly looked back up (okay, maybe not that quickly). “You’re beautiful. Fuck it, you’re hot. You’re so hot. Why would you be… why would you be interested in me?”

Blinking at me, Avalon opened her mouth and then shut it. “You—you’re…” She shook her head. “You must be kidding.” Staring at me for another moment, she slowly frowned. “You’re not kidding. Chamber—Felicity, you’re…” Pausing, she breathed out long and slow. “Felicity, believe me, you are… look, you’re not exactly hideous yourself. You look… God, how do I put it? Yeah, I’m hot. I know. I work for it. I want to be… unapproachable. I’d rather people dream about me than talk to me. It’s easier. But you—Felicity, you’re intense. You’re smart, you’re funny, you know how to talk to people, and you look… trust me, you’re attractive. You’re more casual. I hate the term, but you’re the girl next door. I look like I just stepped out of a perverted magazine. But you—you’re the cute, smart detective or reporter that they can actually talk to. You’re… you’re real. Just a jeans and a hoody and you are…”

Avalon trailed off, head shaking again while she fought to find the right words. Finally, she reached out to put both hands on my face gently, her touch almost electric. “I like you. Shiori likes you. Okay?”

Swallowing, I slowly nodded. My voice wouldn’t work through the lump in my throat. It was all I could do not to latch onto her. I wanted to hold her, wanted to touch her, wanted to kiss her again, more, forever. I wanted to say the right thing, but I had no idea what that was. “Valley, I–” The words choked their way out through my throat while my eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Everyone always leaves.”

A noise of denial escaped the other girl before her arms wrapped around me tightly. I was pressed against her, smelling her incredible, peach-scented hair. “No,” she managed. “I won’t. I won’t leave.”

For a few long seconds, we just stood there like that. I closed my eyes, taking in the sensation before quietly whispering, “Do you have any idea how many people in this school would literally kill to be where I am?” To emphasize my point, I hugged the girl a little tighter while giving her a sly wink.

There it was. I was rewarded by seeing Avalon actually blush noticeably. “You are such a dork.”

Biting my lip then, I shifted my weight a little. I meant my next words to come out teasingly, but there was a seriousness to them instead, a need that surpassed that single moment. “Can I be your dork?”

If she actually said anything in response to that plea, I didn’t hear the words. All I knew was that her lips were on mine. She was kissing me again, and I felt my legs literally give out from under me. I would’ve fallen, but the other girl held me up. Her arms, wrapped tightly around my back, kept me up close against her as she drove every coherent thought and worry completely out of my mind.

Somehow, I wasn’t even sure on the specifics, we ended up lying on Avalon’s bed together. We were both facing the wall. My head was nestled against her shoulder, and she was petting my stomach softly with one hand while her other hand was clasped tightly with one of mine. Meanwhile, my free hand was reaching up and back to gently stroke that beautiful, dark, wonderfully luxurious hair. I felt… safe.

Lazily, contentedly, I glanced over my shoulder at the other girl. “Mmm… Valley, you really need to get some sleep. And I need to go see Gaia. She’ll wonder where I am if I make her wait much longer.”

Smiling faintly at that, Avalon squeezed my hand. “I really don’t think she’ll wonder,” she pointed out dryly before giving me a light, yet tender kiss that lasted only for a second. “She’s pretty perceptive.”

Face reddening, I squirmed a bit. “So I get to be the one to face her? She’s gonna see right through me.”

It was her turn to wink at me. “And you did just say that you should hurry up and get there. I mean–” She adopted a scandalized expression for a moment. “Imagine if she comes in here looking for you.”

“Oh my God.” Flushing even more, I started to sit up. Before I could right myself fully, however, Avalon pulled me down into another kiss. It lingered both for too long and not nearly long enough. Finally, I managed to extricate myself. Standing up, I stared down at the other girl for a few seconds. “Valley,” I spoke quietly, “you know that thing you said about being there for me, about not leaving?”

