Herbie

Causality And Casualty 5-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so Sands, Sarah, and I were surrounded by a small army of bad guys. Actually, no, it was worse. We were surrounded by a small army of people who might not be bad guys. They were being manipulated or even outright controlled by the actual bad guy. Everything they were doing wasn’t their decision. For all we knew, these people could be perfectly pleasant, even friendly, most of the time. But right now, they had those leis around their necks making them act like this. 

The point was, lei or no lei, these guys clearly weren’t in the mood to chat or make nice. A point they all made pretty abundantly clear as weapons were drawn, swords unsheathing, energy blades humming to life, chains clinking as they unraveled, and regular guns were cocked. 

“Try not to kill them if possible,” I muttered while producing my own staff and spinning it once as I put my back to the twins’ so we could cover all sides. “Remember, none of this is their fault.” 

“Yeah, how about you tell them not to kill us?” Sands retorted darkly. “That sounds more useful right about now.” Adopting a bright tone then, she addressed the men surrounding us. “Hey, guys, I don’t suppose saying ‘take us to your leader’ would do much?”

The weapons rose, and Sands blurted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” At the same time, she made a quick motion with her mace, thrusting it into the air. That made a thick, circular wall of concrete rise with it, surrounding us to block the suddenly incoming gunfire, a mixture of lasers and bullets that would chew through the impromptu shield pretty quickly. But, for a moment, we were protected. 

Grabbing a coin from my pocket, I quickly turned while holding it out. As the sound of all that gunfire tearing our shield to pieces filled the air, Sands was already snapping her own hand back to touch the coin that she knew would be there. In an instant, she disappeared into the coin, and I gave it a hard chuck up and over the wall. While the coin was still flipping end over end through the air, Sands popped out of it, free hand already raised and filled with several tiny enchanted metal balls. As the men reacted and tried to adjust their fire, she hurled all of those tiny silver orbs at the ground around them. The flashbang spells on them activated, and I heard a collection of cries and curses as the men were blinded and deafened.

In the meantime, I had already converted my staff into its bow form, while taking a running start straight at the wall. Just before I would have slammed into it, Sands opened up a hole about waist high while she was still in the middle of falling. I threw myself into a slide through that small hole, bow already aimed and firing off an energy arrow that hit the ground between a trio of men there (all of whom were still staggering from the flashbangs). The concussive explosion from the arrow knocked all three of them flying, clearing up the path for me to slide through. 

Rolling to one knee, I drew back another energy arrow without wasting a single second. I didn’t need to take stock of where anyone was. My item-sense power did that just fine for me, helping aim my bow so that the arrow hit right between two more guys and threw them in opposite directions. Knock-outs, we were going for taking these guys out of the fight, not killing them. 

Alternatively, I could also make sure they were in no mood to fight. To that end, I filled one of my hands with the largest gooey blob of that nausea-inducing stuff that I could manage. It reached about the size of a beach ball before I hurled it into the air just above the largest group of the guys on this side, who were already spinning toward me as they fought through the effects of the flashbangs. Right when the spinning gel-orb reached the top of their heads, I hit it with an energy arrow. The concussive blast sent that nasty goo spraying in every direction, dropping a dozen of the mind-controlled Alters to the ground retching and heaving. 

Immediately, I followed that up by hitting the button on my staff to summon all the sand I had stored. A huge dust cloud swirled around me, and I sent it in every direction, forcing the sand into the eyes and mouths of everyone I could see. Some of those were still retching from the explosion of nausea-goop, while others had been trying to force their way past those ones to get at me. Dozens of those guys all yelled out, grabbing their eyes and rubbing to get the sand out as they stumbled. 

That was a couple big groups temporarily handled, clearing out a lot of space around me. But I wasn’t exactly safe. Two guys were coming at me from one side, before each staggered as bullets came out of nowhere. One was hit in the shoulder, while the other had the sword he was holding blown out of his hand. Sarah, of course. She wasn’t exactly sitting idle while all that was going on. Through the hole that Sands had created, I caught a glimpse as Sarah fired three quick shots into a scope-portal (probably to help Sands, who had landed on the opposite side of the circular wall thing) before abruptly spinning as one of our new very-much-not friends who apparently wasn’t actually blinded at the moment phase through the wall. Yet even as he turned solid, Sarah was already snatching the pistol from his grip with her solid-light hand, crushing the thing into scrap before that same fist lashed out in a back-handed smack that put the guy on the ground. I had been moving to help, but clearly she didn’t need it right now. 

Which was a good thing, considering I already had my hands full. With a lot of hands. Because the creature coming after me in that moment looked like another one of Miss Handsy’s species. Like her, this one looked like a two-and-a-half-foot-wide ball floating in the air with a head attached to it by a single slender stalk, with dozens of other narrow tentacles sticking out of every inch of the main ball. There was a hand attached to each tentacle, as the being used two of those to walk and the other thirty or so to hold various guns and bladed weapons. All of which the guy was bringing to bear on me. Which was just fantastic

“Time to fight!” I blurted, the command summoning Jaq and Gus to assume their places on my staff, even as I snapped it up to intercept no less than five incoming blades of varying sizes. The force of all those hits probably would have knocked the weapon out of my hand entirely without my enhanced strength. As it was, I still had to stagger back a step. 

Now my staff was raised and extended horizontally, held in one hand while three blades were held against the left side of the shaft and two against the right. Another half dozen tentacles with a mix of metal and energy swords were still coming in from that right side, but I quickly triggered a blast from that end of the staff, sending out a concussive wave that blew them back for the moment. Simultaneously, I used my other hand to create a small portal on my other side, catching a shotgun blast from the tentacle that had been trying to be sneaky by coming in from there and sending it harmlessly out to the side. 

But this damn guy never seemed to run out of hands. From the corner of my eye, I saw two more without actual weapons trying to grab my ankles. At the same time, the five with blades that I had blocked with my staff had already rebounded and were trying to stab my leg, stomach, chest, shoulder, and face respectively. The tentacle-guy was doing his level best to leave me no room to escape. Or, more to the point, trying to make me dodge backwards and end up right in the grasp of the hands he was bringing up and around to hit me from behind. 

This was one fucking guy, and he had two hands trying to grab my ankles, five with blades coming at various parts of my front, another three extended up and around to sneak on me from behind, and even more with ranged weapons ready to take pot shots at me. One guy! How was this fair? 

Oh well, good thing I didn’t fight fair either. Instead of blundering backward into his waiting tentacles, letting my ankles be grabbed, or taking five different blades into my flesh (and definitely instead of all three of those), I flung myself into a sideways flip, twisting my body in the air and tucking my legs to pass right through a single narrow gap between all those flailing tentacles, hands, and weapons. It was such a small opening that it should have been impossible to pass through without being cut to ribbons by half a dozen swinging blades. But given the agility enhancements I’d absorbed combined with my instinctive knowledge of exactly where every blade was, I was barely able to make it. Clearly, I owed the werewolf and knockengerwicht I’d gotten those powers from a few thanks. 

I did not, however, owe thanks to every werewolf. Particularly not the one who was rushing straight at me from one side in his enormous, half-human battle form, already in mid-roar. I was still in the middle of that sideways-flip that carried me between all those lashing tentacles when I caught a glimpse of him. Even worse, I sensed yet another figure coming from behind me on the opposite side, someone running up fast with a big hammer. 

