Harper Hayes

Day After Day 39-06

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The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.

Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”

“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”

Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”

“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”

“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”

“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”

Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”

Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”

Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”

When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”

Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”

I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.

In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”

So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.

After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”

“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”

From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.

“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“

Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers.  There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.

“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.”  She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“

Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”

That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”

Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”

Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”

Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”

Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”

“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”

It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”

Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”

Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”

******

A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.

The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.

Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.

The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.

“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”

Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”

Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”

Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”

Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”

“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.

“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.

“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”

“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.

He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.

“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”

“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”

Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”

Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”

In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.

Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.

At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.

When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.

“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”

As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.

The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.

Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.

Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.

The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.

At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.

Lunging  to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.

Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.

I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.

Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.

The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.

“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”

Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.

Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.

******

“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.

“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”

There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”

Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”

Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”

With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.

“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”

Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”

My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.

“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”

“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”

All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…

In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.

******

“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.

“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”

Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”

Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them.  But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”

Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”

Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.

It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.

“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.

She blinked at that. “A serpent?”

“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”

Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”

“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.

“Just plain old Harper.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Day After Day 39-03

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“I mean seriously, dude, this thing was freaking huge! It was the Godzilla of Gajasimhas!”

The girl currently excitedly babbling on across from me as I sat at a table in the library back at Crossroads was Harper Hayes. It was April 30th, Monday. The weekend had passed since Rudolph’s funeral, and I was back at school once more. Harper and I had been assigned a project to work on together by Professor Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. We were supposed to pick one of the lost cities, places that had supposedly once been real and full of humans before they were overrun and destroyed by those evil Strangers. There were quite a lot of them, according to our books, places where thousands of humans were wiped out back when Heretics had been much fewer and further between, before they could be manufactured by Crossroads.

Somehow, I had stopped myself from asking how society had continued to exist and develop for thousands of years before Bosch had come along if their Heretics were so limited and every single non-human out there was a genocidal lunatic. But it was a close thing, and I deserved a medal for my restraint. I’d settled for a piece of pie.

Now the two of us were in the library after classes were over, and Harper was telling me all about the creature that she and her team had killed for their last hunt. Apparently a Gajasimhas was a huge monster, fifteen feet tall at the shoulders on average, with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, complete with tusks. It sounded pretty nasty, even before listening to Harper’s rendition of the story as she excitedly babbled on. She tended to repeat details, embellishing them further every time, and sometimes got so excited about what she was saying that she tripped over the words and got tongue-tied. It was kind of cute and endearing, almost making me want to protect the girl or something.

“You know, you’re really lucky,” Harper abruptly informed me. “I mean, in some ways. Not in every way, obviously. Lots of bad stuff happens around you, but still… lucky.”

“Lucky in that I’ve never fought a Gajasimhas?” I asked, confused by the shift in subject.

Her head shook quickly at that. “What? No, that’s totally unlucky. Those things are awesome. You’re lucky because you don’t just have a girlfriend, you have two. I mean, you’re dating super-hot warrior princess and super-cute Asian gamer babe. Seriously?” She held a hand up to me, gesturing to it. “Seriously, dude. Dude. Say what you want about all the trouble you get into, but as far as that goes, you pretty much hit triple sevens twice in a row.”

Well, when she put it like that, I couldn’t help but give the girl the high five she was looking for. But we also really needed to work. So right after that, I put a hand on one of the books we had found. “This one’s about places in Africa. You wanna look in that one and I’ll look at… what’s this one?” My other hand tilted up another book to read the spine. “Camelot: Facts In The Fiction?”

“Meh.” Harper shrugged at me. “The King Arthur stuff is a little overdone. Eiji says everyone wants to do a project on that. We should do something new. Besides,” she added sagely, leaning closer across the table, “I’m pretty sure most of these stuffy old professors wouldn’t know what Camelot was really like if it fell on top of them.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I teased, “Maybe they should consult you on the subject. Or me. I’m sure a couple of Bystander-kin know more about Camelot than people who might’ve been alive back then. Or at least had a father or grandfather who was. Actually…” Pausing, I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “That Percival guy on the Committee was part of the whole Camelot thing. I wonder if they consulted him for this book. It might be more accurate than you think.”

The other girl met my gaze for a moment before abruptly laughing. “Okay, maybe you have a point. I mean, if you want to do it on that…” Trailing off, she looked to me expectantly.