She nodded silently, and I went on. “That goes for me too. Whatever you need, I’ll be there.”

“Felicity–” When she said my name, Avalon’s voice cracked a little. She shivered, sitting up in bed. “Go,” she pleaded. “You should go now. Because if you don’t, Gaia really will have to come find you.”

Smiling to myself, I went.


“And if anything happens, what do you do?” As laid back as he normally was, Hisao’s voice was serious as he walked alongside Douglas, Russell, Harper, and me the next afternoon right after classes had ended. The five of us were off the island, strolling through a field just outside of Belsen, Kansas, the town where (at least Doug and I thought) the Aswang had been. We were going to be left to look into the situation and try to confirm what happened (and how to kill the thing that did it), but not without a reminder of the rules.

“We call you,” I answered along with the other three, our words an identical chorus that filled the air.

“I’ll be nearby,” the man confirmed. “So if anything, I mean anything pops up, you let me know. I–” He paused then before stepping out in front of us. Dressed in gray jeans and a black turtleneck, he gave all of us a long, silent look. “No games, okay, you four? I know some of you don’t trust me. You don’t know why I agreed to teach you. You think there’s some kind of angle. But this isn’t a game. Not out here. If something happens, you touch those alert stones I gave you. Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, when you’re facing something bad out there, it doesn’t matter. We work together. You all got that?”

That time, our confirmations were a little more staggered. I nodded my own head quickly, not bothering to mention that if anything did happen, Wyatt would probably beat him to wherever I was.

I’d asked Gaia the night before how she felt about me going out in the field again when things tended to… well, go wrong, to put it nicely. She’d told me that as much as she wanted to lock me up in a box until I turned at least thirty, that wasn’t possible. If I was going to get through what Fossor had in mind, I had to get out there. I had to fight, and I had to kill monsters. It was the only way I’d be able to get enough experience, enough power to be able to survive, let alone win. I had to keep going out.

On the other hand, she also made me promise not to leap into any danger that I didn’t have to, and to let Hisao know everything that happened. She said I could trust him as much as I trusted Professor Dare.

After extracting a few more promises about being careful and calling in when and if we found anything, the man let us go.

“Oh, my God, you guys,” Harper perkily announced as we walked. Well, we walked. She skipped. “Isn’t this great?!” She turned, somehow managing to skip backwards (don’t ask me). “I mean, not the evil monster killing people thing. That sucks. But we get to be out here! How cool is this?” Her bubblegum pink pigtails bounced with her movement as the girl’s bright smile spread over her face and seemed to light up the area around her. “Tracking down evil monsters, helping people, it’s awesome!

Before any of us could answer, she reached into her coat pockets (it was Kansas in January, after all) with both hands. “Here, take one, you guys!” As she spoke, the sunny girl produced a chocolate muffin in each hand, holding them out to Doug and me while beaming proudly. “I made them myself! I mean, I had to use the oven in Professor Nimbles’s apartment because Chef Escalan would probably stab me if I got anywhere near his kitchen, but still! They’re yummy, I promise.”

I’d already known the muffins were in her coat pockets, thanks to the power from the skeleblineists. And they weren’t the only treat in there. My power picked up two more muffins, a half-eaten bag of Skittles, and a package of Jolly Ranchers. She had some deep pockets in that coat. Still, I was kind of surprised that she was sharing so readily.

Holding them out to us, the girl paused before her face gave a slightly unnatural (for her) frown. “Oh. Wait. You probably think I put like— some kind of sleep drug or something in them or something just so Russell and me could win while you’re conked out and snoring. And even if you weren’t, you’re thinking that now. But I didn’t. I swear. I’ll sign something if you want. ‘Russell and I automatically lose if I did anything weird to the muffins. Signed, Harper Hayes.’ I wouldn’t do that. I pinkie promise times a thousand. Times a million and sealed with twinkle stars. I don’t wanna win that. I don’t care who wins, cuz we’re on the same side. Helping people. And they’re the real winners. I mean, the ones that aren’t dead. Should I stop talking?”