So, I was still in mid-jump, barely clearing the dozen or so armed tentacles from one fucking guy. A werewolf in massive humanoid battle form was rushing at me from the direction my lunge was carrying me, and some other guy with a big hammer was coming up from the other side. 

This was all going super-fantastic, that was for sure. 

Okay, time to start dealing with all these guys. Landing from that flip, I quickly ducked one lashing blade-armed tentacle, blocked three more in quick succession with various snaps of my staff to both sides, and then stabbed the bladed end into yet another tentacle to stop it. All of that took a bare handful of seconds, and came so quickly I didn’t have time to even look to see what kind of being was coming at me with that hammer. All I knew was that the weapon was huge, so I was pretty sure the thing holding it was too. 

More tentacles were coming. Hammer guy was coming. Wolf-man was coming. Fuck, fuck, move! 

I moved, triggering the boost of my staff to send myself toward the incoming werewolf and out of range of the tentacle guy. At the same time, I summoned a new ball of nauseating liquid into my other hand, sending it flying into the wolf-man’s face. 

Three quick energy blasts from various pistols that tentacle-guy was holding came at me before I reached the wolf. But I absorbed them, the warm, almost-burning feeling rose in me from being completely full of that energy. I’d have to let it out soon. But not… just… yet. 

Instead, I snapped my staff down. A thought made the weapon grow, extending to twice its normal length so that the end collided with the ground. I used that to shove myself higher, flipping over in the air so that my momentum carried me the rest of the way before landing on my feet right smack on wolf-guy’s back while he was still doubled-over retching. The impact knocked him to the ground with a grunt. 

Finally, I could see the figure with the big hammer that I’d sensed. And I had been right about it being something big. Troll. It was a troll. Quickly, I unleashed all of that power I’d just absorbed from those lasers, sending it back out in a broad wave of energy that hit the troll, burning him and making him stagger, his bellow filling the air.  

Honestly, this was normally where I might try to possess one of these three guys. Like the werewolf I was standing on, for example. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. That warning we’d gotten from Prelate played through my head. If I tried to possess anyone who was currently affected by Kwur, there was a good chance he’d be able to get to me too. So no possessing people like this. Between that and not killing them, I was going to have to get a bit creative. Or just hit them until they stopped trying to murder me. That could work too.

To that end, as the werewolf under my feet tried to push me off, I quickly lashed out with a kick to the back of his head that slammed his face into the concrete. Hoping that would stun him for a second, I summoned something else into my hand. Herbie. Rearing back, I chucked him as hard as I could toward the flailing mass of tentacles. He was small enough to pass through the narrow space between all those wild limbs, several of which were trying to grab onto him or knock him out of the air. Just before Herbie would have bounced off the head of the tentacle-guy, I focused on a certain other power. Suddenly, my tiny rock buddy was much larger. He was about four feet across (his hat and sword grew with him). 

Giant Herbie slammed into tentacle guy’s face, knocking him to the ground before I shrank my rock buddy and summoned him back to my hand. No way was I leaving him out there to get hurt. Either way, tentacle-dude was out of the fight at least for a second or two. The troll was briefly occupied as well, with that whole recovering from taking a massive energy blast into the face thing. And the wolf guy I was still standing on had yet to reorient himself after his own face had been kicked into the pavement.

All three of them not attacking me for two seconds was good, because it gave me the briefest of openings to try something. Namely, focusing on the lei around wolf-man’s neck. I didn’t grab it, given how much of a stupid idea that seemed like. Instead, I lashed out with the bladed end of my staff to cut through it. 

Maybe I was crazy, but it sure sounded like that lei screamed when I cut it. Not in pain, but in… rage. Yeah. 

Without thinking too much about that, I flipped the blade around, caught the lei on it, and focused on superheating the metal until the flowers caught fire. As they burned, I hurled them away. By the time I did that, the wolf guy under me was really starting to shove himself up, so I jumped off him just in time to see the severely burned troll make his move. He lunged with that big hammer raised, his terrifying roar filling the air. Actually, there had to be a literal psychological power behind that roar, because it hit me much harder than something like that normally would have by that point. Hearing the sound, I froze for just a second. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Something in it, some power the troll must have had, caught me flat-footed. 

Then I was grabbed, yanked off the ground by something large and furry. The werewolf. He hauled me up and leapt out of the way an instant before that hammer came down to pulverize the hell out of the pavement where I had been standing. The next thing I knew, the wolf man landed, letting me go while turning to look at the troll. “Barny! What the hell are you doing?! You could’ve–” In mid-sentence, he had to throw himself into a backward roll as the hammer went swinging over his head. “What the fuck!? Barny, it’s me!”

It didn’t help. The massive troll kept coming after him. Seeing that, and taking in how the werewolf was acting, I blurted, “The flowers around his neck! Get them off him! But try not to touch them!” Then I hit the badge and used it to connect to Sands and Sarah so that I wouldn’t have to scream it out loud across the battlefield and repeated the bit about getting the flowers off these guys. 

By that point, the tentacle guy had recovered and used several of his hands to push himself up. He came after me then, four tentacles thrusting back to throw himself forward, while the rest came flailing in toward me. Blades swung while shots from a dozen different ranged weapons filled the air in a hail of bullets, lasers, and more. Apparently Herbie and I had pissed him off.

I did the only thing I could in that moment. I ran straight at the guy. A quick word activated the kevlar spell on my clothes, instantly protecting me (however briefly) from the incoming bullets and other projectiles. I also focused on absorbing the energy from the lasers, gripping my staff tightly in one hand. Not yet, not yet, noooot yeeeeeet. My whole body was burning up. It hurt, each blast of energy tipped me closer toward just exploding. I held it. Through extreme effort, I held it. With the bullets striking me all over (their momentum almost entirely erased thanks to the spell) like a torrential rain of metal, I kept sprinting. Even as the tentacle guy loomed right up in front of me, fifteen different blades swinging my way from every possible direction that he could reach, I kept moving

At the last possible second, with those blades inches from my body and my opponent fully (eagerly) committed, I made my actual move. Channeling every last bit of energy I’d absorbed into my staff, I created a portal and launched a blast from that energy through the staff and into the portal. At the same time, I dove feet first, baseball sliding between the man’s tentacle-legs. The other end of the portal was right behind him and slightly angled making the blast from my staff launch him up and forward, leaving just enough space for me to slide by beneath him. The precise angle of the blast actually tipped the guy forward, leaving the narrow stalk between his head and body in view. I used that, snapping my staff up so that the grapple caught the lei that dangled there. A thought, as I slid under the figure, super-heated the grapple even as it tore the ring of flowers from my opponent’s neck and incinerated them. 

Sliding and rolling to a somewhat flailing stop a few feet past the tentacle guy, I quickly flung the still smoldering remains of the lei off my staff and snapped my head up with a quick blurted prayer. 

He wasn’t attacking. The tentacle guy wasn’t attacking me. He was stumbling to the side, looking very… drunk, basically. The weapons all fell from his hands, and I heard him mutter, “What… where…?” 

It worked! Fuck, fuck, it worked! Quickly, I rolled to my feet, stumbling a little as I turned wild eyes toward where I’d last seen the werewolf guy and the giant troll. 

The troll was on his knees, hammer beside him. He looked distraught as he crouched over a man I belatedly realized was the werewolf in his fully human form. The guy looked pretty injured, his leg bent the wrong way and partially smashed, with blood all around him. But he was also holding a metal pipe of some kind that had what remained the troll’s giant lei on it. The flowers were mostly burned, and I could see a lighter laying nearby. 

