Herbie

Family Reunion 12-08

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“You know,” Sands started after a solid ten seconds of silence (at least from our table), “I’m honestly not sure which I’m more surprised by: the fact that Vanessa is Tristan’s sister, or that Gaia clearly didn’t know about it. I mean, obviously she would’ve pulled her in first to talk in private if she knew, right?”

“Right,” I agreed as the others just nodded while staring at the reunion going on right in front of us. There were murmurs from the surrounding tables, and I could hear a few people asking each other where this kid had been if he was related to Vanessa. This, of course, was met with other people authoritatively declaring that of course they weren’t siblings. Obviously, Vanessa and this boy were long-lost friends. Maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend. Sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds and some of my classmates were already shipping the two of them together over a freaking hug. Just… wow.

“She definitely didn’t know,” Columbus muttered before nodding toward the front. “Look at them.”

Glancing that way, I saw Gaia standing there while Professor Dare and Andressa McKay, the elderly Head of Admissions, spoke quietly to her in either ear. Behind them, a couple of the third-year professors were standing nearby, clearly waiting impatiently to talk. There was definitely a quick meeting going on. But it stopped abruptly as the headmistress spoke a single quiet word. Then she spoke up louder, interrupting the flurry of whispering that had been filling the large room. “Never allow it to be said that you will ever be so old and experienced that nothing will ever surprise you again.”

A broad smile crossed the woman’s mature, yet beautiful face then. “And never allow it to be said that Crossroads does not appreciate a good, old fashioned family reunion. As… unexpected as it may be.”

With that, she began to clap a few times, prompting others to join in. I could tell that Vanessa was already embarrassed by her outburst. But I could also tell that she didn’t really care all that much. The girl was clinging to her brother while people applauded, and a few of those nearer to the siblings offered their own congratulations. Obviously, there were some hold-outs. More than a few people simply sat there, looking around at the ones who were clapping like we should be embarrassed. But for the most part, it was now taken for what it was: a brother and sister being miraculously reunited.

Gaia didn’t let that sit for long before crossing the distance to where Vanessa and Tristan were. After a few words about giving them an opportunity to catch up, she left the room with the two in tow. Most likely, I assumed, to have a private discussion about what she knew about Vanessa’s… special situation.

Slumping back in his seat, Sean muttered in obvious amazement. “Vanessa’s half-Seosten. I guess that sort of explains her super special memory power. But… damn. That’s just… wow.” He was still stunned. Which, for someone who obviously prided himself on taking everything casually, probably said a lot.

“Yeah…” Deveron started slowly, shifting a little in his seat. “Okay, so one of the first things you should probably know. This… might be confusing, but that girl, that half-Alter. She’s actually not the–”

“–not the only only one,” I interrupted. “Yeah, we sort of know that part already. Thanks though.”

The guy stared at me for a few seconds, clearly taking that in before sitting back with a stunned expression on his face. “You already know one. You’ve already met one of the half-breeds here.”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I snarked, “Gee, you know what you could’ve done to find out what we knew and when? It’s this brand fangled new invention. Now, I know you’re old so you might not be quite as hip, but bear with me cuz I think you’ll like this one. They call it talking. It’s where you know something that someone else needs to know, and the two of you communicate that information with words.” Putting my hand against the side of my face, I adopted a shocked expression at the very idea.

Wincing, Deveron shook his head regretfully. “You’re not gonna let that go any time soon, are you?”

“Not planning on it,” I confirmed before frowning. “But how do you know about the half-breed thing?”

He smiled easily then. “Because I’m the one that recruited the Djinni who altered the Edge to allow half-breeds to become Heretics. They were actually technically the first half-Alter Crossroads Heretic. And no, I’m not going to tell you who they are. Not because I still want to keep secrets, but because that’s not my secret to tell. It’s theirs. I can say that Gaia was involved in making sure that happened.”

I sat back at that, blinking a couple times. In the end, Columbus was the first to find his voice. “So, Gaia knew that the Edge would accept half-Alters after… whoever changed it. She knew that she made a plan with someone to make that happen. But she just forgot that it was you she was working with?”

Deveron dipped his head in confirmation. “Joselyn’s allies made that happen. They—we didn’t know who to trust. Not when it came to Jos’s life. Gaia didn’t do anything to stop them from erasing her, so I didn’t know if I could trust her with this, with my family. I… didn’t know about the blood plague.”

Setting my fork down, I straightened up. “Look, I… I need to go. It’s been a long day, and I just need to… I just need to think. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Looking to Deveron until he nodded, I pushed myself up from the table and started to walk away after murmuring an apology to the others.

I just needed to get out of there. It was too much. The meeting with him, Koren, and Wyatt, Tristan falling out of the sky, finding out he was Vanessa’s brother and that she was half-Seosten as well, I needed to clear my head. I needed to take a walk out in the fresh air and just… think for awhile.

******

“And you two look pretty alike except for this mark on your nose, so I’ll call you Brody and Quint.”

It was about an hour later, and I was treading water in the ocean. The sharks that had saved Shiori and me earlier were surrounding me. I honestly wasn’t sure how I knew they were the exact same ones, but somehow I was just certain. The six sharks were swimming in circles around where I was, occasionally coming up to bump their noses against me. They were like cats rubbing up against a leg for attention.

My attention (and by extension, that of the sharks as well) was drawn then toward the girl who was standing in the shallows, watching us. Smiling a little in spite of myself, I started to swim that way. Or at least, I started to. After two strokes, the nearest shark bumped up against me until I put a hand on his top fin. Then he began to cut through the water much faster than I could have gone, bringing me right up to the shallows. Once we were there, I gave him a pat before straightening up. “Hey, Shiori.”

“Hey, Flick,” she returned the greeting with a casual wave. “Water you doin’?”

Knowing the other girl as I did, all I had to do was look at her expression. “Did you—yeah you did.” Snorting while she giggled, I said, “You seem to be doing okay with the water after what happened. Not the pun. That was bad. But with the whole being in it part. I thought you’d avoid it for longer.”

Her head shook. “Actually, I was planning on coming out there, not just standing here. But I chickened out. I guess I’m just gonna be a big baby when it comes to water for awhile. I just make bad puns when I’m nervous. Well, okay, I sort of always make bad puns. But they’re usually worse when I’m scared.”

“You have every right to be a big baby about it,” I assured her. “Besides, you’re standing in the water almost to your hips. You’re not being that much of a baby. Actually, you’re being braver than I would.”

“That’s doubtful,” she snorted before looking toward the sharks. “You were naming them, weren’t you? I heard a little bit of it. Could I umm, know their names so I can thank them for saving us earlier?”

“Oh, sure.” Smiling, I gestured to the two who looked alike. “I looked them up online too, so I could know what they were. Those two are Mako sharks. I called them Brody and Quint. That yellow one over there, it’s a Lemon shark. I called her Simpson. The one right, aww, hi buddy.” Leaning down, I reached out to pet the one who had just swum closer. “This one’s a Bull shark. His name is Sherman.”

“What about that sleek blue one over there?” Shiori asked, pointing. “He looks pretty.”

Grinning, I nodded. “Oh he’s definitely pretty, and he knows it too. His name is Jabberjaw. You know, cuz he’s blue on top and white on the bottom.” Raising my hand to wave at the circling shark, I called, “Yeah, you know we’re talking about you, don’t you, Mr. Vanity? You know you love all the attention.”

Shiori giggled (still an incredibly adorable sound) before waving to Jabberjaw. Then her attention turned to the final shark. The biggest, who couldn’t come as close as the others. “What about the big guy out there?” she asked, still swallowing a little nervously at the sight of him. “What’s his name?”

“That,” I announced while taking another step into the water and waving my hand under it toward the one in question, “is a female Great White.” Smiling broadly, I looked over my shoulder. “Her name is Princess Cuddles.”

“Princess Cuddles,” the other girl echoed slowly while staring at me with a slowly widening smile of her own. “You actually named the enormous Great White shark… a relentless underwater killing machine who happens to be one of the biggest non-Stranger predators that are still alive on the Earth today… Princess Cuddles.”

Laughing, I nodded while swimming out a little bit, just far enough that Princess Cuddles could come up to get her side rubbed. God, she was enormous. My best guess was that she was over two thousand pounds and around twenty feet long. “What can I say? She’s just too adorable. Aren’t you, pretty girl? Yes you are, yes you are.” I clung to the massive shark, letting her take me under the water and around in a brief circle before surfacing once more. I was sitting atop Cuddles by that point, grinning at the other girl.

“So,” Shiori went back over them. “Brody and Quint, Simpson, Sherman, Jabberjaw, and Princess Cuddles.”

“That’s right,” I looked back in the water before asking, “Or just Cuddles, for those that are familiar with her. She’s not too hung up on royal qualifiers for her friends.” Grinning, I added, “I umm, I know you had a bad experience. But do you wanna stay awhile anyway and play with these guys? They won’t let anything happen. Neither will I.”

“I know…” the other girl spoke quietly before smiling a bit more. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with you.

“Let’s play with the sharks.”

******

So we spent some time out there with my new not-so-little friends. There were some other students in the water, but none of them wanted to come very close even after I assured them that they were safe.

That was okay though, it gave me time to just play with the sharks and Shiori. Though I did get tongue-tied a bit at the sight of the thoroughly soaked cute Asian girl. Especially when she came up out of the water and shook her hair out before laughing because Simpson poked her in the back. It was… wow.

Eventually, the two of us left the sharks to dry off, pull our clothes on over damp swimsuits, and head back inside. As we went, Shiori asked, “Do you think they’ll be okay? I mean, do you think they’ll start fighting as soon as you’re not in a certain radius?”

“You mean because they’re different species?” I asked as we passed a group of second years playing frisbee. When the other girl nodded, I shook my head. “I’m not sure how I know… but I know they won’t do that. I think… I think this power, whatever it is, it sort of… changes them? They’re a pack now. Or a frenzy, or a school… or a shiver, whatever, there’s lots of names for groups of sharks. They’re different species, but they’re also my shiver, my pack. So they’ll stay together, look after each other.”

Shiori was staring at me, eyes widened a bit. “Really? Holy carp, that’s cool. I mean, kind of terrifying in a way, but also really cool. Do you think they’ll recruit more sharks while they’re out there?”

My head shook again. “I’m pretty sure I have to actually be out there. This… shark summoning and taming power or whatever you call it has to do its thing while I’m there.” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced my extra-special little rock buddy. “And I didn’t forget about you! Thanks for watching over my stuff, Herbie.”

Glancing sideways toward her then, I added, “Speaking of awesome pets–” Giving the rock in my hand a guilty look, I amended, “–ahem, and partners, of course, did you manage to get out there to feed Choo?”

“Yup!” she chirped, grinning back at me. “I took a whole plate out there for him. You should’ve seen the little guy chow down. And he was a little lonely, so I played with him for a few minutes.”

Then she sobered, pausing a little. “Vanessa…” Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before pushing on in a much quieter voice. “She’s… like me, isn’t she? I mean, not just like me, but she’s… you know…”

I nodded. “Tristan is, so she must be too. It explains the super memory, I guess. Though I don’t know if Tristan has anything like that. He didn’t say.. but it could be different for each offspring or something.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly thinking about something before speaking up slowly. “Someone should probably talk to her.” Shifting on her feet, Shiori hesitated, glancing to me. “Right?”

“I think that’s what the headmistress is doing,” I pointed out. “At least, part of what she’s doing, anyway. But if you mean someone like her, yeah. It might help if someone else talked to both of them.”

Again, she paused. For a few long seconds, Shiori looked indecisive. Then her head bobbed once more. “I’ll do it. I’ll talk to them.” Offering me a little smile, she added, “Talking to you, before, it really helped me. And if I can help her the same way, just… let her know there’s others that are… like her and her brother, I think I should.”

Before I could say anything to that, a figure came running up out of the shadows, pointing at me. “Aha! There you are! I knew I’d find you!”