My mouth opened and shut as I slowly processed all that. Meanwhile, Douglas asked, “Do you ever?”

If she was offended by the question, Harper didn’t show it. Instead, she beamed brighter. “Not usually!”

Snorting despite myself, I took one of the muffins and made a show of taking a big bite of it. “Thanks, Harper. Mmm, wow, you really do know how to bake. But what about Russell?” I nodded to the boy.

“Ta-da!” With that, the other girl produced the other two muffins that I’d sensed. She held one out to her partner before taking a big bite out of her own. Mouth full of chocolate treat, she messily announced, “You’re right, I’m a great baker!” She then proceeded to nom her way through the entire thing in short order.

We walked further, finally entering the town itself while finishing the (legitimately delicious) muffins. It wasn’t a big place, to say the least. There was only one high school, and it served seventh through twelfth grades, with the younger students on one side of the building and the older students on the other. Even then, there was only a reported school population of about six hundred or so.

Beyond that, the main street held almost everything of interest. As we made our way in, I nodded to the two story building just across the road. “Library,” I announced. “That’s our stop. For now anyway.”

“Oh,” Russell coughed, glancing to his partner before gesturing further down. “Well, we’re headed for the police station. So uhh, good luck, I guess. Help figure out what those monsters are, huh?”

Giving the other two a thumbs up, I split off from them along with Douglas. The two of us continued across the street and up to the library. On the way in, we passed a curious but helpful old woman who pointed us to where they stored the town newspapers going back a year. If we ended up needing anything older than that, she politely informed us, she’d show us how to work the microfiche machine.

Thankfully, unless we were way off, recent newspapers would be fine. After all, the murders had only recently started happening. Which implied that the thing responsible had just moved into town.

Taking a stack of newspapers from the same week that the first murder happened, I handed them to Douglas. Then I took a stack from the week before that. “Remember, look for any reports of children dying from being sick, and any articles about someone who just moved to town. This place is pretty small, so new people would probably generate at least a small mention.”

Giving me a long look, the boy took the papers before nodding. “Right.” Stepping back, he sank into one of the heavily worn armchairs and started to read.

I did the same, and for a few minutes, we were lost in our silent scanning. Everything was quiet, save for the rustling of the newspapers as we turned the pages.

Eventually, Douglas sat up. “Here–” he started before giving a little shudder. “Think I’ve got it. Four days before the first murder, a five-year-old boy named William Oscars died. The doctor said it was some kind of sudden onset pneumonia, but his parents said he felt fine the day before.”

Nodding slowly, I replied, “Sounds like the Aswang sending back one of those fake kids to replace its lunch to me. And I think I’ve got a candidate for that.” Turning the newspaper around, I showed him. “Truman Hyde. Which is… probably the absolute worst pseudonym for a monster ever. Or possibly the best. True Man… Hyde? It works on a couple different levels, but talk about lack of subtlety.”

“Truman Hyde,” Doug echoed while leaning forward to scan the article. “New eighth-grade science teacher?”

I nodded. “And Belsen’s newest eligible bachelor. Students are too old for him, and he probably wouldn’t pick from his own classes anyway considering the Aswang… preference for keeping a distance between their lives and their victims. But it gets him access to their families.”

Picking himself up, Doug folded up his newspaper. “Okay, so what next?”

Pausing, I thought about it for a minute. “It’s almost four-thirty. He’s probably already home by now. But according to the books back at school, the Aswang don’t change form until about eight or nine. So even if we go find him, he won’t set off the Al–” I coughed. “The alarm of our Stranger Sense.”

“And we can’t just go stabbing him,” Douglas agreed. “He might be innocent.”