“Help. Help!” the troll called desperately. “Help friend! Friend! Pars! Help Pars!” 

Looking around even as I moved that way, I saw that things were under control. We’d knocked a few people out, but more to the point, as soon as Sands and Sarah started knocking people’s leis off them, those people were freed and able to start helping others. It was an exponential effect. The more people who were freed from Kwur’s control, the more they could help free others. 

“Flick, you good?” The words penetrated a second later, and I turned to see Sands and Sarah approaching while looking around warily.

Before I could answer that, the troll blurted, “Pars not good! Help Pars!” 

“I’m okay, Barny,” the werewolf insisted through gritted teeth, shifting a bit. “Nothing that won’t… gngnnmmm… heal…” He looked to the three of us then, along with all the other figures who were coming out of their mind-controlled haze. They all looked confused, disoriented, upset, and generally just very out of it. It was like they were waking up from a dream and had no idea where they were or what they had been doing. 

“So…” Pars the werewolf asked, clearly speaking for everyone around us. 

“Who the fuck are you guys and what the fuck is going on?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felicity Chambers. His human.

He just hoped they got along.

*******

Flick Chambers was the best partner anyone could ask for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Herbie.”

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place. I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-09

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Two dozen heavily armed and armored soldiers instantly forgot that the rest of us existed, turning their weapons instead toward the newly freed Olympian who had just made her presence known. And Sariel met them in turn, taking a few running steps forward. As the first guns began to fire, chewing up the metal around her, the woman suddenly leapt high into the air.

Shot after shot sailed around and past the woman as the soldiers tried to correct their aim, while Sariel herself flipped over, putting herself upside down. Her arms snapped out, and I saw two of the soldiers’ sidearms abruptly disappear, only to reappear in the woman’s waiting hands.

She fired six shots then, three from each pistol, all while still upside down in midair. Each bullet found a different target. And more than that, each of those targets happened to be the eye-slots of the helmets that the soldiers wore. Six shots, upside down and in midair, put through six narrow slots the size of an eye, two at a time in three consecutive double-shots.

Six soldiers down, just like that. They dropped like puppets whose strings had been cut.

Sariel, meanwhile, finished her full-body flip in time to land feet first against the chest of one of the other men. The force of the impact knocked the man to the ground, while the woman, still standing on his chest, snapped the gun in her right hand down to shoot him through the eye-slot as well. At the other time, her left hand snapped out to shoot yet another man, in the knee this time. The impact made the man cry out, dropping his gun as he stumbled.  

At first, I wondered why someone who could clearly hit any target whatsoever would aim for someone’s leg rather than something vital. But the answer became clear a second later, while simultaneously helping to redefine the term bullshit. Because as the man’s gun fell from his hand with the barrel facing more or less toward her, Sariel fired another shot from the gun in her left hand. That bullet struck the trigger of the falling gun, making that weapon fire an actual laser that struck a big guy that had been coming up behind Sariel right in the middle of his forehead.

In other words, Sariel wasn’t just capable of headshotting every single one of these guys at will. She was capable of literally shooting the trigger of a different gun on the other side of the field and making that one still headshot a target. How, I ask. Fucking how?

Like I said, redefining bullshit. And I had a really high bullshit tolerance level by that point.

While I was still reacting to just how fucking ridiculous that was, Sariel was throwing one of those pistols into the face of another man who had been coming for her. He recoiled, while she pivoted to shoot yet another man. One shot, one kill. She took a quick step backward, putting herself close to the man who was recoiling. In the same motion, the woman caught the pistol that she had thrown into his face as it rebounded backward. Arms folding together across her chest so that the guns were pointed in opposite directions, she fired twice more from each gun, taking four more guys down.

By that point, her backward movement had put her directly beside the staggering man. Before he knew what was happening, Sariel trapped his raised gun arm with both of hers, so that all three of their pistols were aimed in the same direction with the man’s caught between hers. As Sariel moved her arms, the man was forced to move his as well, caught the way that he was. And move them she did, pulling the trigger on one of her guns, followed almost immediately by the other. An instant later, she gave the man’s arm just enough of a jerk that he reflexively pulled his own trigger as well while the position of his weapon was moved just a bit, apparently to where the woman wanted it. While the guns that Sariel had were using actual bullets, his fired a blue laser that shot through the air.

The two bullets that the woman had fired first struck their targets in rapid succession. The first hit a charging soldier right in his left eye, knocking his head back while the enormous metal sword that he had been holding dropped from his hands. As it fell, the second shot knocked the sword up and back a bit.

Then that laser that Sariel had forced the other soldier to fire struck the sword at its new angle, rebounding off of the metal surface to cut through three other guys who had all been lined up to take their shots.

I had no words. None. Seeing that, realizing that this woman had managed to shoot a man in the face with one gun, shoot his sword into the exact position she wanted it to be in with the other, and use a third gun (one that she was forcing another guy to aim and fire by trapping his arm between hers) to shoot a laser that rebounded off of that aforementioned sword to hit three other targets? I… I had nothing. There were literally no words.

The enemies, however, apparently did have a word for it. And that word was retreat. Even as Sariel snapped the arm of the man she had caught, throwing him over her shoulder to shoot through his helmet as he fell on the ground, the rest of the soldiers were scattering. They fled in every direction, some throwing down their weapons while others didn’t bother taking that much time. Either way, they booked it, running across the desert ground as if they were literally on fire.

Sariel let them go, standing there in the total silence that followed that mass retreat while she breathed in, then out a couple of times. The rest of us stood as well, just as silent as we stared at the woman we had been trying to save for so long. In my head, Tabbris had gone quiet as well. I could feel her shock, her disbelief that this could possibly be real, along with fear that if she said anything, if she moved at all, she would destroy this beautiful dream and it would be gone forever. Seeing her mother standing there, live and in the flesh after all this time, she didn’t know how to react. There was this great swell of emotion, a joy that had risen far beyond what I could possibly imagine, and which just kept growing with no particular end in sight.

All of that indescribable happiness had to go somewhere, and it finally exploded, almost literally, as Tabbris threw herself out of me. She appeared in a glowing energy form before resolving into her physical body. Sprinting that way at full speed, the girl cried out with a single word that filled the air, a single word that fully encompassed all of that euphoric jubilation that I had felt in her.

“Mama!!!”

The pistols that Sariel had commandeered from the now-dead soldiers dropped from her hands, as the woman pivoted our way with an audible gasp. She immediately took to one knee, arms managing to open wide just in time for Tabbris to physically throw herself those last few feet, literally launching into her mother’s arms, which closed around her and held on tightly.  

Tristan and Vanessa weren’t far behind. Seconds after Sariel’s arms closed around her youngest daughter, the other two made it to her. Both blurted something that sounded like it was midway between the word ‘mom’ and an incoherent noise, as they threw themselves that way.

And, like with Tabbris, Sariel met her twins with open arms. She pulled them all to her, all three of her children, and held them as tightly as she could. 

Someone was sobbing. Then they all were. Half-kneeling on the ground and half-laying against one another, the four clung to each other tightly. Several times, one or another tried to speak. But it always dissolved back into wordless sobbing as the four simply held on, clinging to their family like a man clinging to a life raft through a hurricane. This time, however, no force would pull them apart.