“Hey, Wyatt,” I gave him a little wave. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

He coughed, straightening a little. “Ahem, ahh, I think you should come with me, Miss uhh, Chambers. There’s a few things about your record that we need to address.” His eyes glanced toward my companion.

“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I assured him before looking that way as well. “Shiori’s a… friend. She knows everything. You can talk in front of her.”

He blinked at that, squinting at the girl a little while looking her up and down. His voice was cautious. “Are you sure about that?”

Shiori, for her part, returned his uncertain look for a couple seconds before seeming to come to a decision. Her voice was quiet. “You can trust me, Mr. Rendell. I know you’re probably nervous about me knowing your secrets. I know I would be. So… “ Taking in a breath before letting it out, she met his gaze evenly, her voice very low, so quiet I could barely hear her. “My real mother is a vampire. So… now you know my secret too.”

Wyatt reeled backward at that, eyes widening as he looked from me to her and back again. When I nodded, he made a noise of confusion before returning his stare to the girl. Scanning her up and down, he managed a weak, “Well, do you… does that mean that you…” He opened his mouth as if showing off fangs and hissed a little. It looked kind of ridiculous and silly.

Shiori flushed hotly, head shaking incredibly fast. “No,” she blurted. “I don’t…drink blood or anything.”

“Well,” Wyatt straightened, looking her up and down. “In that case, Miss Porter, consider your secret safe. I will do everything I can to protect the friends of my… family.” As he said the last word, the man made this goofy, endearing grin that made me want to hug him.

Then he turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Come along then,” the man ordered in what was obviously his best approximation of a stern voice, clearly for the benefit of anyone that might notice him talking to us. “I need to have a nice long discussion with the two of you about appropriate use of school facilities.”

We looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed after him. The short, lanky man led us up across the grounds and into the main building. Guiding us through a confusing maze of turns down various corridors, we eventually reached a simple-looking, unlabeled wooden door. Taking a key out of his pocket, Wyatt tapped it against the side of the door three times in what looked like specific locations. Then he turned the knob and opened the door. Instead of going in, however, he immediately shut the door, tapped the key three more times in different locations. Then he opened it again and gestured for us to go in.

We did so, crossing the threshold to move into what turned out to be a tiny office whose space was mostly taken up by a large rickety desk. There were two simple folding chairs in front of it that took up all the room before the door, and a somewhat nicer chair on the other side. The desk itself was covered with papers and an ancient computer that looked like it belonged to the early 80’s. I couldn’t see any way for Wyatt to actually get to the other side of the desk without crawling under or over it.

“Oh,” the man spoke quickly. “Before you sit down, turn in a quick circle and say, ‘The mice are meesing out.’”

Shiori and I looked at each other before following his instructions. I felt silly, but I wasn’t going to question it at this point. For her part, my companion giggled at the meesing out part.

Finally, Wyatt shut the door behind himself before squeezing past us. He went right through the desk, passing through the solid object like he was a ghost before turning to collapse in his seat. Once there, the man waved eagerly to the folding chairs. “Sit, sit. Oh, you’re not in trouble, by the way. I just had to say that in case of spies.”

“I uh, I got that,” I confirmed before taking one of the chairs. “Are you okay, Wyatt? Nothing… umm, nothing happened, did it?”

His head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing. I mean yes, but… but no, I just wanted to give you something. Or somethings.”

Before I could ask what he meant, the man leaned over in his chair, fishing around on the floor before coming up with a box about a foot across. It was covered in white wrapping paper with rocket ships on it. Plopping it down on the desk, he slid it to me. “Open it,” he requested, smiling eagerly.

“Oh, um, okay, sure.” Taking the present (it wasn’t very heavy), I carefully tugged the wrapping paper off. There was a cardboard box underneath, and when I opened that up, I found a little stuffed frog.

“What… aww.” Taking the toy out, I stared at it. The thing was adorable. It had this cute smile on its face and the bottom of its feet were yellow. “Wyatt, you… is… is this a late birthday present?”

“One of them,” he confirmed. When I blinked up at that while hugging the frog to my chest, he gestured. “Look at the card.”

There was indeed a card inside the box as well. Taking it out without letting go of the frog, I opened it up and read aloud. “Dear Felicity—hey that’s me. Dear Felicity, I hope you have a hopping good first birthday. Love, Wyatt. Wait… first… birthday?”

In answer, Wyatt reached down again, taking out a second box which he plopped down on the desk again while taking the first box away. “I missed them,” he announced. “That’s bad. So I’m making up for it.”

Slowly, I opened the box, reaching in to take out an enormous coloring book and large box of crayons. The card read, “Dear Felicity, happy… they say the two’s are terrible, but I bet yours are going to be colorful. Happy second birthday.”

“Oh my god.” Covering my mouth, I stared at the card, then up to the man. “Wyatt, did you…” I was blinking tears out of my eyes. “Did you get me a… a birthday present for every year that you missed?”

“We should hurry,” he urged with a quick nod. “There’s still fifteen more to get through, you know.”

“Wyatt, I… I…” Words failed me. I didn’t care anymore. Standing from the chair, I pushed the box aside and climbed onto the desk. Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around the man… my brother, as tight as I could.

Yeah, it looked silly. But you know what? At that point, I really didn’t care.

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Family Reunion 12-01

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“Right, well, you kids have fun,” Koren announced to Shiori and me as we stepped out onto the grounds a minute after our brief meeting with Wyatt. “I’ve got some… things to think about.”

Glancing at Shiori and then back to my niece (which was still weird), I spoke quickly. “I still need to know what you told Gaia about what you saw. I need to know what Ammon did in the lighthouse.”

Koren raised an eyebrow before shrugging at me. “Sure. Why not. Meet me around the back of there after lunch. Then I’ll tell you what I saw. And you can tell me all about my grandmother.” After giving Shiori a quick glance, she added, “And, preferably, let me know who else in this school already knew everything about my family before I–” She stopped in mid-sentence, letting out an audible breath. “Never mind, just… I’ll meet you behind the light house after lunch. Is that good enough for you?”

I nodded, and the other girl took off without another word. Which left Shiori and me alone, since the twins were spending some time with their dad, and the boys were sleeping, apparently. I suppose that’s what happened when they were up late working on Columbus’s super-special telescope thing before spending the rest of the night dealing with Ammon and the aftermath of all that. They needed a nap.

As for Avalon, she was… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure where Avalon was. The last I knew she was with her mother, but that had been awhile ago since I’d spent the past couple hours being interviewed by the actual investigators (rather than my interaction with Ruthers) about what had happened.

Strangely, it wasn’t Kine who spoke to me, but a couple other Runners who seemed much less… personable. They kept sending question after question at me, often before I had time to answer the previous one. And they backtracked, repeating the same questions in different ways or requesting seemingly irrelevant details like what color shirt Ammon was wearing. All different ways, I knew, of figuring out if someone was lying about their story. They were trying really hard to catch me in a lie.

But I kept my story straight, telling them everything I could about what happened. Afterward, Gaia said she would talk to them as well. When I left, she, the Runners, and Ruthers were all talking in her office.

Which meant that I really needed something to take my mind off what kind of discussion they were all having, especially since I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to Gaia about what Ruthers had said (and what he knew). So spending a little time with Shiori felt just right. Even if I had no idea what we were doing.

“So would you mind telling me where we’re going?” I asked her as soon as I realized we weren’t heading toward any of the buildings. Actually, we were moving past everything. “Or is it a surprise?”

“Uh,” Shiori paused, thinking about it for a moment. “It’s kind of a surprise. But just um, trust me?”

I nodded easily, following after the girl as she led me across the rest of the grounds. After another few seconds, I blinked. “Wait, are we going to the beach? I thought you’d uh, want to stay away from the ocean for awhile. You know, after…” I trailed off uncertainly, thinking about what had happened earlier.

Shiori just shook her head at me. “It’s not the ocean’s fault. I think I’d be more likely to have a phobia of innocent-looking little boys, not the ocean. Besides,” she added then, “we’re not staying on the beach. We’re going to the jungle. I just want their security to think that we’re going down to the beach.”

She had a point. Still, I was confused. Why were we going to the jungle? “Better not let Wyatt find out,” I teased lightly. “He’ll think that I’m not going on that jungle tour with him tomorrow anymore.”

The other girl smiled sidelong at me, though it was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she promised. “We’re not going that far. They were only a couple hundred feet past the treeline when I left them.”

“Them?” I asked, as we stepped down onto the always gorgeous beach. But Shiori wouldn’t say anything else about it. Probably because there were about a dozen other students on the beach playing some big volleyball game or swimming out in the water. She remained silent as we walked past them.

Also mostly silent were the other students. Most of them were second years, though there were a few from my own grade mixed in. They all turned to stare as Shiori and I passed, stopping their game to watch and whisper to one another. I picked out a little bit of it, mostly centered around pointing out that I was the one the ‘intruder’ had been after, and that it wasn’t the first time something had happened.

I ignored it. What else could I do or say that wouldn’t just raise more questions? I just looked back at them, then turned away and kept walking. Maybe I should’ve said something, made a joke, or somehow eased their minds. My mother probably could have, knowing what I knew about her. But I had no idea what to say. I was better in smaller, confined and more personal groups. Being stared at and whispered about by people I didn’t really know made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of how people had acted when Mom disappeared. The crowds at school, even as young as I was, had been all but unbearable.

No one said anything directly to me, or stopped us, so we walked on down the beach. Shiori was silent until we had passed far out of their line of sight along the beach. Finally, however, she glanced toward me while biting her lip. After a few seconds of that, the girl asked, “How do you feel, Flick?”

“You mean about the fact that everyone obviously wants to know why some Stranger kid managed to infiltrate the school grounds and mind control a bunch of students for the sole purpose of attacking me?” When the other girl nodded, I let out a long, low sigh. “I dunno. I mean, obviously I wanna beat Ammon’s head in until it collapses for being a psychotic, evil little piece of shit. But other than that, I… I don’t know. Part of me just wants to tell everyone the truth. About Ammon, about Mom, about what the other Heretics did to her to end their little civil war and all the rest. Part of me wants to get all of it out in the open so there’s no more secrets. I mean, I know it’s a bad idea. Especially right now. But I still kind of just want to get all of that out in the open.” Coughing then, I added a little more quietly, “I’ve wanted to be an investigative reporter pretty much my whole life. Just like my dad. This whole keeping secrets from everyone thing, especially secrets that are this big, goes directly against that.”

Shiori flinched slightly at that, shaking her head a bit sadly. “I’m sorry, Flick,” she said quietly while moving her hand to take mine. “I guess I’m one of those secrets, huh? I mean, my whole… situation.”

I quickly interlaced our fingers while shaking my head. “Not like that. I don’t like keeping that secret because I don’t want anyone to think that you must be evil just because of who your mom is. You shouldn’t have to hide like that, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of anyone finding out. It’s not fair.”

She didn’t say anything to that at first, remaining contemplatively silent for another few steps before finally speaking. “I’m just glad the people I care about know that I’m not evil. And,” she pointed out with a tiny smile, “I even got a new sister out of the deal. That’s—” Stopping in mid-sentence, she gasped. “Oh—oh crap, I should probably call her, huh? Senny, she should, um, know what happened.”

I nodded to that. “Yeah, she’ll probably kill both of us if we don’t let her know what’s going on. As soon as you show me what this big secret is, you can borrow the phone that Gaia gave me and call her.”

After giving a quick, grateful nod, Shiori pointed. “In here, it was right off from that boulder.” She gestured to a large, jagged rock sticking up out of the nearby water. It sort of looked like a tiger’s head.

The two of us left the beach after making sure we were alone. The treeline was thick with gnarled branches and fallen logs, with what looked like a man-made barrier of rocks in a sort-of wall that was clearly meant as a visible division between the safe beach and the more dangerous and wild jungle.