I thought about it for a few seconds then, letting my head tilt from one side to the other indecisively. “Hmmm…” In the end, however, I shook my head. “Nah, you’re right. Lots of people are gonna do Camelot. And they’ll definitely expect it from a couple Bystander-Kin. Probably lots of Camelot and Atlantis projects. Let’s look at one of the lesser used ones. Like in that Africa book.” I gestured to the one I had indicated earlier. “Gotta be something interesting there.”

She agreed, and we started poring through it together to find something we could both agree on. The hard part was actually settling on one. There was, utterly unsurprisingly, a lot of magical history in Africa. Lots of human settlements that, according to Crossroads history, had been wiped out in one way or another. A lot of that was probably pretty accurate as far as being attacked by evil Strangers went, though I had a few questions (that would probably go unanswered) about how much of the population in those ancient cities had been fully human.

Unfortunately, before we could finally pick one in particular and run with it, I felt someone approach our table from the back of the library even as a new (and unwelcome) voice spoke up.

“Careful Harper,” Zeke warned with a smirk that he had to have practiced in the mirror to look that annoying, “you don’t want to end up like other people that Chambers here works with. You know what happens to them.” As he spoke, the boy stopped to fold his arms loosely.

“No, Zeke.” The response didn’t come from Harper or myself. It came from the nearby bookshelf, where Doug was standing with his finger on one of the volumes there. His attention, however, was focused solely on the boy by our table, voice soft. “Why don’t you tell us what happens to people who work with Flick? I’m sure your perspective on it will be very illuminating.”

“Wh–” Zeke glanced that way, and for just a second I thought he would completely back off. He actually held a hand up in surrender, head shaking. “Look, I didn’t even–I shouldn’t have…” But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just completely let it go, no matter how much he obviously knew that he should have. “I just think it’s a little… you know, surprising that you’re okay with this.”

Slowly lowering his hand from the book, Doug turned to face him fully. His voice had gone even softer. “Surprising that I’m okay with what, Zeke?”

“This, her.” Zeke was gesturing to me, of course. “She brought Rudolph back and puppeted him through the halls of the hospital in front of everyone there, man! And you’re just completely cool with still being on a team with her? You don’t have a problem with that? Seriously?”

Right, the story of what had happened to reveal my newly inherited necromancer abilities had made the rounds well before Gaia or anyone else could do anything to stop it. Rudolph’s moving body had been seen by too many people, and the rumors had spread out quickly from there. So now the people around school had even more reasons to stare at me. Especially since the fact that Rudolph’s body had done the impossible thing of actually using his powers post-death.

For a moment after Zeke said those words, Doug was quiet. He just stood there, silently watching the other boy before looking to me with eyes that very briefly revealed just how lost the boy actually felt right then. Then he looked back to Zeke. “Yeah, I have a problem with it. I have a pretty god damn big problem with Flick bringing Rudolph’s dead body back and making it walk around. Specifically the part where my friend is dead. That’s the part I have issues with. Or did you just sort of skip past that in your rush to grab onto something else you could blame her for? Tell me something, Zeke, did you get necromancer powers too? Because I’m pretty sure you’re using Rudolph as even more of a prop than she did.”

Before Zeke could actually say anything to that, Harper was on her feet. “Okay!” she chirped, clearly uncomfortable with things getting serious at all. “I think that’s enough drama for one day. You wanna look through the book tonight and lemme know what you think we should focus on at breakfast?” she asked me then, smiling brightly. “I still think Amina of Zaria would be a great subject! But, you know, if you find a better one…”

“She sounds pretty cool,” I agreed. “And the ahhh… real story of Zaria could be a good project. Definitely lesser known than Camelot. But I’ll… uhh, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Even as I spoke, from the corner of my eye I could see Zeke. The boy clearly wasn’t accustomed to being ignored like this, particularly right after being put down the way Doug had. He looked like he kept wanting to either say something or walk away. But he couldn’t work out what to say, and walking away probably felt like he was retreating. So he stood there awkwardly.

Giving me a bright smile and nod that made her bright-pink pigtails bounce, Harper looked to Zeke. “C’mon! I made some raspberry chocolate chip cookies, you’ve gotta try one! Or two.”