“Right.” Standing up, I folded my own newspaper and put it back on the stack. “So we should see if we can search his office at the school. That might tell us more. At least until it gets late enough to see if we’re right.”

“What if we are?” the boy asked quietly. “And he attacks someone while we’re checking him out?”

“Then we’ll stop him,” I answered, turning to head back the way we came.
“That’s our job.”

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Study and Scrutiny 20-04

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“Where the hell is Katarin?” The question, voiced more like a demand, came from a boy with a long, dour-looking face and light brown hair in a shaggy cut. His nose was a little too big, but other than that, he was the type of average-looking who would actually be quite good if he took better care of himself.

Preston, that was his name. Preston Scofield. I’d never interacted with him directly, but I did remember that he and his roommate were the first two students to be called by their mentor at the start of the year.

Shiori and I had joined the rest of the Hunter track students out on the beach a few moments earlier.

I could see a couple of the Hunter students practicing the Kevlar spell that we’d been working on earlier with Carfried. He’d made sure that everyone in the class could actually cast it before letting us go, and now they were testing it. Not with actual bullets, of course. Even Crossroads wasn’t crazy enough to let their first year students start shooting at each other just to test magic spells, healing or no healing.

Instead, they were chucking small stones at each other as hard as they could. The protective spell would slow the rocks down until it was basically like they were being lightly tossed, doing no real damage.

From what Carfried had said, the spell would only affect projectiles up to a certain size. It wouldn’t slow down any kind of melee weapon like a sword or a bat. Those were too heavy for the spell to affect. And projectiles that were big enough wouldn’t be affected either. Cannonballs, rockets, thrown axes, things like Shiori’s discs, none of that would be stopped by the Kevlar spell. It only worked on little things like bullets. Or, in this case, the rocks that the other students were throwing at each other.

There was no sign of Hisao yet, and even the people who weren’t practicing the spell seemed restless. There was a lot of pacing back and forth and muttering, and pretty much everyone looked agitated. Preston had just happened to be the first one to actually speak louder over the private conversations.

“I got a better question,” a girl announced while folding her arms over her chest. “Why do we get stuck with some psycho hack from that Garden place? Shouldn’t he be, like… locked up or something?”

My mouth opened to say something, but one of the other boys interrupted first. “I heard,” he started in a conspiratorial whisper (because that kind of phrase always preceded something easily verifiable), “that he had to leave Eden’s Garden because he was too psycho even for them. He was like… cutting the skin off Strangers and displaying it and shit. They made him go away because he even creeped them out.”

My mouth was still hanging open while my brain tried to wrap itself around that absurdity when Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy from Roxa’s old team, spoke. “Now if that was anywhere close to true, why would Headmistress Sinclaire let him join this place? Y’all think she’d hire someone like that?”

That kicked off a whole new round of arguments as some people insisted that the ridiculous rumors they’d heard (and helped pass around) had to have some kind of merit to them, while others continued to point out that anyone that over-the-top cartoonishly violent wouldn’t have been allowed within a hundred miles of teaching us. And, of course, there were the ones who thought that this was some kind of test that had been dreamed up by Gaia and the Committee. According to that theory, we were supposed to prove our loyalty to Crossroads by refusing to listen to the ‘intruder’ from Eden’s Garden.

Thankfully, there were enough people who insisted that Gaia knew what she was doing and that she wouldn’t have put Hisao in as a teacher if she didn’t trust him. Paul was one of those. I assumed his roommate was too, not that he said anything. Douglas Frey was too focused on the hand-held game he was playing to say much of anything. Actually, I wasn’t even sure he was in the right place at all, since his uniform had the purple trim for Investigation (previously, he’d been in the Development track).

I’d also caught him glancing up at me a couple times, though he wasn’t staring quite as openly as he had been before. Either he was losing interest, or learning to be a bit more subtle. I was guessing the latter.

“He’s gotta be a spy,” another voice announced, sparking off a whole new round of arguments.