They also weren’t the only ones who were crying. Standing where I was, I felt a hard lump in my throat before swallowing it away. Wet, hot tears flooded my eyes. But they were glorious tears. Tears that I welcomed. Tears that I wanted to count, name, and enshrine, just because of how important this single moment actually was. Blinking my way through them, just so that I could watch this reunion without that watery veil obscuring my vision, I stood in silence.

They deserved this. They deserved it so much. Their family had suffered, had been separated and put through hell just to claw their way back this far. The things that Sariel alone had gone through… the thought was almost enough to drive away the joy that I felt now.

But not quite. Because nothing could ruin this moment. This, watching Sariel finally, finally reunite with her children, was the single happiest scene I could ever remember witnessing. Hearing her choked voice as she repeatedly murmured their names, telling them how much she loved them, shattered any emotional wall I might have had. 

The only thing that possibly could have made it even better would have been if Haiden had been there too. His absence, and the fact that I wasn’t sure how we were going to get back to link up with them again, let alone how long it would take, was the only dark spot on the moment.

“Babies,” Sariel choked out while leaning back to stare at her children. Her fingers wandered through their hair, down their faces, and back again while she whispered each of their names in turn. “Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris. Oh, my babies. My beautiful, beautiful babies. You’re here, you’re here, you’re alive. Oh, you’re alive. You’re safe. She lied, she lied. I knew she lied. You’re safe. You’re safe. She lied.”

Her shoulders were shaking violently by that point, while her voice cracked. The revelation of how Kushiel had clearly been messing with her head just to hurt her shook me to my core. For a moment, I whispered a silent prayer that Apollo had actually managed to end that bitch somehow while we were gone.

Sariel and the kids all started talking then. Tristan had clearly passed some information about what was going on to his mother when he had managed to recall to her. But now they began to really talk, and explain what had happened and why we were there. Or at least, as much as they could get into it in a very short time.

It was also very emotional, and I didn’t want to interrupt or eavesdrop too much. So, the first thing I did was make my way back onto that transport, both to retrieve my staff and to make sure there weren’t any other surprises waiting for us. Picking up my weapon, I smiled down at the blade and grapple on the ends. “Okay guys,” I whispered, “I think the fight’s over.”

Jaq and Gus resumed their mice forms and moved to each of my shoulders, while I walked back off the transport. Taking a seat on a small boulder, I took Herbie from my pocket and held him up in both of my hands, cupped in my palms.

“Hey buddy,” I murmured under my breath, “what do you think?”

What did he think? I didn’t even know what I thought. We had made that deal with Jophiel and Elisabet because there hadn’t been any other choice. But at what cost? How involved were the two of them in what was going on with Avalon? Could I have managed to talk them into giving that up somehow in exchange for what they wanted? No, obviously not. They already knew that the bargain with saving Sariel already gave them the upper hand. Why would they have agreed to anything else? Still it was a thought that pressed at me. What if they used this, or tried to use it to help those efforts?

I wouldn’t let them. I would die before I let this deal hurt Avalon like that. They had to know that, right? They weren’t stupid. They had to know that there were buttons that they wouldn’t get away with pressing.

And yet, despite all my efforts otherwise, I had still somehow ended up being forced into keeping really bad secrets from everyone that I should have been open with. The thought made me want to throw up, even as I pressed one fist to my forehead.

Jaq nuzzled at my ear, making a quiet, questioning squeak. With a little smile, I retrieved a couple of little metal washers from my pocket and third one to each of them. “You guys did great,” I assured them. “Trust me, you’re totally the MVPs of this team.”

Winking at Herbie, I reminded him, “Gotta let your brothers win sometimes.”

Sitting there on one rock, with a much better, and more handsome rock in my hand, I turned my head to look out over the desert. What planet did we we just get sent to? I wondered. And how hard is it going to be to contact the others?

Well, it actually wouldn’t be that hard, come to think of it. If nothing else, Vanessa could cast her mind to her father, or completely recall to him, and let him know where we were. As soon as we figured out where here actually was, at least.

Somewhere around five minutes passed, and I was pretty sure it would’ve been even longer if there hadn’t been the fear of a bigger force showing up. But I eventually heard my name being called, and belatedly realized that in trying to avoid eavesdropping, I had missed them saying it a couple times before that.

So, I slowly picked myself up and walked that way while tucking Herbie back into my pocket. The others were all sitting there watching me as I approached. Sariel had her arms around them, holding tightly as she gave me a soft smile.

She looked, despite the situation, like she was still right on the edge. Her face was paler than seemed healthy, and her eyes had a hard, haunted look. As a tumbleweed went drifting by in the slight breeze, I saw her gaze snap that way, every muscle in her body suddenly stiffening, as if she was ready for another fight.

It passed almost as soon as it had come, and she returned her eyes to me. “Felicity Chambers.” Her voice was soft, if a bit hoarse, and her eyes, though still haunted, took on a kind look. “I must say, I was not expecting this to be how we met.” As she spoke, the woman pulled Tabbris closer to her, while the girl herself nuzzled up against her mother’s arm.

Flushing a little bit, I coughed. “To tell you the truth, ma’am, I wasn’t really expecting to meet like like this either.” Without thinking, I added, “Even when I dreamt about meeting Artemis when I was little, it wasn’t really like this.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Sariel’s smile grew from obvious curiosity. “You dreamt about meeting a Greek mythological figure?”

My blush deepened, as I mumbled, “I was reading this book series and–never mind. You, um. You’re….” Stopping myself, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I guess I just never really expected to get this far. I don’t know what to say.”

“I know what to say to you,” Sariel replied then. “Thank you.” Her gaze met mine pointedly. “Thank you for accepting my daughter once you found out about her. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help her. There are… many who would not have done the same in your situation. You have been put through a lot, and you have reacted… admirably.”

My head shook quickly at that. “Trust me, she’s done a lot more for me than I’ve done for her.” After pausing briefly, I added, “I guess we just make good partners.”

The woman sighed a little bit. “There is so much more that we need to talk about,” she muttered under her breath, “so much more that I want to say. But that will come in time. Right now, we must find out where we are and get a message to… to Haiden before the soldiers return in actual force. There will be coordinates listed on the transport.” When she said her husband’s name, there was an aching in both her voice and gaze that gave me a faint idea of how much she missed the man. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “And as soon as we know where they are, I can let Dad, Uncle Apollo, Aunt Larissa, and Athena know.”

I thought that Sariel sucked in a little breath at that, her gaze dropping a bit with a look of guilt. “Apollo… Larissa…” She swallowed slightly, clearly a lot more troubled than she was actually letting her kids (who were mostly blinded by the joy of actually being with their mother) see. “Yes, yes, we… we need to re… um, regroup.”

There was obviously a lot of complicated feelings there. Feelings that we, as usual, didn’t have time to get into. Instead, together (very together in the others’ cases, since it didn’t seem like Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris wanted to get very far away from their mother any time soon), we moved quickly back to the transport. I was really hoping that we could get Athena’s people here quickly enough to move all these pods so that we could free everyone in them before too many of Kushiel’s people (or other Seosten forces) showed up. Either way, we needed to hurry.

Thankfully, Sariel knew where she was going. The woman stepped right up to a console at one end of the transport tube. Her fingers danced over it, and she seemed to be putting in some kind of override passcode. I caught a glimpse of the woman inputting not her own name, but Puriel’s.