My first impression after stepping over the wall of stones and squeezing between an enormous tree and its fallen neighbor was that there had to be some kind of environment shield over the beach as well, because the jungle was even hotter. Not to mention the humidity. My shirt was almost immediately soaked through. It was almost like walking through the spray of a waterfall. And the sounds… I’d thought the jungle noises were loud before. Once we crossed that knee-high rock wall, the noises were unbelievable. There were insects, birds, monkeys, and every other possible creature (and no doubt impossible ones too) calling back and forth at one another. It was incredible. Everywhere I turned, there were more sounds. Creatures were warning each other about our presence, or alerting their pack to new prey. Or maybe just chatting (as much as animals did that sort of thing). The screams, squeals, and other noises reminded me of seeing movies with those crowded markets where everyone was shouting at each other.

It didn’t go on forever, but seemed to rise and fall now and then. As the two of us made our way quickly but carefully through what appeared to be a very narrow path, the jungle noises came and went, ebbing and flowing. They never really disappeared entirely, but I could definitely tell the difference between the ‘quiet’ times and the much louder ones. One of the main constants was the steady drone of insects.

Whatever Shiori wanted to show me may have been only a couple hundred feet or so away from the beach, but moving that far through the thick jungle foliage (while keeping an admittedly paranoid eye out for snakes either on the ground or hanging from branches because I am sometimes a ninny) made that seem like a much longer distance than it would have been over open ground. Shiori moved more easily than I did, seeming to instinctively know where to step. She flowed ahead like water, or, probably more accurately, some kind of native predator. I doubted she realized what she was doing.

I was just about to ask how much further we had to go when a figure stepped into view from around the tree in front of us. My eyes snapped from staring at the mossy ground for the ever-elusive snakes or other creepy crawly things, and what I saw made me do a quick double-take before blurting, “Avalon?”

My roommate was standing there, watching me briefly before her eyes moved to Shiori. “He’s awake.”

I blinked, confused as I looked back and forth between them. “He who? Wait, you mean Avalon was the one we were meeting? You guys talk to each other?” Somehow, that surprised me, and I blushed.

“Yes, Chambers,” Avalon spoke dryly, “Believe it or not, I am capable of having a conversation that you don’t actually witness.” She was mocking me, but I could see the amusement behind her eyes.

“I needed help with… the thing we’re about to show you, but you were busy with those investigators,” Shiori pointed out. “And Columbus was asleep. So I sort of went to Avalon instead. Actually, she helped a lot.” She gave the other girl a quick, grateful smile that just made me blush a little more.

Then, of course, I focused on the important part. “Okay, so what’s this thing that she helped you with?”

Again, the two of them exchanged brief glances. Then Avalon stepped aside while Shiori led me up and around the tree that the other girl had been waiting behind. I followed, unsure of what I was about to see. “What, did you make some kind of new friend that you can’t bring onto the school grounds?”

Before Shiori could answer, there was a high, tiny squealing noise that sounded an awful lot like a mouse or squirrel’s attempt at mimicking a threatening growl. Something shot out of the hollow at the base of the tree that we had just come around, before stopping in front of Shiori’s feet. The thing positioned itself between the two of us, bouncing on all four legs as it glared up at me and continued to make that adorable little squeaky growl that I belatedly realized was its attempt at being intimidating.

I stared down at the thing, my mouth opening and shutting while no actual words emerged. Inwardly, my Heretic sense was confirming that yes, this was indeed a Stranger. It wasn’t quite screaming at me or anything, but it was definitely making itself known.

Before I could find anything to actually say, Shiori had crouched to pick it up before straightening. The thing nestled in her hands, its growl turning briefly into a slight coo before it looked back at me and hissed. Tiny sparks of electricity came from the thing’s mouth, looking almost like someone testing a stun gun.

“That… that’s…” I stared a little more before managing to continue. “That’s one of those Jekern things.”

Shiori nodded, bringing her cupped hands up to whisper a little soothingly to the thing while it continued to glare at me and make those hissing noises. “Shh, it’s okay, Choo. She’s a friend. Friend.”

“Choo?” I echoed uncertainly, blinking from the tiny, adorable pig-thing to the girl holding him.

She looked briefly embarrassed, shifting her weight. “Well, yeah. See, his name is Porkachu. That’s what I started calling him, anyway. But then I figured that calling him ‘Pork’ might be a bad idea, cuz… well, yeah. So I’ve been abbreviating it to Choo. It’s shorter, and he eats like… a lot, so it fits that way because he’s always, you know, chewing. Plus there’s the way he–” In mid-sentence, the little guy jerked his head back and then forward, giving a loud sneeze that sent sparks of electricity spraying out everywhere. “–sneezes. See? So he’s Choo.”

Choo, for his part, shifted on his little legs while staring at me. The reassuring noises that Shiori was making (I wasn’t sure if he understood her words or not) at least seemed to calm him down, but he still looked a bit wary. At least until Avalon lifted her own hand with some kind of food crumbled up in her palm. The tiny electric-pig thing leaned in to sniff briefly before happily eating out of her hand.

“Something on your mind, Chambers?” Avalon asked, her voice flat as she watched my reaction.

“You um,” I coughed a little. “I just didn’t expect you to get along with something like him so quick.”

She didn’t respond at first, staying quiet while Choo continued happily eating out of her hand. Finally, the girl spoke in a soft voice that was different from her normal tone. “We kept animals at Garden, what they call ‘acceptable Strangers.’ Basically it’s just magical animals that they can use in some way to help the cause or get something out of them. They’re slaves, basically. But I…” She bit her lip visibly before going on. Her voice was a murmur that made me unsure of whether the girl even realized that she was still talking out loud. “There was this little Peryton fawn that I helped raise. His name was… I mean, is Salten. Seller promised he’d take care of him when I had to leave, but…” she paused before shrugging, looking uncomfortable. But she still didn’t move her hand away from the tiny piglet.

“What’s a Peryton?” I asked after a moment, when it was clear that she’d stopped talking.

Avalon glanced up at me briefly before answering. “Sort of like a Pegasus only with a deer instead of a horse. When it’s grown up, it looks like a stag with the wings and plumage of a bird.”

“You had a… a deer Pegasus?” I stared at the other girl in awe for a moment. “That’s… oh my god, that’s–”

“Don’t say it, Chambers,” Avalon warned.

“That is so-”

“Do not even think about it.”

“–freaking adorable!” I all-but squealed, moving to grab my roommate by the arms. “Did you get to fly on it? Did you? Did you? Did you?”

Oh wow, Avalon was actually blushing by that point. She looked at me, lifting her chin while I held onto her arms. The two of us stood there like that for a long few seconds, staring at each other. “Chambers,” she finally said quietly while raising an eyebrow. “First, yes. Second, breathe.”

Exhaling sharply and then inhaling at the reminder, I felt my own blush rise before focusing on the situation at hand, turning my attention to Shiori while somewhat reluctantly letting go of Avalon. “And you have a pet electric-pig thing.”

He sneezed at me, sending sparks into the air.

“Choo,” she confirmed with a little giggle. Then she looked guilty. “I couldn’t kill him. We killed all the other ones, but he was hiding and he was just… scared. He was terrified, Flick. I couldn’t kill him. And I couldn’t let anyone else do it either. I just… I couldn’t.”

“Don’t worry, Porter,” Avalon interrupted before I could speak. “Like I said before, we’ll keep your little pet safe.”

Shiori’s eyes turned to me then, and I didn’t hesitate. “Of course we will.” Reaching my hand out very slowly, I let the little guy sniff them curiously. Once I was sure he was calm enough, I reached into my pocket and produced my own little friend.

“Choo, meet Herbie,” I introduced the two with a smile. “Don’t worry, Choo. He’s the strong and silent type, but I’m sure you guys’ll get along just fine.”

The girl gave a beaming smile then that made my heart flip itself over a few times. “Thanks, you guys, for, you know, keeping it secret. And for helping. I know it’s dumb, I just… I needed to protect him.”

Avalon’s voice was quiet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was scared and innocent and you saved him. You’re talking about protecting the helpless, Porter. Which, I’m pretty sure, once you strip past all the bullshit that’s built up over the years, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. Protecting the innocent.

“Anyone who says anything against that… fuck them.”

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Mini-Interlude 2 – Avalon

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(The following is another mini-interlude. For information about what that is and how they are commissioned, please see the mini-interlude section of the donations page here)

“I miss the tree.”

Avalon Sinclaire stood on the balcony of her adopted mother’s apartment, looking out over the jungle in the distance. Her voice was soft, barely loud enough to reach her own ears, let alone anyone else’s.

And yet, as she finished whispering, the young woman heard movement behind her. Gaia stepped out onto the balcony as well, putting her hands down to lean against it while casting her own gaze out into the dense foliage. “It must take some time to grow accustomed to living among such heights. I’m not entirely certain that I could adjust to living in a city built at the top of a tree.” Turning her head slightly toward Avalon, she added in a gentle voice. “But it must have been very beautiful.”

Avalon didn’t respond at first, her gaze remaining fixed on a flock of birds flying just above the jungle. “It was. It is. And it’s dangerous. You know how many of their students make it from initiation to graduation? Fifty percent. Everyone else is just… they don’t make it out of the crucible. That’s half. Flip a coin when you start out. Heads you make it, tails you die before graduation.

“I was almost one of the failures, really early on. I was too small, too weak, too scared. Fuck. I was scared of everything, Gaia. Terrified. My father—my dad, his… his bullshit left me so fucking terrified of my own shadow. I couldn’t speak up for myself, I couldn’t even talk without stammering. I would’ve died as soon as the real trials started. I would’ve been one of the failures. The wrong side of the coin flip. I was too broken. I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for…” she trailed off, biting her lip.

Rather than prompt her, Gaia simply stood by, her expression calm as she waited for the girl to go on. Which she did, after a few more seconds of silence. “My dad. My father saved my life.”

Beside her, she felt Gaia move before the woman laid a hand on her shoulder. “How?”

The answer came easily. “By surviving.” Looking up from the jungle finally, she turned to the woman. “I found out he was alive, that he was a vampire. You know how I found out? Because he came after me again while we were on a trip. I don’t know how he found me, but he was there. And I was…” She looked away, back to the jungle. “I was useless. Seller had to save me from him, had to drive him off.”

She made a face at the memory before forcing herself to continue telling the story. “You know what I did after that? I literally hid under my bed. Yeah. I took my blanket and I cowered under there for a long time. I stayed there. I just hid and cried a lot. My dad was going to kill me. He was a monster.  He was one of the real monsters now. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was pathetic.”

Gaia started to say something, hand squeezing her shoulder, but Avalon pushed on. “Then, while I was hiding and crying, I realized something. I had a choice. I could stay under my bed, keep crying and then die whenever the people that were better than me didn’t happen to be around to save me anymore. I could just be afraid for the rest of my life until Dad or something else killed me like the sniveling little coward that I was.

“Or I could change. Or I could make myself better, make myself stronger. So I did. I… got out from under the bed and I went to the gym and I started training. By myself at first, but then Seller started helping me. Between him and our normal training, I was… I was pushing myself as hard as I could. Seller’s the one that taught me the most about… everything. Not just about how to fight or make myself stronger, but how to take care of myself in other ways. He taught me how to groom myself, how to clean, even how to put on make-up.

“He’s the one that helped me with my first period, poor guy. But he did it. You should’ve seen him drag me through that store trying to explain to the bystanders what we needed. There was a lot of confusing sign language.”

She smiled at the memory before sighing. “The point is, he helped me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. And if I hadn’t made the choice to be stronger. It’s like… it’s like he was always willing and ready to help me, but he was just waiting for me to make the first step. Once I started trying to work out on my own, he was right there. But he didn’t make the first step. He waited for me to be ready. Maybe so he wouldn’t be wasting his time.”

Falling silent for a few seconds, Avalon finally shrugged. “Like I said, my dad being alive, becoming a real monster and coming after me was the thing that spurred me to either die or make myself stronger. So in a way, he kind of saved my life.”