“He’s not a spy,” Vanessa’s roommate Erin insisted, shaking her head with disgust. “Come on, be real.”

The voice persisted. “He could be a spy. A handsome, charismatic spy. Like James Bond, only cooler.”

That got everyone to turn that way, only to find Hisao himself leaning casually against a nearby fallen tree with his arms folded lightly. The Asian man was dressed in khaki shorts and a dark green tee shirt that showed his distractingly toned arms. At his feet there was a gray duffel bag lying in the sand.

“Cooler than Bond,” he repeated in a thoughtful tone while everyone stared at him, “and with a more stable girlfriend. I mean, say what you will about variety being the spice of life, but give me someone who actually knows what I like, you know? Or maybe I’m just more into cuddling than that guy is.”

Half the students who had been going on about how bad he had to be started babbling apologies (though whether it was more motivated by genuine embarrassment or fear that he’d punish them somehow was up for debate) while the other half of them simply stared as if convinced that any second he was going to start spouting anti-Crossroads rhetoric and trying to recruit them to Eden’s Garden.

The people who had been defending him (or at least Gaia’s decision to hire him), meanwhile, seemed just as surprised as the rest about his sudden appearance. Save for scattered whispers, there was silence for a few seconds. Finally, Paul stepped forward. “Ah, sir, I’m sure nobody really meant any kinda–”

“It’s okay,” Hisao interrupted. Pushing off the fallen tree to stand up, he continued. “You’d be a bunch of mindless lemmings if you didn’t have questions. And lemmings are terrible Heretics.” Pausing, he amended thoughtfully, “Pretty good games. Especially the first one. Classic. But terrible Heretics.”

Before anyone could figure out what to say to that, he continued. “The point is, questioning things is good. So let’s start with–” In mid-sentence, the man paused, head turning a little to look at Douglas. “I’m still getting used to your system around here, but are you in the right place, uhh… Doug, was it?”

The boy blinked that way, hand reaching up to self-consciously adjust his Rangers cap. “Wha—oh, the uniform. Yeah, I uhh—I was gonna go with Investigation, but I changed my mind. The headmistress said it was okay if I switched since this is the first track class, and I’ll get the right uniform tomorrow.”

Right. I wasn’t stupid or blind. He’d been staring at me for weeks off and on, and now he’d chosen to jump into the same track that I had been in before switching unannounced to my new track. Coincidences obviously happened, but that was just a few too many. What the hell did the guy want? Why was he paying so much attention to me? Was there a… relatively innocent reason like a crush or something (that was enough to make me blush, but at least I could deal with it), or something more sinister? Or had he somehow found out about my connection to Roxa and wanted to know what happened to his old teammate? I couldn’t rule that out. After all, if something happened to someone on my team and I tracked it to him, I’d probably be acting pretty similar to how he was acting now. But if he did suspect something, why? Roxa and I hadn’t even been seen interacting like that. And I was sure no one who actually knew what happened had said anything to him, or he’d probably be more direct.

“Good enough for me,” Hisao replied, stooping to pick up his bag from the sand. “So, questions?”

Erin raised her hand before speaking when the man looked to her. “Why did you agree to come here? I mean, this place and Eden’s Garden aren’t exactly on each other’s Christmas Card lists, you know?”

“You mean that whole bitter rivalry thing where your side is pissed off that they split off from you and stole some of your relics to make their own society, and their side thinks you’re a bunch of stuck-in-the-past fundamentalists who aren’t going to get anywhere until you adapt to the way things have changed?” Hisao asked conversationally, smiling at the flurry of indignant protests that it prompted.

I didn’t miss the fact that he said ‘your side’ and ‘their side’ without actually including himself on either.

“Take away all the bullshit,” the man interrupted once there was enough of a pause in the indignant retorts. “And what is your main purpose? Why does Crossroads exist? What are you trying to do?”