Before I could ask how she’d managed that, the woman spoke quietly. “The transport was a one-way trip. There’s no way to send it back or go through again. But where…” She started a bit then, eyes widening. “That… can’t be right.” Quickly, she input the same thing, staring the words on the screen for a moment before trying for a third time. “No, that has to be wrong.”

“What is it, Mama?” Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s waist, blinked up at her. “Are we in a bad place?”

Tristan’s head bobbed at that. “Yeah, just how deep in Seosten space are we?”

“We’re not,” Sariel answered, shock still filling her voice. “We’re not deep in Seosten space.”

Frowning, Vanessa asked, “What do you mean? If we’re not deep in Seosten space, where are we?”

Turning away from the console, Sariel answered her children. “Earth.

“We’re on Earth.”

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Gathering Force 33-02

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“So, what have you guys been doing while we’ve been apart?” I asked a bit conversationally a few seconds later as our little group started to make our way through the crowd to where the others were supposed to be.

I saw Roxa and Sands exchange glances briefly before the blond girl replied, “Let’s just say it’s been a hectic month.”

Sands nodded. “Like we said, we thought you were taken by Radueriel, so we’ve been fighting our way through anyone that could give us a hint about where his most secret lab was, where we thought he was keeping you. You should’ve seen Mom. She was… really mad. When she thought you and Tabbris were being experimented on, she basically went ballistic.”

By the end of that, she had lowered her voice, for all the good that did. I was positive that her mother had heard every word, even if she kept her focus elsewhere.

Roxa nodded, before glancing to the young Seosten girl beside me. “Speaking of which, so the plan is just to pretend that you guys just met during this month?”

“Not permanently,” I replied. “We just want to give them a chance to get to know for herself, without the weight of her having possessed me for so long. Once they know her, then we’ll tell them the truth. You know, if we can.”

“You mean if they can be trusted?” Sands asked carefully.

My head shook a little. “I know they can be trusted, after everything we’ve been through with them already. It’s just… this is a lot and them knowing it puts them in danger.” Belatedly, I corrected myself, “Okay, so they’re already in danger even if they don’t know about it. But them knowing about it puts her in even more danger. And, you know, they’re still getting used to this whole trusting Alters thing.”

Again, the other two girls exchange glances. The fact that they kept doing that told me a lot about how much they had been through in the past few weeks. Roxa started slowly, “Well, as far as Jazz goes, I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry about her and the whole trusting Alters thing. She’s kind of… advanced as far as that goes.”

I blinked at that, head tilting as I glanced toward Tabbris. She offered me an equally confused shrug, and I looked back to the others. “What does that mean?”

Sands was clearly suppressing a little bit of a snicker. “Oh, you’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.

I wanted to push for more information on that, but Larissa spoke up first. “Once we get the others, we can all portal back to our ship. She looked over to Athena and Yup, her eyes narrowing just a little bit. “We’ll need to get a lot more information from you about exactly what’s going on before we agree to go anywhere with you.”

Athena herself lowered her head in acknowledgment of that. “Of course, Miss Larissa,” she replied easily. “Your suspicion after your charges’ long absences was expected. Given my people’s general reputation, this could quite easily be a trap.”

“And your acknowledgment of that doesn’t make it any less likely,” Larissa pointed out, though her voice was mild. “I do hope that you will be more open to full introductions once we are away from this world.”

“Indeed,” Athena promised with another nod. “Once we are aboard your ship, we will discuss everything.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Sands raised her hand to point off in the distance. “There they are,” she announced.

I looked that way. Sure enough, I immediately spotted Haiden and Gordon speaking with one of the merchants. A second later, Jazz and Jokai came into view.

The two of them were holding hands. And not in a buddy system sort of way either. It looked like…

“Yup,” Roxa confirmed, clearly reading my expression. “They’re a thing now. Not exactly sure how it happened, but like we said, she’s definitely all in on the trusting Alters thing.”

“Uh… yeah.” I coughed, unsure what to say. Wow, I had known that Jazz felt close to Jokai after all that had happened, but I hadn’t known exactly how close. I really had missed a lot while I was away.

By that point, Haiden had noticed us. His eyes widened a little bit as he glanced over our way, before saying something to Gordon. I saw even the dark skinned boy’s normally unflappable demeanor jump a bit as he looked our way, his mouth opening in what was clearly surprise. And if he was noticeably surprised, that really said a lot.

Both of our groups convened, Jazz abruptly blurting, “Flick! You’re— I mean you’re not—” she glanced briefly toward Roxa for verification.

“She’s not possessed,” the other girl confirmed.  

“And it’s really her,” Sands added. “Mom double-checked.”

Err, she had? I wasn’t sure how, or when exactly she had done that. But I was glad that I had passed whatever kind of inspection that had been.

I was pulled into an embrace by Haiden then. “Hey kid,” he announced while ruffling my hair. “You look good. A lot better than we thought you’d look anyway. Should’ve known you’d end up making friends.” That last part was added with an appraising glance toward Athena and Yup, as well as a brief glance toward Tabbris. But most of his attention centered on the older Seosten. I saw his eyes narrow briefly as he took in her appearance with an obviously appraising look.

Gordon, meanwhile, gave me a nod. His mouth twitched up in what was as close as he tended to get to a smile. “Glad to see that you’re okay.”

Raising my hands, I held them in front of my face as if warding off a crazy fan girl. “Whoa, whoa, don’t get so emotional, buddy. I’m not sure I can handle it.”

While the others were snickering a little bit at that, Jokai’s attention remained riveted on Athena. I didn’t think that he actually knew exactly who she was, but he did seem fully aware that she was a powerful Seosten. He looked scared, like he knew that she could kill him in an instant if she was of the mind to, but also like he wasn’t going to back down or run away despite that.  

“It’s okay,” I quickly reassured him as much as I could. “She’s a friend. I promise, she is not going to hurt you, or any of us.” Boy, I really hoped that he understood enough English at that point to follow my meaning. Especially since Tabbris was standing beside me, rather than possessing me. I really didn’t want to have to try to explain why I didn’t know as much Latin as I should at that point.

Apparently he did, because the chameleon-alter glanced to me, then back to Athena, before nodding as his attention returned to me one final time. The man spoke carefully and slowly. “You are safe. This is good.” He smiled. “Very good.”

Smiling back at him, I slyly replied, “Yeah, and speaking of good, it looks like you guys have been having a pretty good time yourselves.” With that,  I nodded toward his and Jazz’s clasped hands.

The two of them flushed noticeably at that, and Jazz murmured, “It’s kind of—”

“A long story?” I guessed. “Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that going around. Pretty cool though, you guys are cute. But what do you call yourselves? Jazzkai? Hidden Heretic? Jokazz?”

Coughing, Jazz very clearly changed the subject. “Who’re these guys?” She asked while gesturing to Athena, Yup, and Tabbris.

Before I could say anything, Larissa interrupted. “We’ll discuss all that back on the ship,” she announced. “Let’s head back to the extraction point and we can talk about all those things that we all really need to talk about.”

Jazz gave me a hug then, quickly and tightly. Her voice was soft. “I really am glad that you’re okay. We were all scared for you. You…” She swallowed audibly, meeting my gaze. “You saved me. You could have boosted yourself past me, or tried to boost both of us together.”

My head shook at that, and I returned her hug. “I didn’t know if boosting both of us would get us to the portal in time,” I replied easily.