With that, the girl basically dragged him away, while he made token noises of protest. Which… yeah, Harper clearly did all that specifically to avoid any more conflict, defusing the situation through offering baked goods. As far as that kind of thing went, it was nicely done. Except for the part where Zeke got cookies.

That left me standing there with Doug. Glancing to the boy, I hesitated. Boy, he looked different without his hat. Which he would hopefully be getting back soon, since his Grandpa Sulan had been working with Sariel, Theia, and the others at the Atherby camp for the past couple of days, ever since Larees had met with him at the funeral. Apparently not only had it not taken much to get him on-side, he actually was already pretty much read in on most things by Percival. Ever since he’d been banished from the old colony world, Sulan had been working as a sort of ‘fixer’ or assistant for Percival, doing things that the Committee member couldn’t focus on doing himself.

Which was all super useful for us, since it meant he was already onboard with what needed to happen. So he’d been at the camp teaching them how to use the anti-Whisper spell.

There had also apparently been a bit of a… conversation between Doug and Sulan over just how much Sulan had known about and not talked over with him. From what little I’d heard about it, Sulan had said that he wanted to wait until Doug was older instead of forcing him into making a choice while he was still a first-year student.

I obviously had questions about how much they knew about the Whisper spells if Percival had been so close to Sulan. But it was going to have to wait, since Sulan had been busy and Percival wasn’t exactly someone I had ready access to.

For the moment, however, Doug was still without his hat. Which looked weird, but I shook myself and focused. “Anyway, uh, I’m sorry he brought up–I mean…”

“It’s not your fault when someone else brings up painful subjects, Flick,” the boy tiredly reminded me. “And another thing.” Looking straight to me, he narrowed his eyes. “Weren’t you going to start learning about that necromancy thing from Gabriel Prosser’s friend?”

“Right, yeah…” Flushing a little guiltily, I nodded. “He said it’d take a bit to get his friend around, whoever they are. So I sort of told him to take his time. I’m not exactly in a rush to use it.”

Doug shook his head at that, sighing. “Look, don’t avoid using that new power of his just because it creeps you out, or because of what idiot jackasses like that think. It’s a useful power. If you handicap yourself by avoiding it, you’ll just be making things harder for everyone. Maybe it’s creepy and lots of bad guys use it. But so what? Bad guys use lots of things. It’s a tool. And you’re a tool if you don’t use everything you’ve got. You’re dealing with a fucking necromancer as like… an archenemy, Flick. Why would you avoid practicing with the same power he’s got? There is no scenario in which that’s not at least slightly useful.”

Once he finished, I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times before hesitantly nodding. “Yeah, I um… yeah, point. I’ll tell Gabriel I’m ready to practice with it, whenever his friend is available.

“I just hope practicing necromancy doesn’t require a wardrobe change, because I do not have enough black clothes and eyeliner.”

******

So, to that end (the learning necromancy part, not the needing more eyeliner part), I told Gabriel that night as I was visiting the camp to see Avalon, my father, and Tabbris that I was ready to meet the person he had in mind to teach me. He’d smiled faintly and said that they had just been waiting for me say the word because they didn’t want to rush me. My new teacher would be ready to meet me down by the lake after I took some time with the others.

So, I sat with Avalon for awhile (she was practically bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of bed), and had a snack with Tabbris and my dad. We also played a game of Clue at the table in Dad’s cabin. Tabs told me all about learning more of the anti-Whisper spell from ‘Mr. Sulan’ earlier. Apparently they were pretty sure they’d be able to cast the spell themselves within the next day or so. Which was fast for such powerful and unique magic, but then again, Seosten tended to have a leg-up on the whole magic thing with their perfect memories.

When I was done there, I gradually made my way through the camp, greeting people who greeted me in turn until I reached the edge of the lake and looked around. “Okay,” I murmured, “how am I supposed to know when my necromancy teacher is coming? And why do I feel like asking that out loud is the cue for them to be right behind me?” Turning with those words, I looked expectantly… only to find no one there. “Huh. Guess I was–”

“Wrong?” A voice spoke up from what had been in front of me a moment earlier before I turned. “Nope, I’m just one step ahead.”

Turning back, I found myself staring at a man in a dark blue coat that reached all the way to his ankles. It was open, revealing white pants, a thick brown belt with a golden buckle, button-up white shirt with frills, and a bolo tie. His body was big and burly, like one of those stereotypical rugby players or British football fans. I wasn’t exactly sure why that was the comparison that immediately leapt to mind, but it was.