“Kill monsters,” one of the students answered flatly, arms folded over his chest as he stared at the Garden Heretic. “That’s why we’re here. To kill monsters and protect humans. Protect Bystanders.”

Hisao nodded. “Yup. Kill monsters. Take away everything else and that’s why you’re here. That’s why Crossroads is here, and it’s why Eden’s Garden is there. You can disagree on all the specifics that you want. But in the end, both sides want to protect humanity from the things that go bump in the night.”

There was some muttering, and then Preston spoke up. “Fine, but those differences are still there, ya know? Garden and Crossroads don’t get along. Never have. So why would you come here to teach?”

Hisao studied him for a moment, head tilting as he considered the question before replying casually, “Why? Well, to adapt the words of one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, ‘when nine hundred years old you reach, give a shit, you will not.’”

Beside me, Shiori giggled audibly, drawing the attention of several others. There were a few muted chuckles, though most people seemed too worried about appearances to actually laugh at his words.

Finally rolling my eyes, I raised my hand before asking, “You’re really nine hundred years old?”

His response was a wink. “It’d be accurate to say that I’ve been alive for nine hundred years, yeah.”

The man’s exact phrasing with that reply made me wonder just how old he actually was. And how and why he’d gotten involved with Eden’s Garden if he didn’t actually care about any of the political stuff. From everything that I had seen, he seemed alternately amused or annoyed by the whole rivalry between the two schools. So how had a man who clearly didn’t care about group loyalty ended up as one of the oh-so vaunted Vigiles, one of the most important and powerful ranks in Eden’s Garden?

Or had I just answered my own question? After all, Vigiles were independent. They hunted on their own and judged on their own. Their word was law unless their tribal chief or the council of Victors overruled them. So in about ninety percent of Hisao’s actions, he wouldn’t have to listen to anybody else. Anything he did was solely at his own discretion without anyone to report to or ask permission from. That probably explained why he could be the way that he was, and why he’d do so at Eden’s Garden. Because as far as I knew, Crossroads didn’t have an equivalent rank. The Runners were the closest, but they were a lot more structured than that. Tribald didn’t have that kind of blanket autonomy.

“I guess what it comes down to,” Hisao finally announced, “is that I’m here because your headmistress asked me to be. For those of you who disagree with that, take it as a learning experience. You don’t always get to agree with your leader’s decisions. But you do have to obey them. So let’s make this as simple as we can. If you don’t want to work with me, you are free to switch tracks. After all, she let Doug here switch from purple to green, and I’m sure she’ll let you change to something else if you’re so sure it won’t work. But uh,” he paused before shrugging. “I should point out that I’m also teaching your self-defense courses, and that I’m pretty sure she won’t let you transfer out of. Just food for thought.”

“But for now, we’re all here. So to start,” he continued, “How about one of you tell me what the Hunters are supposed to be, in your own words.”

Paul was the first to speak up. “Well, sir, if Investigators are the detectives, Hunters are the SWAT team. The big guns that get called in to deal with Stranger infestations that are worse than just a single creature pulling people into alleys to have a little lunch here and there.”

“Good analogy,” Hisao confirmed with a slight smile. “Someone with a big Hunter background is probably gonna be the type of Heretic who ends up playing cavalry a lot. You spend enough time in this track and people are gonna expect you to be able to pull their butts out of the fire.”

Raising an eyebrow curiously then, he swept his gaze over the four of us before asking, “So, what do you think the most important thing for a Hunter to have? Take away everything else, what do you need?”

“Power,” one of the other students piped up. “You can’t kill things without power. And if they’re strong enough for Hunters to be called in, you need be strong enough to kill the bastards.”

“Well, you do need power,” Hisao agreed before shaking his head. “But it’s not the most important thing. And before you ask, it’s not your weapon either. And it’s not a magic spell. All of that stuff, that’s gonna help. But it’s still not the most important thing.

Thinking for a moment, I raised my hand. “Knowledge? Of their weaknesses.”