The other girl started to say something else. She made it sound like there was something caught in her throat, before just shaking her head. Together we all walked the way that Larissa was guiding us. I saw Jazz and Gordon give Tabbris brief looks here and there. They clearly noticed how close the girl was to me, and were curious. But no one said anything as we made our way through the market.

Eventually, we reached what looked like an abandoned building. Larissa looked both ways, then held up her hand in front of the doorway and said something. There was a series of clicking sounds, and the door opened. We all filed inside of a small, dingy room with a single small metal ball sitting in the middle of it.

Yup, who had been incredibly quiet up to that point, took one look at the orb before announcing, “Portal spell. A really powerful one.”

Haiden gave the small, purple man a brief, curious look before nodding. “ A friend of ours set it up. It’ll take us back to the ship. Us and everyone in this room.” Reaching down, he picked up the orb and glanced around briefly. “So, if everyone’s ready?”

There were no objections, specially not for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ship. For one thing I really wanted to see Dries, who I was positive had been the one to set up that portal spell to begin with. If I couldn’t see Avalon anytime soon, the least I could do was see how her great-great-great whatever ancestor was doing.

And of course there was… My eyes widened as I realize that, with all the distractions that had been going on, there was one incredibly important thing that I needed to know about. Looking toward the others, I said a single word. “Isaac?”

Holding that orb in his hand, Haiden flinched. His head gave a slight shake along with the others. “Couldn’t get answers out of the kid,” he replied flatly. “Tell you why not once we get up there.”

Well, that was ominous. And more than a little confusing. But before I could say anything else, the man activated the orb, and the world spun around us.

Once everything had resolved back into its proper place, we were standing back in that familiar cargo bay of the ship. It was mostly empty once more sense all of Jokai’s people had moved off into that other base, and the ant-like Kenkeans… “Wait, are the Kenkeans okay?”

Jazz nodded. “Yeah, they’re all moved in with the other guys back at the asteroid base. We’ve taken them a couple loads of supplies in between, you know, looking for you.”

“Right.” I took a breath, then let it out. “So, dare I ask, what is the deal with Isaac?“

Sands’ response was as immediate as it was flat and monotone. “He’s a piece of shit psycho traitor who is worth less than the barnacles clinging to the broken remains of a rowboat on the bottom of the ocean? Actually, do barnacles poop? Because I’m pretty sure he’s worth less than that too.”

“More to the point,” her mother put in with a brief glance to her, “we can’t get answers out of him. Not even by possessing him.”

I blinked at that, surprised. “What do you mean you can’t get answers by possessing him? Possession is pretty much the trump card. It gets answers. Between Dries’ magic and someone possessing him, you should be able to get everything you need.”

“That’s the problem,” Sands replied, “No one can possess him. He can’t be possessed.”

That made my head snap around as I did an almost violent double take. “What do you mean, he can’t be possessed? It’s not like he knows how to ca— oh son of a bitch.”

”Yep,” Roxa confirmed my curse. “The asshole can block possession. Turns out, he still had a couple surprises left behind in this ship. Like cameras that he was using to watch when they were teaching us the dibs spell. So he knows how to cast that.”

“But that doesn’t last forever,” I pointed out while feeling my annoyance manifest in the form of a headache.

“No,” Haiden replied. “But it does last for a really long time. That was the point, that’s what we intended it to do. Remember, the whole point was to make it too hard for the Seosten to just wait out the effect. We wanted to be able to escape before they could just wait out the spell and then possess us anyway.”

Larissa nodded. “He also seems to have used the blood connection that he forged with the Kenkeans to supercharge its duration. Which, let me tell you, is incredibly dark, dark magic. He definitely didn’t learn that at Crossroads. But it means we have no idea how long it will last.”

My mouth opened and shut before I managed a dark, “There are no words for the kind of bullshit that this is.”

“Tell us about it,” Sands muttered. “We’ve been dealing with it for the past few weeks.”

“The real problem,” Haiden announced then, “is that we don’t want to go messing with the spell too much, because we’re still not exactly sure what Sariel did to set up in the first place. We’re afraid that if we worked too hard to take it off of him, it could have a rippling effect across everyone else. And if the spell gets taken down completely, well, we’re all kind of screwed.”

Roxa nodded. “Screwed seems to be where we live in general now. And before we say anything else in front of all these people, who are all these people?”

Smothering the urge to keep randomly cursing about Isaac, I stepped back and gestured. “Right, uh, first, this is Auriel. I guess you guys would know her better as Athena.”

Okay, yeah, I did get a little bit of a kick out of the collective double take they all gave at that. It made me giggle inwardly. Totally worth it. Well, everyone except Haiden. He just gave a slight nod, clearly either having known or heavily suspected her identity the entire time.

One corner of her mouth twitching up a little bit, Athena gave a slight nod. “It is a pleasure to meet those who have been giving my former colleagues so much trouble. They have been quite thoroughly vexed by you.”

“You… you’re…” Larissa looked flabbergasted. “Sariel mentioned you. She said that you were banished, imprisoned far away..”

Athena gave a low, humorless chuckle. “Yes,” she murmured. “My people do tend to try and pretend that they are firmly in control of the situation.”

Haiden spoke up then. “She thought you might find your way out at some point. Told me a lot about you. She wasn’t sure how much you would… want to talk to her, but she said that you could be trusted, if you ever showed up.”

“She can be. She’s the one who saved me back there,” I put in. “She was possessing that soldier who tripped and slowed them all down. She showed herself when I got left behind, and pretty much wiped the floor with that entire army. Then she took me to her base. They’ve got a bunch of people living there. There’s even a school.”

Haiden raised an eyebrow at that. “You weren’t kidding about it being a long story,” he muttered. “Sounds like quite a place though. Must be pretty well hidden to stay off the Seosten radar. No way they’d let a place like that stay up if they knew where it was.”

I coughed. “Well hidden? You have no idea. Anyway, this is Yup.” I gestured to the small, purple man. “His people are… let’s just say they’re really special. He’s the one that helped us find you guys, and brought us over to that planet you were on.”

The man himself gave a quick nod. He extended his small hand to Larissa. “It’s a right pleasure to meet you finally. I sort of feel like I know you’ll like my own family already, what with all the time I’ve been spending scouring the galaxy for you.”

Blinking, Larissa accepted the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Well, sorry we were so hard to find. Especially since we were apparently looking for you too.”

Sands coughed then, looking to me. “Seriously, you’re safe. That’s just… holy shit. But um, does that mean that… you know, our lord and savior—”

I grinned despite myself, digging in my pocket until I came out with the figure in question, holding him up proudly. “Herbie’s fine. See? He got a little scuffed through all that, but I got him cleaned up.”

Grinning back at me, the brunette girl gave me a thumbs up. “Oh, good. As long as he’s safe.”

Haiden was shaking his head. “Someday, I’ll understand the point of that rock.”

Huffing a little, I gave Herbie a little rub. “The point? The point is that he’s the hero of this whole story. Aren’t you, buddy?”

“And who’s your other new friend here?” That was Jazz. She was nodding toward Tabbris. “Hi, what’s your name?”