“You saved your life,” Gaia corrected her gently. “And one thing you are mistaken about. Your father was a monster long before he became a vampire. Giving a serial killer a gun does not turn them into a monster. The only thing turning that child abusing alcoholic piece of human excrement into a vampire did was arm him. The monster part was always there.”

For a few minutes after that, the two of them simply stood in silence, the proximity comfort enough. Finally, Avalon spoke in a low voice. “I still miss the tree. But… I suppose this place isn’t so bad.”

There was mischief in Gaia’s voice then. “Not so bad? Hm, well, how can we make it better? Maybe I was wrong and you would prefer a different roommate? Or a solo room, I believe we have one available.”

Turning her head slightly to squint at the woman before looking away, Avalon’s tone turned as indifferent as she could make it. “No need, I can put up with the situation as it is.”

“Oh, I don’t want you to have to put up with a situation if you’re not enjoying it,” Gaia’s teasing continued. “If I was wrong and Felicity isn’t working out as a roommate, all you have to do is say so and we’ll amend the situation immediately. You don’t have to spend another night in that room if you don’t want to.”

In spite of herself, and despite all the tricks that Seller had taught her about how to control her reaction, Avalon still felt her face heating up. She cleared her throat. “No, it’s fine. It’s okay. She uhh…” Another cough came. “She’s not that bad.”

“Oh, well, that’s good to hear,” Gaia was giving her that infuriatingly knowing smile. “But if you ever change your mind, we’ll adjust your roommate situation.”

Squinting at the woman, Avalon asked, “Can I change my adopted mother situation? Because that’s the one giving me the most shit right now.”

“I’m afraid that’s one thing you’re pretty much stuck with,” Gaia promised her, hand slipping from Avalon’s shoulder to her arm as she pulled the girl around and into an embrace. “Can you survive the disappointment?”

Slowly, Avalon lifted her arms to wrap them around the other woman. She lowered her head to Gaia’s shoulder and let out a long, low breath.

“I’ll try.”

******

Some time later, Avalon stepped quietly into her dorm room. Closing the door behind her, she moved her gaze over to the nearby occupied bed.

Felicity hadn’t turned on the privacy screen, even though it was the middle of the day. Apparently she’d been too tired to even take the time to make her side of the room suitably dark. She’d just collapsed in the bed, face down against the pillow while a tangled birds nest of dirty blonde hair spread out in every direction.

Standing there for a moment, the girl watched her sleeping roommate. A variety of emotions warred for her attention before she finally turned away, first moving to her own bed. Glancing down at the box that Gaia had given her for Felicity, she set it on the floor before straightening up. After a short, indecisive pause, she stepped over to the nearby window. Carefully, with a look back to make sure that the blonde girl hadn’t woken up, she picked up the decorated rock that sat there.

Herbie. Gods, her roommate was a dork. Taking the rock, she moved over to her own bed and lay down on it, placing the toy sword-toting stone on the blanket nearby. Tenderly, Avalon brushed her finger over it.

The damn thing still had those eyes. She wasn’t even sure what had prompted her to get the things in the first place. But at least Scout was staying mum about who she’d gotten them from. If Felicity ever found out that Avalon had been the one who provided them, she’d never shut up about it.

“Hey, little guy,” she whispered under her breath. It felt absurd, but she continued in spite of herself after giving the other bed a quick glance. “Your friend over there is a gigantic nerd, you know that?”

Voice dropping even further, she lifted her gaze to stare at the blonde. “How do you put up with her? Why is she so important to you?”

Sighing, annoyed at herself, Avalon turned to lay on her back before placing the damn rock on her stomach. She continued to brush a finger over the thing absently. As she lay there, another memory came to mind. Felicity asking for training, wanting to become stronger. Willing to work harder to make herself better.

She’d almost refused. Almost told the girl to find someone else that could work with her. It wasn’t like there was a lack of options. To that moment, even now, she couldn’t explain exactly what had made her agree to it. Thoughts, feelings, emotions all kept trying to come up in her in spite of every attempt she made to push them back down.

Then her damn roommate and the rest of the team had to go and stand up for her when Trice tried his little attack. She’d tried to tell them to just get the fuck out of there, but no. No, they’d stayed. They’d risked their lives to help her, even though… Avalon sighed, eyes closing.

Sands and the boys had willingly stayed too. All willing to fight, all willing to risk themselves just for her, in spite of Trice’s offer to let them leave safely. They stayed, all of them. And yet, thinking of Felicity’s choice to stay was… it was just different than the others. It made her feel… it made her feel…

And then she found out about Felicity’s mother, about the necromancer. The necromancer who thought he was going to take Felicity away once she was eighteen. The thought, the idea of losing her roommate, of the girl going through what that monster would put her through made Avalon’s free hand clench so tightly she very nearly drew blood from her own palm.

No. She wouldn’t let it happen. No matter what. No matter who she had to go after, no matter what she had to do, she would not let that piece of shit take away the girl who… the girl that she…

Sitting up, Avalon let the rock fall into her hand. She looked down at it, forehead knitting into a frown. “We have to protect her,” she said quietly. “You understand? Even if she is a dork.”

Picking herself off the bed, she stepped over to carefully place the decorated stone back on the windowsill. Another sigh escaped her as she looked out at the grounds before returning to her bed. She sat there, eyes on the sleeping girl.

And of course, there was the fact that her literal trouble-magnet of a roommate had gotten herself abducted by actual aliens. Because why not, it wasn’t like she already had enough things to deal with, just add that as well. Maybe toss in a few demons and a serial killer clown while they were at it.

Sure, the aliens that took her turned out to be good, and the whole situation there a big misunderstanding or mistake. But still, just the idea that Felicity could be taken away that easily made her feel… angry. It was an undirected anger, a confused fury that had no real outlet. Especially since she couldn’t even make herself think about the fact that she felt…

Okay, this was ridiculous. She could do this. She could think it. When she looked at Felicity, when she thought about her, she felt…

Felicity moved. Her hand shifted to wipe away the bit of drool under her mouth before she sat up, yawning. Her eyes found Avalon’s own.

“Wha—oh, um, hey. What’s up?”

“I…” Avalon coughed, forcing down all those other thoughts with a shake of her head.

“I was just wondering how long you were going to sleep for.”

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Begin Again 10-03

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“Can anyone tell me when the unification of Germany officially took place?” Professor Dare spoke while standing beside her pristine white board. Her eyes moved over the class, and I saw the small smile cross her face as she focused on the single hand that was in the air. “Besides Miss Moon, that is.”

Two seats in front of me and one over, Vanessa lowered her hand. As usual, it had shot into the air the very instant the professor (almost any professor really, not just this one) finished her question. It had gotten to the point where they had to give the rest of us a chance to answer something before letting her do it. Because when it came to anything academic or from a book, Vanessa Moon knew it. She remembered everything she read like it was still right in front of her, and she read freaking everything.

It was Tuesday, the fourteenth of November, about a week after our little adventure. We still hadn’t figured out how we were going to break into Professor Tangle’s room. Yeah, we could ask Gaia for help, but I wanted to avoid involving her as much as possible unless we absolutely had to. She had gone out on way too many limbs as it was. Especially if Ruthers was really paying as much attention to what was going on in the school as I figured he was.

Basically, she told people that she had taken us on a special excursion of her own as our monthly hunt, to make up for the fact that the last one had been sort of waylaid by Trice and his friends. Shiori, supposedly, came along by accident since she and Columbus had been together at the time. It was supposed to help explain why we had those new Stranger gifts so that we could actually use them in school without confusing everyone about where the hell they’d come from. Plus, there was the not-so-subtle hint that the headmistress had been trying to protect us in case anything like that happened again.

So no, if we got in trouble, we’d see if she could help. But I wasn’t going to let us start relying on having the headmistress take care of everything for us. No, there had to be another way into that room.

I was absently playing with a small wooden block that I’d brought in. Focusing, I could push my hand all the way into it, making my fingers effectively disappear. Or I could push them through and out the other side. It made my skin tingle, and I’d forgotten that I was doing it before starting to raise my hand.

There were giggles around me, and I looked up, belatedly realizing that I hadn’t pulled my fingers out of the block first. It was sort of fused into several of my fingers as I held my hand in the air. Blushing a little bit, I lowered my hand and shook it to make the block fall off, hurriedly tucking it into my bag with the other hand. Then I looked back to where Professor Dare was watching me with a raised eyebrow. When I kept my hand up while giving her a sheepish shrug, she nodded for me to go on.

Coughing, I started. “Um, I think it was… eighteen seventy… tw—wait, one. Eighteen seventy one? I don’t know the whole date, sorry.”

“No apologies necessary, Miss Chambers,” the woman replied with a shake of her head. “Eighteen seventy-one is correct. January eighteenth, to be absolutely precise. Very good. Now, here’s an easy one for you guys. First hand up gets to answer. What was the name of the first German Emperor?”

A few rows away, Zeke Leven raised a hand before asking, “You mean the real leader or the guy all the Silverstones think was in charge?” His tone made it pretty clear how little he thought of those people.

Professor Dare regarded him before clearing her throat. “I’m afraid that I must apologize, Mr. Leven.”

That threw him. The boy blinked, shifting in his seat as his hand lowered. “Err, apologize, Professor?”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before gesturing with a hand. The red marker nearby lifted off its perch and floated there in the air before starting to write on the white board while she continued. “Clearly, I made the very terrible mistake of beginning this class three months ago without even providing its name.”

On the board, the marker wrote, ‘Bystander History’ before capping itself. Professor Dare nodded in satisfaction before returning her gaze to Zeke. “Mistake rectified. Do you need more clarification?”

The boy’s mouth opened and shut before he shook his head, clearly struggling to maintain a completely civil voice. “No, Professor Dare. I know what class this is.” His teeth were clenched as he spoke.

“Excellent,” the woman replied simply, still smiling. “I’d hate to think that I’ve failed so spectacularly that you still have no idea what the very subject of this class is. That would be unconscionable.”

She looked toward one of the other students who had their hand up then, Travis. “Yes, Mr. Colby?”

The boy, another of my fellow Bystander-kin, gave Zeke a long look before replying. “Yeah, wasn’t it that Kaiser… uhh.. Kaiser Wilhelm dude? The guy that looks like Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica only with the epic sideburns and mustache. They’ve got a picture of him in the hall outside my room.”

“Hey, yeah, that guy,” one of the other boys put in. “There’s a picture in the library too. Dude looks mad strict. Jazz made me cover it up cuz she thought the guy was staring at us while we were–” Cutting himself off, the boy glanced toward Professor Dare. “Uh, you know, while we were studying.”

Shaking her head in obvious amusement, the professor simply moved on. “Yes, thank you. The first official leader of the German Empire was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig. Or William Frederick Louis if you prefer the English version. And he did, indeed, possess some rather impressive facial hair.”

Stepping away from the wall then, she tapped her fingers against Zeke’s desk a few times. “I also have to thank Mr. Leven for providing me with a very impressive segue into our next group project.”

She smiled through the groans that prompted before speaking up over them to make everyone quiet down. “He’s right, there are certain aspects of history that are remembered one way by Heretics and another way by the majority of the world’s population. Can anyone provide another example of this?”

A few rows back, Malcolm Harkess sat up abruptly, his well-muscled arm rising. “Vampires,” he quickly answered after Professor Dare turned her attention to him. “They were helping the British during the American Revolution. Which should, you know, sort of prove who the good guys were.”

Oh, right. He was the one I’d heard talking about seeing his ancestor fight those very same vampire redcoats during his Edge vision. I had to bite my lip to avoid arguing with his latter point. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that there were people who would take anything I said to that effect right back to Ruthers and his contingent of people who were convinced that I was spying for my mom.

Still, my eyes glanced toward Shiori. The other girl was staring intently down at a paper on her desk, hand clutching her pen. Apparently feeling my eyes on her, she looked up. Our gazes met, and I gave her a thumbs up. She smiled a little bit, a soft pink blush touching her face.