Pointing at me, Hisao nodded. “Close. Very close. Yes, knowledge is important. But the most important thing is patience. If you’re going to be a Hunter, you have to be patient. You see these monsters doing bad things, you’ve gotta be patient enough to watch. You wait, and you identify what the monster is. Because if you just run in there without a plan, you’ll get yourself and the people you’re trying to protect killed. It’s all well and good to want to save people. Like we already said, that’s why we’re here. But you get killed because you Leeroy Jenkins’d your way into the situation, and you won’t help anybody. So have your weapon, have your power, have your magic, have all of it. But also make sure you have the patience to examine the situation, figure out how to deal the thing you’re fighting, then involve yourself. Be ready, be smart, and be calm. That’s how you save people.”

After letting that sit in people’s minds for a couple seconds, he straightened up and cleared his throat. “So, to that end, let’s split up for a bit. Those of you who were in this little club last semester, stand over there.” He pointed closer to the water before pointing closer to the jungle. “And those of you who are new this semester, stand over there. We’ll let the old hats do their own thing for a bit.”

Shiori squeezed my hands, whispering ‘good luck’ before heading over to join the rest of the older Hunters, like Paul and Erin. Meanwhile, I made my way close to the trees along with Doug and a couple other people. There weren’t that many of us in the ‘new Hunter’ category. Possibly because people had found out about Hisao taking over the track before signing up for it. Either way, it was me, Doug, and two others, a boy and a girl. Both of them, I remembered from orientation, were Bystander-kin.

Hisao spent a couple minutes talking with the other, larger group. When he finally stepped away from them, they all started jogging off down the beach away from the school, following the water line.

“Just four of you, huh?” the man spoke easily. “All right. I know Flick Chambers there and Doug Frey there. What about you two?” He nodded to the other couple that were standing between Doug and me.

“Uh.” The boy shrugged a little, looking self-conscious. He looked like someone who had gone through an intense punk phase but had grown out of it mentally faster than he had physically, and was now almost embarrassed by his nose ring, dyed bright red hair, and visible tattoos. Actually, I remembered seeing him around the last semester, and from what I could tell, his change in attitude was new since Christmas. “I’m Viru—I mean–” Coughing, he amended with a flush, “Russell. My name’s Russell.”

“I’m Harper,” the girl chirped then. “Harper Hayes.” She couldn’t have looked more different from Russell. Honestly, she looked like a cheerleader who had gotten lost and wandered over to the beach. She wore her hair in pigtails and colored it a bright, bubblegum pink. I had never really interacted with her before, but every time I’d seen her, she had been smiling. As far as I could tell, she was always cheerful. And always trying to help. Plus, she covered her uniform with loud, brightly colored stickers.

“Russell, Harper, Douglas, and Flick,” Hisao announced, going down the line. “Got it. Well, look around. I hope you can all get along, cuz the four of you are probably going to be stuck with each other a lot until you get caught up enough with the others to put you all together.

“And the best way to get started with that,” he continued, “is to play a game.”

“A game?” I echoed.

He nodded. “First, split into pairs. Let’s say, Russell and Harper on one side, Doug and Flick on the other. I’m going to give each pair one of these.” With a flourish, he produced two manila envelopes. “In each of them is an identical report about a Stranger that’s out killing people. Each of your pairs will take your envelope, read the report, and try to write up the best way to deal with that monster. Use your books to figure out what it is. Try to identify it, how to track it, how to kill it. Next time we meet, the pair that has identified the Stranger correctly and come up with the best way of dealing with it will win a little prize.”

“… Roleplaying,” Doug blurted. “You want us to roleplay being Hunters and work out how to fight some kind of monster.”

“Exactly.” Hisao touched two fingers against his head. “Because if you can get the right mindset up here, then you’ll be ready for what happens in the real world.

“So go ahead and take your envelopes, and we’ll see just how smart you guys can be.”

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