My little partner glanced to me slightly, her eyes briefly questioning before she looked back the other way with a soft, “H-hello, I’m Tabbris. W-when Flick showed up at the—”

“Stop,” I abruptly interrupted. My head gave a violent shake. Giving a brief, apologetic look toward Athena, I turned back to the others. “I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you guys, especially not right now, not about this. Not to you guys.” Pointedly, I looked to Jazz and Gordon. And to Jokai. “The others already know, and it was supposed to be safer for her to introduce her to you like this. But I can’t lie to you. I just– I can’t. Even if it was temporary, even if it was safer. I can’t just lie to you. After everything we’ve been through, everything you’ve already accepted, you deserve to know the truth.”

“Wait, what?” Jazz did a brief double take, looking totally lost. “What truth? What are you talking about?”

It was Gordon, of course, who seemed to immediately get it. The boy looked at me, then to Tabbris, then back again. His voice with certain. “She’s not a new friend, is she?”

My head shook once more. “No,” I replied while reaching out to pull Tabbris up in front of me. Wrapping both arms around her, I continued. “Like she said, her name is Tabbris, and even though I didn’t know about it until right before we got transported off Earth, she’s been with me for a long time. She’s my partner. She’s been possessing me in secret ever since I was a little girl, and protecting me from any other Seosten who might have tried to possess me. She’s awesome, and amazing, and she’s been working her butt off to keep me safe.

“She’s my little sister, and I am not going to lie to you guys about that.”

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Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Mini-Interlude 15 – Flick and Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on interaction between Flick and Avalon. I hope you enjoy. 

“So I guess this is it,” I announced a bit later while watching Avalon. “Almost a full month you’re gonna have that room all to yourself.” Smiling a little, I asked innocently, “Are you gonna miss me?”

The girl gave me a look. “Stop changing the subject. We’re here to squeeze a little more training in before you run off and find a way to drag even more trouble down on yourself than you already have.”

“Yeah, but still.” My smile broadened as I showed her my teeth. “Really, are you gonna miss me?” I bobbed my head a little toward the spot nearby where a familiar rock with googly eyes and a sword was perched. “Herbie told me he’s gonna miss you.” Dropping my voice to a whisper, I added, “I think he just really needs to hear you say it. He’s sorta sensitive about that kind of thing.”

“Sure,” the other girl replied. “I’ll miss your little pet rock. It’s the only thing in the room with a harder head than you.”

Giving a fake gasp, I brought my hand to my chest as if I couldn’t believe she’d say such a thing. “I am insulted. How dare you claim that anything in this known universe has a harder head than me. I mean, I still haven’t given up on my vow to make you call me Flick, and there’s only like… twenty minutes left before the semester is totally and officially done.”

Snorting, Avalon responded by coming after me with her staff. I brought my own up to block quickly, and we exchanged a short flurry of blows. I was getting better about noticing where she was attacking. Part of that was the skeleblineist power, of course. But it was also my own reflexes and the training that they had been drilling into me over and over again.

“Faster, Chambers.” The other girl’s staff slammed into mine hard enough to almost knock it out of my hands. “Get your guard up faster, and retaliate harder. You’re stronger than me, and you can keep going longer. Use that. A lot of people that you fight are going to have to pace themselves a lot more than you. They can’t go full strength, full speed as long as you can. So use that against them. You can hit harder, faster, longer. So don’t hold back. If you see the opening, go for it. If you don’t see it, force one to happen. If nothing else, let them wear themselves out against you, then hit them three times as hard.”

Taking a quick step back to gain some room, I flipped my staff around thoughtfully while watching her. It was nothing she and Deveron hadn’t already said a few times. I had the feeling that Avalon was trying to drill as many of these instructions and tips into my head as she could before I left for the holidays. It was almost like she didn’t really trust me to have a completely normal and safe vacation or something.

Smiling, I took her advice by taking a quick step forward before bringing my staff up to her shoulder. It was a feint, however, and I quickly reversed it, pivoting to put more force behind my blow as I aimed for the other girl’s leg. A couple months ago, I would’ve been too worried about hurting her to put my strength behind it. Now, however, I had enough faith both in my roommate and in our healing abilities to go for it. Holding back wasn’t going to do either of us any favors when it came time to fight for real.

I didn’t have to worry anyway, since Avalon dropped her staff down to catch mine just before it would’ve struck her shin. That, however, meant that she was in the right position. With my staff aimed almost straight up and down, angled just a little bit toward her face, I hit the button to trigger the tiny portals at the end before pulling at the sand that I could feel through them. A cloud of it flew up into the other girl’s face as she reeled backward, and I quickly took advantage by dropping my staff down to bring it against her other leg. That time, I connected and Avalon stumbled backward. Her hand blindly grabbed onto my arm in the process however, and I was yanked over as well. We collided, crashing to the ground with a pair of yelps even as our weapons slid away to roll across the grass away from us.

When the dust (and sand) cleared, I was lying on top of Avalon, who was on her back. Blinking, I gave her a Cheshire smile once I realized what was going on and what kind of position we were in. “Oh, look. Here we are. Now seems like a really good time to talk about that whole ‘missing me’ thing.”

Yeah, the truth was, being in the position I was in was quite thoroughly distracting. I could feel all sorts of… well, to put it simply, pleasant sensations by lying on top of my roommate. But since she’d been my roommate all semester and we’d been training together so much, I could at least keep my head enough by that point to tease her a little bit. Even if my voice did sound slightly more high pitched than it normally did. The important thing to take away was that I wasn’t a completely tongue-tied dork.

“Chambers.” Avalon’s voice was a quiet murmur that sent a shiver through me and made me start immediately rethinking that whole ‘not as affected by her as I used to be’ thing. “You need to get off.”

The response that immediately came to my mind at her choice of words must have shown very clearly on my face, because the other girl rolled her eyes and gave me a shove. “Don’t even think about saying it. And stop thinking it.”

“Can’t control my thoughts!” I retorted in a sing-song voice while shifting my weight on her. My smile still hadn’t faded. It was… actually kind of nice being in this position, and I wasn’t only referring to our physical situation. It was also nice to sort of be the one who was teasing her for a change. It didn’t happen all that often, and I was relishing it just a little bit. “Trust me, these thoughts, can’t control them. They go off and do whatever they want to. Can’t do a thing about it.”

Avalon’s breath seemed to catch slightly as I shifted, and there was something in her voice. “Get up.”

Grinning still, I sat up, but I didn’t completely get off of her. Not yet, anyway. “That’s okay,” I informed my brunette bombshell of a roommate with a wink. “You’ve already answered the question pretty well.”

She frowned at that, clearly more off-balance than I’d thought before murmuring quietly. “I have?”

“Sure.” Leaning down a bit, I stage-whispered close to the other girl’s ear, “Because we both know that if you weren’t gonna miss me while I’m gone, you would’ve thrown me off of you a long time ago.”

With a laugh, I pushed myself up finally, rising to my feet before offering Avalon a hand to pull her up.

She took it, her blush actually visible (much to my delight) before she got it under control. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff, don’t you?”

“Well,” I replied, “I do have a few great teachers. And they have been working their asses off to make sure I’m not a complete damsel in distress.” Sobering a little then, I added, “Thanks, by the way. Really. Without you, I—well I’d be in a lot worse shape than I am now.”

It took her a moment to respond, and her blush still hadn’t entirely faded. “Just don’t get too cocky. That’s how people get hurt. Or worse.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, trust me. No cockiness here. I know just how screwed I am if things go wrong. I’m gonna keep my eyes open, and I’m not even gonna tempt fate by talking about how it’s gonna go. It’s a vacation, but I’m not about to be stupid about it. I promise, I’ll be careful.”