“That is one example, yes,” Professor Dare confirmed before looking for another. They came in here and there from a few other students, until she eventually waved off any more. “Thank you, everyone. Yes, there are many examples of this contradiction between Bystander and Heretic histories. Those of you who were raised by Heretics will witness that fact more in this class, while those of you raised out of the knowledge will have already seen several such differences in your classes with Professor Ross.”

There was some general noises of agreement before she continued. “With that in mind, she and I have decided to have you each work in small groups on a little project. With your group, you will choose an event from history and give a short oral presentation detailing that event from the perspective of Heretics and from the perspective of Bystanders. It should be five to ten minutes long. You will compare and contrast how that event affected both societies. These presentations will be given in front of both myself and Professor Ross Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday next week before the Thanksgiving break. The order will be decided by depositing the names of each group into a hat and choosing one at random each time a new presentation is needed. So I suggest that you be prepared on the very first day, just in case. You may, of course, get lucky and be able to wait until the last day, but I doubt any of you have had the opportunity to absorb any kind of fortune manipulation gift yet.”

There were some groans about doing a project just before a holiday vacation, but I was actually pretty intrigued. There was obviously so much different between Heretical history and the history that I had grown up with, and this sounded like an easy way to get a quick overview of some of those differences. Along with, of course, a more in depth bit of knowledge of whatever event my eventual group chose. Hell, I was already thinking through some famous bits of history that I’d kind of like to get a Heretical take on.

Yeah, I liked learning things, so sue me. Hearing a bit about a various points in Heretical history sounded like pretty much the best way to finish out the semester before going home for Thanksgiving.

Sands had her hand up and was called on. “How are we gonna make up our groups, Professor?”

Dare nodded to her. “Good question. I know you usually do this sort of thing by roommates, but we’re going to do something a little different this time.” Turning back to her desk, she reached into a drawer, producing a pretty snazzy looking green top hat. “This,” she explained, “is the same hat that we’ll be producing the order of your presentations from. Each of your names is already in it. I’m going to select one name. That person will then come up and select three more. Those four will be a group. Then I’ll select another name, and we’ll continue. Does anyone have any other questions before we get started?”

There were none, and she drew the first name. It ended up being Travis, and he chose Erin Redcliffe, one of the other boys that I didn’t have much experience with whose name was apparently Douglas, and Zeke. After him, the next person to draw names was Aylen. She got Shiori, Scout, and Malcolm.

The third name that Dare drew was mine. She nodded for me to come up, then held the hat out. When I got up there and glanced in it, I saw a pile of folded papers. Shrugging, I reached in to grab one before reading it out loud. “Ah, Rudolph?” Glancing toward the pale, somewhat heavy-set boy, I found him giving me a quick, nervous nod.

The next name that I drew was Vanessa. The second I read the note out loud, the entire class that wasn’t part of a group yet let out a long, low groan. Clearly, they wanted the genius girl for their own team. Vanessa, for her part, seemed fairly oblivious to the reaction. She just gave me a faint, distracted smile.

Finally, I reached for another paper for the last member of our group. However, this time, the paper that my fingers moved to touch actually slipped out of my grasp and literally flew to the other side of the hat. A second later, another paper lifted slowly into my hand, pressing into my palm until I took it.

When I looked up, confused, I saw Professor Dare meeting my gaze evenly. Then she winked before her expression returned to normal. “Having any trouble picking that last name, Miss Chambers?”

“Um,” I hesitated, then shook my head before straightening. “No, Ma’am.” Still uncertain about what was going on, I unfolded the paper and looked at it with a frown before my eyes abruptly widened.

My gaze flicked back to the professor before I coughed and read the note out loud. “Koren Fellows.”

The girl in question looked up from where she’d been whispering something to Rebecca. “Huh, what?”

The professor ignored my stare. “Congratulations, Miss Fellows. You’re part of a group with Mr. Parsons, Miss Moon, and Miss Chambers. I’m sure the four of you will put together a good project.”

******

“So she put you in a group with Koren on purpose?” Sands asked later that day. She and Scout had come to find me on my way out of the cafeteria after dinner. Now they were leading me out of the main building and over the grounds. Apparently they had an idea about how to get into Tangle’s apartment.

I nodded, keeping my voice low. “Yeah, I mean, the first paper moved. Not just a little bit, like, completely. It flew away. And the new paper just picked itself up and went into my hand. Then she winked at me. It was totally purposeful. She set it up to put Koren and me in the same group together.”

“So obviously she knows about the,” Sands started before dropping her voice to a whisper, “relation.”

Scout, who was playing with a borrowed Herbie by flipping him back and forth between her hands (obviously to scare off any extra-dimensional kidnappers with the threat of tasting our stony savior’s sharp steel), looked up at that. Her eyes met mine before the girl nodded, speaking a single word quietly, “Helping.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Definitely trying to help by getting us together. Which means the headmistress has been talking to her. They probably noticed my… umm, less than fantastic attempts to strike up a conversation so far.” I’d tried a few more times since that first, none of which were more successful.

“So basically,” Sands put in with a tiny snicker, “they’ve set you up with the cue ball of friendships.”

I blinked sidelong toward the girl at that, suddenly confused. “Wait, what? Cue ball of friendships?”

“Sure, you know,” she replied with a gesture. “Like that game Bystanders play that’s basically baseball only with all the challenge gone. Where they put the ball on the stick and cue the player to hit it?”

In spite of myself, I giggled. “Oh. Oh, no. You mean tee-ball. The thing the ball sits on is called a tee. Just like a golf tee, where they put the ball on that little thing so it’s not just sitting on the ground.”

Sands squinted at me. “If that’s tee-ball, then what the hell is a cue-ball?”

Still trying to hold back even more giggles, I explained. Through it all, Sands gradually blushed more with each word. When I was done, she shook her head, eyes rolling. “Okay, yeah, I’d laugh too.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I replied casually. “That’s pretty much how I feel every time we find out more about this whole true history of the world and Heretics thing. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on this stuff, you guys surprise me again. And with that in mind, why are we at the faculty building?” I had belatedly realized where the twins were leading me just before we cut across the path toward the back entrance. “Wait a second, we’re not going for Tangle’s apartment right now, are we?”

“Course not,” Sands replied while Scout shook her head. “We’re just going in to show you around. Trust us,” she added while grabbing the door to pull it open. “It’s cool. Go on in.”

I don’t know what I expected to see inside, but a simple hall way with blank doors on either side wasn’t it. The place kind of looked boring and utilitarian. And it was definitely… smaller than I’d thought faculty apartments would be. The doors leading into each weren’t even that far apart from each other. “Eesh,” I muttered, “don’t become a Crossroads teacher for the living space.”

“Tell me about it, right?” a voice spoke up from a little to the right, where a stairway led up.

I yelped, turning to find Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s dad, standing there with a tiny smirk. “Girls, you weren’t working your way toward any more trouble, were you?”

“Working our way toward, old man? We swim in trouble and you know it,” Sands shot back before shrugging. “But right now we’re just showing Flick our old room.”

“Oh right,” Professor Mason snapped his fingers. “You mean the place where I keep all my fishing stuff now.”

Sands made a face at him. “You do not.”

“Oh yeah, yeah.” The man was nodding seriously. “Had to put up an anti-stench enchantment and everything. You’d be surprised how nasty some of that bait smells. Whoooeeeeee, it’s some awful stuff.”

“You’re a jerk,” Sands informed her father before sticking her tongue out at him while trying to talk at the same time. “Toal ‘erk.”

“Toal Erk, huh?” Professor Mason smirked, reaching out to ruffle both their hair at the same time. “Well, okay then, Erk one and Erk two. Fight amongst yourselves about which one is which, and show off our place to your friend. You know the rules. Don’t go anywhere but our apartment. Got it?”

Each of them gave him a thumbs up, and he headed out the nearby backdoor to cross the grounds, apparently on his way to his own dinner.

Through it all, I had been staring at the man who had gone through so much effort to retrieve my mother’s weapons. Why? Was he one of her friends or silent allies, or had he just wanted a trophy? Maybe he hadn’t been able to stand the idea of her weapons being among Alters.

“Okay, come on,” Sands started by heading for the same stairs that their dad had come down. They led me up to the second floor and to one of the other blank doors in that seemingly too-small hallway. “This is our place. Err, Dad’s place now, I guess. Anyway, come on in.”

When I stepped through the door, I found myself standing in a living room that was clearly much too large considering how close the other doors were. Seeing that, I coughed. “You know, at a certain point I’m going to get used to the Heretic love of TARDIS technology.”

“Tar-what now?” Sands asked blankly.

I gave her a wide eyed, wide mouthed, appalled look. “Okay, well. You guys have unbelievable magical abilities, the ability to inherit special powers from things normal humans can’t see, and the technology to instantly transport anywhere in the world. Bystanders have Doctor Who. So we’ll call it a tie.”

Sands stared openly at me, then turned to stare at her sister before speaking. “She’s crazy.” Turning back to me, she repeated the point. “You’re crazy. Anyway, we can talk about your favorite hospital shows later. Right now, you wanna know how we’re gonna get you into Tangle’s apartment, right?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “On a scale of one to ten, how much am I gonna hate this plan?”

Sands cocked her head to the side to consider the question. “That depends. How long can you hold your breath? Oh, and how sensitive is your sense of smell? I mean, you don’t pass out around, say, manure or anything, do you?”

“Right,” I muttered, “So eleven then. Fan-freaking-tastic.”

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Against The Odds 9-01

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A minute later Gavant led us back through the building—spaceship, I reminded myself. What appeared to be most of the surviving Meregan (and I only saw depressingly few for a group that was supposed to represent their entire living race aside from the children) were cleaning up the bodies, both their own and the others. I gave a weak shudder at the dark and unwanted realization that every Meregan they’d lost in that single battle actually affected the percentage of their surviving race significantly.

As we moved down one of the halls we hadn’t explored, I forced that extremely troublesome thought aside to ask, “What can you tell us about this enemy of yours, the one who stole your children? Do you know where he comes from, what he can do, what he wants, where he set up his base, any of that?”

He gave me a brief glance before returning his attention to the corridor. He sighed. “We are knowing much of this threat, more than we are wishing. He is being one of you, Friends-Flick and Shiori.”

“Wait, what?” Shiori put in, her own eyes widening along with mine. “What do you mean, one of us?”

“I am meaning,” the big man explained, “that he is being one of the People-Heretics. He is being one.”

My mouth worked a couple times and I stopped walking for a second, staring at the man as he turned to look back at us. “This guy that took all your children, you mean he’s a Heretic? Like, one of our Heretics? And he’s got an army of Alters hanging around him, following his orders? Are you serious? ”

“This is not being something we would be making the humor of,” Gavant’s response was solemn.

“Is he part of Eden’s Garden?” I mused with a brief look toward my companion. “I’ve, umm, heard they’re a little more lenient about the whole ‘working with Alters’ thing. Still, an army? And what’s he doing out here all by himself?” I wanted to ask if he was sure, but that felt like a really stupid question.

“I am not understanding ‘Eden’s Garden,’” Gavant answered slowly, a frown creasing his forehead. “We are only knowing that he is being one of the People-Heretics, as Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been.”

“Never mind,” I waved that off with a hand. “We’ll get into that later. Do you know what he wants here, how he made up this army, why they’re listening to him, even what his name is? Anything might help.”

Gavant nodded once, though he didn’t answer right away. It felt like he was gathering himself. “The one who is their master is being called Enemy-Nicholas Petan.” Even saying the name (the first of which which he pronounced Nee-Ko-lah without the S sound) seemed to make the man flinch inwardly.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I admitted. When Gavant just looked at me blankly, I amended, “I mean the name isn’t familiar.” Glancing toward the girl beside me, I asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?”

Shiori’s head shook. “Um, n-no. But then, I’ve been kind of too… occupied for extra studying. All that broo isn’t going to ding itself. On the plus side,” she added brightly, “Heretic school seems like a place that might actually have a course in that kind of thing. If they do, I am so signing up for the AP class.”