Oh, and he didn’t have a head. Or rather, the head he had was held under one arm rather than being attached to his neck where it should have been.

“Get it?” the head asked with a wide grin. “One step ahead?”

Okay, even given everything I’d experienced that year, this one still threw me. I stumbled back with a surprised yelp, eyes widening. “Oh shi–” Catching myself at the last second, I stared wide-eyed. “You–what–what?”

Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t connected to his body, the head that I was staring at looked fairly normal. Actually, in some ways it reminded me of Ruthers. He had the same sort of bulldog appearance with the heavyset, stubborn face and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. He looked, as Ruthers did, like a heavyweight boxer or, as my first impression had said, like a rowdy soccer hooligan who got drunk in the pub a lot. His dark blond hair was a bit long, and fashioned into a ponytail that I immediately pictured as a handle.

“Sorry.” The head had the sense to look admonished. “That’s my fault. Part of the deal with ol’ Gabe. I made him promise to let me meet you on my terms. I like to see people’s reactions. Always did like pranks… often a little too much, some might say…” His voice trailed off then, eyes looking out toward some distant memory before he focused.

“Ahem, sorry about that. Err, pleasure to meet you, Miss Felicity Chamber–Flick, they said you like Flick. Flick Chambers, was it?” The hand that wasn’t busy holding onto his head extended toward me. “It’s alright,” he assured me, “it won’t bite. It’s this end you’ve gotta watch.” His other hand waved his head demonstrably.

Right. Yeah, I guess I’d seen weirder. This had surprised me, but… well, he seemed friendly enough. And Gabriel had vouched for him. So I shook his hand briefly, “Yup, I’m Flick. And you’re… you’re…” I hesitated before wincing. “Um. I’m trying not to stare, but you’re supposed to look at people’s eyes when you’re talking to them. So I’m not sure what the etiquette is.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. If I was self-conscious, I’d find a better way than lugging this thing around in a hand,” the man informed me. “I do, sometimes. Got myself suits that can hold my head right in place where it’s supposed to be. But I wanted to meet you as ahhh… naturally as possible, you might say.”

His shoulders rose in a shrug before he offered, “Anyway, name’s Abraham Van Brunt, but I’ve always been partial to Brom Bones. Though these days, most people just know me as–”

“The Headless Horseman?!” I blurted out loud, eyes widening even more than before. “Like, the whole Ichabod Crane Headless Horseman?”

“You know,” the man pointed out, “that was intentionally left vague in the story. Me being the Horseman, I mean.”

“But you are headless,” I reminded him, feeling a bit silly. “I mean, not headless because it’s right there. But…” Trailing off, I hesitated before raising a hand. “You know, I’m getting a little dizzy trying to talk to you when you’re… umm…”

“What? Oh.” The man, who had been juggling his head, tossing it back and forth and in circles between his hands, finally stopped. “Sorry, habit. You’re right though, I’m the Headless Horseman. One and the same. Only the story wasn’t quite accurate. Let’s see… the short version is that Katrina was a witch, and ol’ Ichabod was a Heretic there to find her. Err, not that he knew she was the one he was looking for, specifically. Katrina wasn’t even her real name, just some pseudonym she used.”

“And the whole Headless Horseman story?” I prompted, fascinated by this.

He winced. “Yeah, that was me. I made it up. I was an even bigger idiot back then, you see. I was smitten by Katrina, and when Ichabod started investigating her, I thought he was courting her. So I made up the story to chase him out of town.”

A brief look of shame crossed his eyes then as the man muttered, “Ended up playing right into Katrina’s hands. Distracted Ichabod at the worst time, and she… well… she took him. I saw it from my disguise and tried to get away, but she took me too. Said she liked my ideas, so she used an old dark ritual and… well, here I am.” He gestured to himself.

“Wait, wait, you were born human and changed into this by magic?” I blurted, staring at him. “That’s–I didn’t know that was… I mean…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed easily. “Trust me, kid, you’ve still got a lot left to learn. And speaking of which, we should get started on those lessons. It’s gonna be a long night. So uhh.” He then proceeded to literally toss his head to me.

“Let’s get a head start.”

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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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