Stepping back to bring my staff back up again, I added, “Now, you wanna squeeze in one more little match?”

Checking the back of her left gauntlet where she apparently had a clock installed, Avalon waved a hand for me to stop. “Time’s up,” she announced, her voice quieter than normal. “ Dare’s probably about to come looking for you any minute to take you up to the Pathmaker. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”

“Yeah.” Smiling slightly, I shrugged at the other girl. “I doubt she’d take ‘let my roommate keep beating me up’ as an excuse.” I paused, frowning. “Then again, knowing this place… maybe she would.”

Reaching down to the water bottles at her feet, Avalon plucked them up and tossed one to me before taking a long, deep drink from her own. I tried not to get too distracted by the image, but from her smirk, she probably noticed.

Still, I gratefully gulped down some water (somehow I was pretty sure that I looked like a slobbering dog next to the effortless sexiness that came from everything Avalon did) before wiping my arm over my mouth. Which, if that failed to look dignified, my immediate burp afterward probably didn’t help.

Rolling her eyes, my roommate gave me a long look. “You are as charming and graceful as ever.”

“What can I say?” I asked with a small smile, spreading my arms apart questioningly. “I am who I am.”

For a few seconds, the two of us just stood there. It was obvious that neither of us knew what to say, but neither did we just want to walk away from each other. The silence was almost deafening.

“So this is it. Almost a full month.” I was repeating myself from only a few minutes earlier, I knew that. But I had to say something.

“Don’t get hurt, Chambers.” Avalon gave me an intense look. “I’d hate to have to figure out how to deal with a new roommate, since Gaia already made it very clear that I’m not allowed to have my own room.”

Coughing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe you could find a new roommate that doesn’t keep stealing half your death threats away from you, so you can have the attention to yourself.”

Her retort was sharp. “Don’t joke about that. Just–” Taking an obvious breath, she caught herself and finished with a simple, “Just be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. I… I don’t want another roommate.”

“What about that whole, having a room all to yourself thing?” I half-heartedly teased, watching her reaction. “Maybe I could pull some strings with Gaia, push for you to have the whole thing after all.”

Her shoulders (among other things) heaved up and then down as she sighed. “Don’t push it. Just go.”

I almost walked away. Almost let it go again. But in the end, I couldn’t just leave. “Avalon,” I spoke up, making her look at me again. “This—this vacation, I know I was kidding about it before, but really… it’s three weeks. Three weeks apart, and I just—I really need to tell you about how I feel about–”

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice had a warning tone to it. “Don’t. I know what you want to say. But you can’t. We can’t. You know it’s complicated, and we can’t just… we can’t just act like it’s not.”

Meeting her gaze, I almost nodded. My head started to move. But then I stopped myself, holding my head still for a moment before shaking it instead. Seeing that, Avalon started to speak, but I interrupted.

“I can’t just keep avoiding it. This isn’t some TV show where we have to pad out time. We’re not about to get canceled if we don’t do the Moonlighting ‘will they/won’t they’ forever. Avalon, this is dumb. Maybe I don’t understand all of my feelings, maybe I don’t know how things are going to end up in a year, a month, or even a week, but who does at this school? All I know is that I really, really like you.”

There was, somewhat surprisingly, no judgment or even annoyance in Avalon’s tone as she replied, “Chambers, I’m not the only one you’ve been looking at. My not being there isn’t the end of the world.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed with a nod. “You’re not the only one. I don’t know how I feel about everything. Suddenly I’m noticing you, I’m noticing other girls, and I’m still noticing boys. It’s… it’s confusing, Valley. It’s so… so god damn confusing. Sometimes it feels like I can’t decide what I want. I feel like a kid in an ice cream shop. And I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t. But I also don’t want you to feel like it’s impossible. If you don’t want… you know, you and me to go anywhere because you don’t want it, that’s fine. I can deal. But don’t just write it off because you’re trying to protect me.”

Avalon didn’t say anything at first. She just shook her head, looking away before turning back to me, emotion filling her eyes. “How am I supposed to let myself care about anyone like that? What am I supposed to do, Chambers? My father has been trying to kill me since I was taken in by the Garden. He’s not going to stop trying to take everything away from me. And now there’s this whole conspiracy, apparently because of who I’m supposed to be related to? If there was anyone that I cared about like that, why would I let them turn into more targets? What’s the point of letting someone you know you—you think about them that way if all it does is put them in danger? If I let them—if I let you in like that, you’d be another target, another thing for them to—to take away from me. I’d lose you.”

“How can you lose something if you don’t even–” I stopped, lowering my gaze briefly before looking back up to her as I amended myself. “–if you won’t even acknowledge that you want it?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Chambers,” the other girl insisted, arms folded across her stomach protectively. “I just—I don’t want you to be in any more danger than you already are. It’s not fair.”

I nodded once in spite of myself. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s not fair, because I’m already in danger. Avalon, I’ve got just about ten months before Fossor makes good on his promise to come after me.”

Fire flashed in her eyes then as she took a step to me, arms lowering to her sides as her hands closed into fists. “I won’t let him hurt you.” Her words were a snarled promise, with dark rage behind them.

In return, I took a step forward as well, closing the distance between us so that we were within arms reach of each other. Meeting her fiery gaze, I nodded. “And I won’t let anyone hurt you, Valley. But while each of us is so busy not letting anyone hurt the other person, do we have to hurt ourselves? Yeah, I’m in danger. You’re in danger. We’re all in danger. I’m pretty sure that’s never gonna change. But you know what else isn’t going to change? The fact that I think you’re—you’re just… really neat.”

Yeah, okay, the last bit of that came out far more lame than I meant it. I was flushing even as the stupid word ‘neat’ left my mouth, and I could see the smirk on Avalon’s face. Her own mouth opened, but I reached out to cover it with my own hand. While her eyes widened at the audacity, I pushed on.

“Yeah, I said neat. Because I ran out of adjectives in my head. You’re great, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you’re amazing, you’re strong, you’re fast, you’re so—you’re Avalon. You’re Avalon, and I don’t have the words to describe you. I wish I did, but I don’t. You’re just… neat. And I–”

My own words were cut off then, as Avalon raised her hand to press against my mouth. And then we stood there, facing one another with our arms outstretched, hands covering each other’s mouths. Several long, quiet seconds passed while the two of us stared at one another that way. Slowly, Avalon raised her free hand to touch mine as it pressed against her mouth. Our fingers brushed, and I felt a tingle run through me that had nothing to do with static electricity or anything like it. It was something more.

Swallowing, I followed the other girl’s maneuver. Lifting my own free hand, I let my fingers brush over hers that was covering my mouth. Then I slowly slipped my fingers under hers, taking hold of her hand while she did the same with my other hand. Together, we lowered each other’s hands away from our mouths before our fingers seemed to instinctively interlock, our hands clasping one another.

My heart was trying to slam its way out of my chest. I felt sweaty, thirsty, silly. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My voice seemed to pipe up in spite of myself, squeaking a little. “This probably looks pretty–”

“Flick,” Avalon interrupted. “Shut up.”

My eyes widened then, and I looked up. “You called me–”

I felt her hands leave mine, moving up to take my arms instead to yank me toward her.

I felt her hands cup both sides of my head, fingers sliding through my hair.

I felt her breath on my face.

I felt my knees buckle, before her strength held me up as it had so many times already that semester.

I felt her lips on mine.

I felt… magic.

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

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Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

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