Biting my lip to cover the smile that came then, I looked back to Gavant. “I guess that’s a no from both of us. Sorry, did my mother know about him? Were they, you know, enemies before or something?”

“We are not knowing if Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been knowing Enemy-Nicholas Petan,” Gavant admitted. “She was been the only Friend-Person-Heretic we are knowing who could been help us.”

Before I could say anything else, the big man continued. “We are knowing where Enemy-Nicholas Petan was putting his base before. It maybe been changed since we were starting long-sleep, but we will be go there. If he is being there, we will being fight him to be taking childs back.” His voice was grim, and I had the feeling that he didn’t think they’d actually survive the attempt, let alone succeed.

Swallowing hard, I nudged him with a hand. “Hey, I know it’s not much, but we’re here, all right? We’re gonna help you figure this out. Maybe we can distract this guy long enough for you to take your kids and get out of there. I mean, if he’s a Heretic, maybe he’ll want to talk to us. We could use that.”

“We are not wanting to be putting Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child and child’s friend in danger,” Gavant protested weakly before shaking his head with another sigh. “But we are being very glad for the help.”

Moving ahead then, the man led us to a large round door that looked bronze. And that meant large for him. For Shiori and me it was positively gigantic. When he pressed his hand against what looked an awful lot like a hieroglyphic beside the enormous circular door, there was a sudden whoosh noise as it separated into sections like a pizza being cut up. The separate wedges all pulled back into the walls, revealing a dark chamber beyond. A second later, some kind of automated lighting system activated.

At a gesture from the man, Shiori and I stepped through the doorway and into what turned out to be a chamber that was even bigger than the one out in front. It stretched out almost twice as long from the look of things, and was probably at least as wide. Throughout the room there were boulders. That was the best way I could describe them. They were these huge, almost perfectly spherical rocks that were about twelve feet in diameter. Dozens of them littered the room, too uniform to be an accident.

As we looked around the boulder-filled room, I tugged Herbie from my pocket once more and held the little guy up. “What do you say, buddy? Recognize any of your big brothers? Maybe an aunt or two?”

Gavant was staring at me, his eyes lit with interest. “I am not recognizing this pet of Friend-Flick.”

“Oh, uhh.” Realizing it was kind of hard to explain, I shrugged. “It’s a long story. But Herbie’s cool.”

“He is pretty quiet though,” Shiori observed before looking back to the man. “What’re we doing here?”

The answer came not from Gavant, but from deeper in the room, behind one of the boulders. “I will being answer that.” The man who emerged with a wave toward us looked vaguely familiar somehow. Unlike Gavant, his hair was cut shorter and was a deep bronze color rather than the other man’s gray. He also seemed younger somehow, despite being bout half a foot taller, and wore a dark green uniform.

And on a sidenote, hanging around these guys too much was going to put a crick in my neck if I had to keep looking up at them like this.

It was Shiori who figured it out first. The other girl’s head tilted sideways before she asked, “Isn’t that the guy you uhh, smacked around?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, strategically re-positioned?”

“Thanks for that save,” I murmured sidelong at her. She grinned in response, and I shook my head before focusing on the second Meregan. “Uh, yeah, that was my fault. I’m really sorry, I, uhh, I sort of thought you were a real statue, and I was afraid the big door would close and trap us in here, and–”

“It is being well, Friend-Flick,” the new man assured me, a broad smile on his face. “I was been confused to be waking up on the floor. But it is all being good now.” That smile left a moment later and he looked away, his voice softening. “Except being for our new lost.” He lifted his left hand, ring and middle fingers outstretched with the rest tucked into his palm. Pressing his hand sideways against his chest in what looked like a religious motion, the man murmured something in another language quietly.

Then he focused on us once more, blinking his eyes a few times. “I am being Purin, master of explore.”

“Master of explore?” I echoed, squinting slightly before getting it. “Oh, you mean head scout?”

“This is not being right,” the other man replied with a brief frown. “We are not being search for heads.”

Smiling a little, I gestured for him to go on. “Never mind, I get the idea. You explore places. So you’re the one who knows where this asshole’s base is?” When both Purin and Gavant opened their mouths, the confusion written across their faces, I waved them off. “I mean you know where your enemy’s base is.”

“Ah,” Purin’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, I am knowing this. Lord-March Gavant was being wish that I will being take you to see what the invader was been done while we were been in long-sleep.”

It took me a second to parse all of that, but I got it. “Right, we can scout it out and see what’s changed. For all we know, the big guy himself already left and it’s just some minions left behind to deal with.”

“We will be hope,” Gavant replied with obvious doubt. “But it is not being likely. I will be stay here and gathering resources, preparing our people for our fight. We must being ready to save our childs.”

“All right,” I said quietly, trying to contain my jitters. Okay, it was worse than jitters. I was kind of terrified. But I pushed on anyway, trying to ignore it. “So how are we getting there? Does it have anything to do with these rocks?” I added afterward, looking at the massive boulders curiously.

Purin laid a hand on the nearest one. “This is being Meregan pride of scouting vehicles. They are being called K’lecnahn.” With an innocent smile, he added, “But Friend-Joselyn Atherby called them Elvis.”

“Elvis?” I blinked uncertainly with a glance to the boulder. “Why exactly would she call them Elvis?”

“I am not understanding so much,” Purin replied uncertainly, his hand brushing over the stone with obvious fondness. “But she had been said it is because they are rocks and they are going rolling?”

“Rock and roll,” Shiori announced with a giggle, crossing an arm over her stomach in a failed effort to contain herself. “Your mom named them Elvis because they rock and roll.” She snickered a little more.

“Oh my god.” I couldn’t entirely help the little snicker that came, but I forced it back at the thought of what else we had to do, and the problems that still lay ahead. We still had to rescue those children.

Purin gestured for us to watch, then pushed in on a spot of the boulder that was slightly lighter than the rest of it. The spot, about as big around as his hand, lit up and moved inward. A second later, the whole front half of the boulder split apart, revealing an interior that made me blink in surprise. There was a soft white cushioned spot that looked perfectly formed to let one of the Meregan lean back against it, along with several straps to keep them in place. There were two handles to either side that their hands obviously locked onto, and the front of the boulder, the parts that had opened up, had a pair of large screens on them that were showing the exterior of the boulder. One showed the front, the other the rear.

When I looked closer, I saw that the stand where the Meregan would be positioned was slightly separate from the rock itself. Which meant that as the boulder part turned and rolled, the figure inside along with the screens and the controls he was manipulating would remain upright. The boulder could roll along all it wanted (or all the driver directed it to) without spinning the occupant over and over.

“You are being understanding now?” the younger Meregan asked with a hopeful smile. It was obvious that he loved these things, and was extremely proud of them. I wondered if he’d created them.

“I think so,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not sure either of us will be able to control one of these things, and they don’t really look big enough for passengers. Even,” I added, “if we are a lot smaller than you.”

“That is being all right,” Purin assured us. “That is why we are having Elvis for Meregan cadets. Smaller being than adult Meregan.” Gesturing for us to follow, the bronze-haired man started toward another of the boulders, touching his hand against a spot on it to open the thing up. “This is not being so small for only one you, but two you can make it as Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Partner did.”

“Wait, partner?” I blinked at that, looking up at the Meregan. “What partner are you talking about?”

Gavan was the one who answered. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby had came with other-friend. Good other-friend. But name was been gone. Meregan forget other-friend name, other-friend face, other-friend all except for being. Erased, Meregan all had been forgot. No more memory of other-friend name.”

Now I was even more confused. “So you don’t remember my mom’s partner, but you do remember her? What… does that mean?” Looking helplessly toward Shiori, I shrugged my shoulders. “They erased Mom’s memory… locked specific knowledge about things like her other kids behind more magic, but neither of those things affected people on this world. On the other hand, whatever erased the memory of her partner, did affect them, and still does. Also, if her partner isn’t Deveron I will eat every last ounce of sand in this desert until it’s empty, because that’s just every single level of duh at this point.”

“Deveron,” Gavant frowned. “This name is not being familiar to us. This is more People-Heretic magic?”

I nodded with a sigh. “Definitely more People-Heretic magic. Errr, at least I assume it is.” My frown deepened a little. “Though I definitely don’t understand why it would work so differently than the magic they used on Mom did. Maybe they used a different spell, or gave it different parameters, or something?” Shaking my head, I forcibly shut it out of my mind. It was time to focus on this situation.

“Anyway, let’s go do this scouting thing. How do we drive this big boulder?” To Herbie, I added as an aside, “You hear that, buddy? We’re gonna be riding around inside your big brother.”

Purin looked just as confused about that as Gavant had, but shook it off. He stepped aside then, gesturing at the now-open Elvis. This one was a bit smaller, obviously meant for what were probably teenage Meregan. In other words, people who were closer to seven feet tall instead of nine or ten.

“Friend-Flick, you will be coming in here,” Purin announced while reaching for my hand. When I gave it to him, he hoisted me up and set me down on one side of the spot where the driver was supposed to stand. A moment later, he deposited Shiori beside me. It was kind of a close fit, but even a teenage Meregan was big enough that we mostly fit side by side.

Crouching, Purin showed us where our feet went, into these marks that looked and felt like pedals. “You must be working together,” he informed us. “Push pedal down forward to be going forward, push pedal down backward to be going backward. Friend-Flick be squeezing handle here,” he showed me where my left hand should go. “To be turning left. Friend-Shiori be squeezing handle here,” he moved Shiori’s hand up to the other handle. “To be turning right. Both be squeezing handles and pulling back to be making tunnel underground, then be pushing handles forward to be going back to surface. You are understanding?”

Closing my eyes briefly, I worked it through in my head before nodding while looking toward the other girl. “I think so. We’re gonna have to practice though.”

“That is not being bad idea,” the Meregan replied with a nod. “We are to be taking K’lecnahn to surface and allowing Friends-Flick and Shiori to practice before we are to be going to scout Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

“All right.” Forcing my nerves to calm, helped by Shiori’s nearness, I nodded. “Let’s do this then.”

Both of the Meregan gave us a brief wave before they started to close front of the boulder again. The screen lit up, showing us the front and back view, and I had to wonder where the cameras were since the surface of the boulder had looked perfectly smooth.

“Oh my god,” Shiori announced before starting to giggle. Honestly giggle. It was kind of adorable. And amazing. “I just thought of something.” She turned her head slightly to look at me, and I found myself lost briefly in her smile.

“Err, sorry,” I managed after a moment. “What? What did you think of?”

With a broad grin, the other girl spoke, her voice full of incorrigible delight. “This thing we’re in right now. It’s a rock that spins around and around to take us places.

“You could say… We’re riding a Ferrous wheel.”

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The Next Step 8-06

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Before we went anywhere, I stopped. “Wait. We uhh, should probably make sure we’re not about to be trapped in here the second we touch anything. Not that you’re bad company to have, but I’m pretty sure neither of us wants to play a thousand bottles of beer on the wall until we kill each other.”

She reflexively flinched even at that minor of a comment. Then she frowned, lifting her head to squint at me with a curious look. “You’re… really not afraid of me, are you? I’m related to a vampire, I’m part-vampire myself, and you’re still making jokes about us killing each other from boredom. Jokes.”

Obviously, helping Shiori cope with this was going to take more than just a pep talk or two.

I shrugged back at her. “Like I said, Asenath is my friend. She’s a full vampire. Why would I be afraid of you? You’ve never given me any reason to think you want to do anything bad. Now come on.”

“Wait.” Her hand caught my arm and squeezed a little. She gave me a grateful look, opening her mouth to say something before it caught in her throat. It looked like she was lost on finding the actual words.

Rather than make the other girl figure out the right thing to say all by herself, I caught her hand and interlaced our fingers briefly while squeezing. “I know,” I teased with a wink. “I’m pretty damn cool, huh? You’re gonna have to wait for autographs though, I seem to have misplaced my pen.”

Her response was a disbelieving snort that turned into a cute giggle. “Okay, okay, I get it. No more evil vampire dwelling.” She glanced at me mischievously. “Unless this is an evil vampire dwelling.”

“Evil vampire dwe–” I couldn’t help it, the laugh escaped me before I could cover my mouth while staring at her with a bit of disbelief. “Word play, Shiori? If I didn’t like you already, I sure do now.”

The smile she gave me in return was, for once, not hidden or worried, and it wasn’t followed immediately by a look of intense guilt. It was just a smile, the kind she must have had all the time before coming to Crossroads and being told that she was an evil monster that should be killed.

Moving back to the entrance, I gave it a quick look over. Sure enough, there was about an inch wide gap near the top of the doorway. When I moved Herbie closer and squinted, I could just barely make out a the edge of a slab of stone set just a little above the gap. Clearly, the entrance could be blocked by dropping that slab down across the doorway. If that happened, we’d be trapped inside this place.

“How much do you think that statue weighs?” I asked, gesturing toward the nearest figure while walking that way. As I glanced toward Shiori, my hand slipped the staff up and out of its container.

Shiori frowned thoughtfully before shrugging. “Eight hundred pounds, maybe? I’m not a statue-expert.”

Walking around the back of the statue, I pressed my still-charging staff point up against it and considered. “Let’s see. This should do it.” Taking a step back, I swung, smacking the statue with the staff. The resulting blow lifted the statue off the floor and sent it flying a good six or seven feet before it crashed down to the floor on its side with a terrifyingly loud bang that echoed through the chamber.

“Well,” Shiori cracked once the final echo of the crash had finally died away a few seconds later. “At least if there is anyone else still left in this place that could’ve heard that, we’ll know pretty soon.”

Flushing at that, I shrugged. “Sorry. Precautions.” Aiming my staff at the fallen statue, I used another charged burst to knock the heavy thing across the floor and toward the doorway. It was like golfing, if you replaced the ball with, well, a statue that probably weighed pretty close to a thousand pounds.

After a couple more shots like that, I had the statue positioned just under the doorway. It was wide enough that, even if that slab came falling down, there would still be enough of a gap to squeeze out.

“There,” I announced once it was set up. “Now we can check out the rest of this place.”

We investigated the throne first, of course. Up close, I realized that it was larger than I’d thought it was when we were still all the way on the other end of the enormous room. From the looks of it, the elaborate seat had been made with someone almost twice the size of a normal human in mind. Which, come to think of it, kind of matched the general size of the statues we were seeing all over the place. They were all around nine feet tall on average, give or take. I’d thought that was just an impressive statue sort of thing, but maybe that was just the general scale of the people who had built this place?

Crouching down beside the throne, I ran my hand along the bottom of it while moving Herbie closer to get a better look with the light that the helpful little guy was giving off. I was searching for any crack or seam that would indicate that it could be tipped backward, slid away, or otherwise moved. Yeah, maybe I’ve seen too many movies or whatever, but hey, I was practically living one by that point. It wouldn’t be that surprising if there was some kind of secret passage under the throne. Or at least a treasure chest.

But no, at least as far as I could tell, the throne wasn’t hiding any kind of surprise under it. Straightening up, I looked toward Shiori, who was standing on the opposite side of the throne, running her hand along the stupidly large diamond that was embedded in the back. The gem, which was about as big as a softball, was still glowing. From here, it almost looked like a tiny, very faint light bulb that was almost dead, and when I peered closer with the help of Herbie’s own light, I could see what looked like a tiny glowing gem that was right in the middle of the larger diamond. That’s what was glowing.

Shiori opened her mouth to say something, then blanched in the middle of it. “I kinda wish we could–” She stopped talking abruptly and looked away while a shamed expression crossed her face.

“Take it with us?” I finished for her easily, coughing when she looked at me. “Dude, that’s not some evil vampire impulse whispering in the back of your head. It’s a completely understandable impulse. Look at the size of that thing and how pretty it is. If you weren’t tempted to take it, that’d be weird.”

The guilty look turned contemplative for a moment before the girl shrugged. “It still feels wrong.”

“Let’s look around a bit more.” I glanced toward the diamond, starting to turn away from the throne before something on it else caught my eye. “Wait, here, look down at this part.” Moving Herbie lower, toward the nearest armrest, I showed Shiori where there seemed to be five small indentations. A tentative, curious press of my finger against one of them showed that they could be pushed down further, almost like buttons. Five buttons made for whoever was sitting in the throne. Pushing that single button didn’t seem to do anything from what I could tell, but there were five of them…

“They’re a little too big to be for human fingers,” I said slowly. “But they’d fit someone as tall as those statues. Just like the rest of this massive thing. What about over there, are there more on that side?”

Shiori glanced down before nodding. “Uhh, yeah. Why does it matter? It’s probably just decorative.”

“This is why I get to be Indy,” I informed her before pressing my fingers into the provided spaces. Gesturing for Shiori to do the same on her side, I added, “On three, push down. One, two, three.”

We pushed all ten buttons together, and there was an immediate reaction. The diamond in the back of the throne began to glow a bit brighter, and abruptly shot what looked like a laser into the middle of the room. Both of us yelped and fell backwards. Well, I fell. Shiori did this spring backwards motion with her hand on one of her weapons as she landed in a crouch. It looked pretty cool while I was sprawling.

Luckily for my less than graceful reaction, the light from the diamond wasn’t an attack or anything. Instead, as the two of us stared, point where the light had stopped gradually expanded into a large holographic image of Earth that slowly rotated around. Or at least, it was mostly Earth. The landmasses looked a little weird. North America was fatter than it should have been, with room for a couple more states about where Florida should have been that left the former beach state completely landlocked. Australia was also missing entirely, replaced by a collection of islands. Where most of Russia should have been, there was more ocean, like it had completely sunk or something. Finally, Africa was turned almost ninety degrees from the position it should have had, like it had been put on the map wrong.

Below the steadily rotating globe, there were words. At least, I assumed they were words. It was all written in some alien language. From the way they kept changing while the globe rotated, I was betting that they were some kind of information about what we were seeing. Too bad we couldn’t read it.

“Why would aliens have a globe of Earth?” Shiori asked, brow furrowed uncertainly. “And why would it be a wrong globe?” She looked at me. “Maybe they’ve got the faulty information or something?”

Frowning, I shook my head. “I’m not sure. Something seems wrong, like we’re missing something obvious.” Continuing to squint at the hologram for a moment, I coughed. “What if it’s not Earth? I mean, not our Earth. What if it’s this planet? What if, instead of just being an alien world, this is like… Earth in another reality or something? Another dimension. An alternate Earth that happens to have two moons, different land masses, and a race of people that are twice as tall as the humans we know.”

For a moment, the other girl looked a bit stunned by that before slowly nodding. “I guess it’s not any more impossible than anything else. But what does that mean? We still don’t know how we got here.”

Before I could say anything in response to that, some of the words on the hologram began to flash red.

“What—what does that mean?” Shiori stepped closer, pointing to the flashing words a bit worriedly.

“I’m not–” That was all I was able to get out before the hologram abruptly vanished. The laser that had been projected from the diamond disappeared too, and as I looked back, the tiny light that had been in the gem faded entirely, like a dying light-bulb. “I’m guessing those words meant ‘out of batteries.’”

Shiori winced. “Can we, umm, replace it or something?”

Shaking my head while giving the now-dull diamond another quick glance, I admitted, “I’m not sure. Let’s look around and find out.” I turned to look at the three different doorways that were spread around the chamber. There was one toward the back of the left side, one in the center behind the throne, and one around the middle of the right wall. “Which one do you think we should take first?”

“Ummm….” Shiori looked uncertain, glancing from one doorway for a few seconds to the next before pointing to the center door. “Almighty God Moe of the Eenie Meenie pantheon says we go that way.”

“Good enough,” I replied before tugging my phone out. “One sec. Even if we can’t get service,” I spoke while holding the phone up in front of the throne. “That doesn’t mean the camera doesn’t work.”

I took several pictures of the throne from all sides, as well as one of the pillars, the diamond up close, and a few of the statues. I wanted to record as much of this place as possible, just in case we needed it. And because, damn it, I was on an alien world (or an alien dimension), I wanted to take some pictures!

After that, the two of us went to the center doorway. The corridor beyond was, just like the rest of this place, oversized. Even then, it looked like it would still be a bit of a cramped fit for the people the size of those statues. Not impassably so or anything, but still, this corridor was clearly not built for comfort.

It was also dark. I started to hold up Herbie, then paused and took the time to redo the spell. Better to do it now than run out of light down there in the middle of the dark corridor full of who knew what.

After that, I turned toward the far end of the room and pointed at a pile of sand that had collected near the entrance. I could just barely make it out in the moonslight there. A moment after I stretched my hand out, a pile of large sand came floating obediently over to us. I let most of it fall, then shaped the rest into a miniature version of the actual throne, adding a slight hole that Herbie fit into snugly.

“There,” I announced while letting go of it and stepping away. The sand throne floated there with the steadily glowing Herbie surveying his domain. “Now that’s what I call a once and future king.”

Shiori snickered a little bit, reaching a hand up to brush over the throne. “Nice craftsmanship.”

“Whoa.” I blinked, tilting my head. “Do that again. Wait, don’t.” I turned away from the sand throne while focusing on making it continue floating. “Touch it, but don’t tell me when you’re going to.”

After a few seconds, I felt it again. A sort of… minor pressure from that direction. “Whoa,” I repeated. “I felt that. Well, not really felt so much as just knew you were touching it. Try pressing different fingers against it, but don’t tell me how many you’re gonna use.” Waiting another moment, I felt the distant pressure again, and closed my eyes to focus on it. “Two… no wait, three fingers. One near the top and the other two on the bottom.” The pressure changed. “Now just the two on the bottom. Right?”

“Holy crap, Flick,” Shiori was shaking her head at me when I looked back, lowering her hands away from Herbie’s throne. “So you don’t just move sand, you can actually feel stuff through it?”

Shrugging, I nodded. “Guess so. Pretty cool, huh?” Gesturing with one hand, I made more sand rise off the floor and added little wings to Herbie’s throne. “Let’s see if we can find another diamond battery.”

We started down the corridor then, and I brought along the rest of the sand I’d grabbed, just in case. When we got home, I was going to see if I could get another extra-dimensional storage container like the one for my staff, just so I could fill it with as much sand as possible. It never hurt to be prepared.

The corridor went on for about three hundred feet. Every hundred feet or so, there was an open doorway on the left and right sides, and each of the rooms beyond looked identical. There were four statues in each, along with what looked like an array of weaponry set against the walls. Mostly oversized rifles, but there was the occasional gigantic sword or spear as well.

“I’m getting a weird feeling,” Shiori confided after we’d looked at the sixth such room. “Why would they have this place set up like this? So many statues… are you sure it’s not like, a Medusa thing or something?”

I winced at the thought. “Uhh, I hope not, considering how much I smacked that statue by the entrance around.”

That’s why you hope it’s not true?” she asked, disbelieving. “Not the part where there’s a monster running around that’ll turn us to stone if we look at it?”

“Actually, that part pretty much terrifies me,” I admitted before shrugging. “But if there is, we’ll just have to deal with it when the time comes. It’s obviously not anywhere near here, or it would’ve come running by now.”

We moved on to the end of the corridor then. It was a T junction, the way curving left and right. I looked both ways, then held my hand up and sent some of my sand flying down the left corridor, focusing on making it continue to fly even after it left my sight. It took a lot more concentration that way, and I was glad that Shiori was around to watch my back.

“Done,” I announced a few seconds later. “I think that hall’s about half the size of this one.” After quick repeat of the same motion to the right I added, “And that one’s twice as long. Best guess.”

“Short one first?” Shiori suggested.

“Short one first,” I agreed before starting that way. Herbie continued to float alongside us on his new throne, his light casting away the darkness like the proud and powerful champion that he was.

The short corridor was even narrower than the first. Someone the size of those statues would almost have to squeeze to get through it. There were no doorways until the very end, when we finally found one that led into a remarkably modern looking room. Actually, scratch modern, this place looked downright futuristic. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all this pale blue metal, perfectly smooth. There was an odd, ongoing humming throughout the room. There were what looked like computer monitors all along the far wall with more of that alien script running across them.

Plus, the moment we stepped into the room, lights along the edges of the ceiling lit up, illuminating the whole room for us, was another stone figure. This one, however, was much smaller than the others. Smaller than Shiori and I were, actually. It looked like the statue of a young boy, maybe twelve years old.

While Shiori investigated the small statue, I stepped over to the row of computer monitors. There was an icon in the middle of one of the screens. It was a glowing purple symbol that looked a bit like a four-leaf clover with a thick stem in the middle. One at a time, each of the four ‘leafs’ pulsed a little brighter than the others.

“I’m about to do something that might be stupid,” I informed Shiori. “Keep an eye on the doorway, okay?”

With that, I reached up to touch the screen. When I pressed my fingers against one of the leafs in the symbol, the pulsing stopped and the symbol itself seemed to grow a little bit larger, attaching itself to my finger. I pulled it up and away, and that part of the ‘clover’ vanished.

I repeated that three more times, dismissing each of the four leaves. Then the purple stem in the middle turned blue. I touched that and it seemed to be able to slide upward, so I did just that, pushing it up and away.

The monitors went black. A moment later, there was a rumble throughout the entire building.

“Uhhhh,” Shiori looked back at me from the entrance. “What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew,” I admitted, stepping over to join her. “Maybe we should head back to the front and see if–”

“A-are you Joselyn?”

The voice was coming from behind us. Shiori and I spun around, hands going for our weapons.

It was the boy. He was standing there, blinking a bit sleepily. The stone was gone entirely, leaving him looking like… well like an ordinary human kid. He had blonde hair and a sweet, cherubic face that I might have cooed over before my experience with Ammon.

Then I remembered what he’d said. “Joselyn?”

The boy started to nod, before another voice spoke up from the corridor where we had just been. “No, Friend-Tristan,” the voice rumbled loudly. “They are neither Friend-Joselyn Atherby.”

Turning slowly, I stared up at the nine-foot tall gray haired man who held a rifle pointed at us. He was flanked by four more of his friends, and I could see more in the corridor.

“So why has our emergency alert beacon brought you to us instead, Unknown-Humans?”

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The Next Step 8-05

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I was inspecting the statue, impressed by the incredibly detailed likeness (or at least, as much of the detail as I could make out in the light from the stars and the dual moons), while Shiori stared at me for a solid thirty seconds or so. When she spoke, her voice was dull with surprise. “Um, new question. What exactly did your mother do that made someone build a statue of her on another world?”

Shrugging at her while glancing that way, I replied, “Like I said, she was part of some big rebellion. As far as I can tell, she was fighting for the rights of Alters, trying to prove they weren’t all evil monsters.”

Something caught my eye then, and I stooped to find my phone where it had apparently fallen when I went tumbling down in here. Brushing the sand off it, I started to put the phone away before reconsidering. Sure, the SOS signal wasn’t supposed to work across worlds, but there was no harm in at least trying, was there? I took the time to trigger the alert, just in case it might help, before looking back to the other girl. “Are you okay?”

A slight frown had furrowed itself onto Shiori’s brow. “Alters are—oh, right, you said that’s what they call themselves instead of Strangers.” She fell silent, shifting herself from foot to foot with a hesitant look.

“Technically, the term includes Heretics too,” I pointed out while brushing my hand over the statue. It felt like polished metal. “They consider us to be Alters. Just, you know, incredibly violent ones. Not that,” I amended, “there’s a lack of incredibly violent Alters already. They just see us as another set.”

Another thought struck me then, and I flinched, closing my eyes for a moment. “Like those sand-goblins. What if… I don’t know, what if they were just protecting this place? What if we could have talked things out with them somehow, explained things to them? I mean, they saw Heretics and attacked, but we don’t know if that’s because they were evil or because they were scared of us.”

The other girl was silent at first before speaking up. “They attacked us first. We protected ourselves.”

My head nodded quickly. “I know, I get it. We have to protect ourselves. And just because some Alters are good, doesn’t mean they all are. Asenath made that pretty clear. But if there was any way to talk to them, any way to… to actually communicate and tell them that we weren’t here to fight…”

When Shiori spoke, her voice was thoughtful. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you? You really don’t think Strangers—Alters, whatever, you don’t think they’re evil. You’re not just saying that.”

“Of course I mean it,” I replied quickly. “My mother believed it. She thought it was worth going to war over. I… I guess I just wish I knew more. I wish I knew how Mom talked to them, how she pulled them together into some big rebellion. I feel like there’s this whole person I never knew about until now, a person who fought other Heretics to protect the… people that she thought of as innocent.”

Shiori approached then, pressing her hand against the statue of my mother. There was still a hesitant, uncertain look in her eyes while she gazed upward. “But why did your mom do all that? Why did she fight them? They were her… classmates, her teachers, her friends. There’s no way that everyone she cared about actually joined her. Turning against them, fighting a war? That would’ve meant fighting a lot of those people, even killing them. How could she do that without… without going insane?”

I shook my head at that. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about her to say. I wanna say she did it because it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know what led her to it. I wish I did. I wish there was some book I could read that would tell me what made my mom start leading a rebellion.”

She looked away, clearly thinking about something briefly before turning back. “Us showing up here, it has to have something to do with her, right? There… this can’t be a coincidence.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “The odds of us just happening to be teleported to another world right on top of a place that has a statue of my mother in front of it… I don’t think there’s a word for how unlikely of a coincidence that would be. Someone wanted us to show up here. Which, okay, but where are they?”

Shiori shrugged helplessly at that. “Maybe something happened? Or maybe someone wants to show you something here.”

“Well good,” I acknowledged. “Because I really want to know more about my Mom. But you didn’t ask to be dragged along with me. Hell, the last time I went looking for information, my team did ask to go with and I nearly got half of them eaten by zombies just so I could find out Mom’s got a couple other kids running around out there somewhere. Not that you’ll even remember me saying that, because–”

“Your mom’s got other kids? You mean besides that… that Ammon freak that you were talking about?” Shiori interrupted, her eyes snapping from the statue to me. “You didn’t mention that part before.”

Blinking, I opened my mouth and then shut it. “Err… you remember me saying that? Hold on. My mother had two other children, twins, a boy and a girl. They were taken in by the Heretics after she was imprisoned.” Staring at the girl with wide eyes, I pressed, “You actually heard me say all that?”

Shiori was looking at me like I was crazy. Which was probably fair. “Yes? What’s wrong with you?”

I slumped sideways against the statue, thinking about that. “Remember how I said that there’s a spell that erased my mother from people’s memories? It also takes certain details, like what I just said, and makes anyone who doesn’t hear about them inside a protected area like the security room immediately forget as soon as they hear it. Which means either this place is protected, or the spell doesn’t reach across worlds. We couldn’t even tell Avalon or Sean about Mom’s other children, since they weren’t in the security room when we read the files. Every time we tried, the memory was just erased instantly.”

“Does that mean my memory’s going to be era–” Shiori stopped, shaking her head. “I guess not. You remember it. So the spell only works if you learn the information within the area it’s affecting?”

Nodding, I pushed away from the statue. “That’s the way I understand it, anyway.” Turning, I looked at the entrance into the formerly buried building. “There’s gotta be more information about my mom in there.” Part of me wanted to rush inside immediately, but I glanced back to my companion. “I’m going to check it out, see if I can find anything. But if you want to stay out here, just in case, I get it.”

For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. She just stood there, biting her lip as a plethora of emotions played out across her face. I could see the turbulent thoughts going on behind her eyes as she debated inwardly with herself before finally letting out a long breath. “No.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “I–” She trailed off, searching for the right words before finally managing a weak, “I’m tired of being scared. You… I dunno if you’re right, but…” The other girl trailed off, mouth working a few times as she tried to express what she was trying to say. In the end, she just shrugged. “I’ll stay with you.”

She looked embarrassed about her inability to put her thoughts into words and say what she felt, but I just nodded and gave her the best encouraging smile I could. “Okay, but I get to be Indiana Jones. I called it. You can be–” My head tilted curiously. “Wait, would calling you Short Round be racist?”

Looking down at herself and then back up again, Shiori actually managed a tiny little smile. It really made her face look even prettier when she wasn’t so scared and nervous. “Maybe. Are you sure you don’t want to be called Lara? This place does sort of look like it might be a tomb, after all. Then I could be Samantha.”

“Ain’t neither of us got the boobs for that,” I retorted. “We need the Queen of Cleavage.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed easily, though her voice was still a little shaky. “It’d be nice if Avalon was here too. She’s a badass. Or Aylen and Sovereign. Or Gavin. Even Koren. I–” She looked a little stricken then, for just a second. “They’ve been trying to help me, but I haven’t listened. I think… I’m pretty sure they think I don’t like them. But I do, it’s just that, every time I started to think about being friends–”

“I get it,” I said quietly, fuming inwardly about what this girl had been going through, how much the teachings from Crossroads had messed her up. And the odds of her being the only one like this, the only half-Alter who was turned into a Heretic were pretty low. How many students had gone through the whole four years feeling the same way Shiori had for just a few months? How many had gotten themselves killed, or even done the job themselves, just because Crossroads told them they were evil?

Forcing that anger down so that I could focus on what was important right this moment, I reached out and caught the other girl’s hand. The right words wouldn’t come, so all I could do was squeeze a little.

We stood there like that for a few seconds before Shiori turned to point at the doorway. “If we’re going in there, you should probably move that.” There was still a pile of sand in the way. There were gaps here and there that we could see through into what looked like a wide room, but they were too small to actually fit through. We were going to have to clear the path a little more before we could get inside.

I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you killed some, didn’t you? So you should be able to do it too.”

She blinked at me. “You mean you didn’t—oh, right, you didn’t see.” Stepping back a bit, she explained, “I umm, I got a different upgrade than you.” While I watched, she bit her lip in concentration. After about ten seconds or so, I saw her figure blur a bit, before her skin turned rough. Before long, it looked like a sand-statue of Shiori was standing there. She looked at me, brought her hand up and waved it around, then shifted back into her own self. “See? Not the same thing.”

“Same or not, it’s pretty damn impressive,” I pointed out with a laugh. “God, you turn your body into sand, Shiori. I’m controlling sand. How? Because we both just killed a few sand-goblin creatures after being transported away from our Island School to a new world. How absurd are our lives right now?”

I was rewarded with another tiny smile before Shiori coughed. “You should move the sand now.”

It took me a minute to get all of it out of the way. There was a lot of sand piled up in front of that doorway, and it seemed like I could only lift about fifty pounds at a time. Which was still freaking amazing, and I might have spent some of that time making the sand do loops in the air just to show off. Because seriously, come on, I was making sand move with my mind. It was insane, and awesome.

It was the thought of actually finding out more about my mother inside that building that made me focus in the end. Pushing the last of the sand out of the way, I took a breath, glanced toward Shiori to give the other girl an encouraging thumbs up, and then stepped through the uncovered entrance.

Shiori joined me, and the two of us found ourselves standing in what appeared to be an enormous room. I had to guess a bit at the scale, since the small bit of moonlight (moonslight?) that was coming in through the doorway wasn’t nearly enough to reveal all of it. The cavernous space in front of us was still mostly engulfed in shadows, leaving a single line of light from the entrance that revealed a pristine floor that looked like it was made out of polished crystal or something. Even with the small amount of light hitting it, the floor gleamed. Throughout the parts of the room that the light strove to illuminate, I could see the shapes of what looked like pillars. And far off in the distance, so far the moonslight couldn’t hope to reach it, there was something glittering, another tiny source of light in the pitch darkness. It almost looked like a single star set against an otherwise totally empty night sky.

Beside me, Shiori shivered, her hesitant voice breaking the silence. “This place looks creepy.” Her voice echoed through the room, the effect making it sound like there were whispers all around us.

Glancing toward the other girl, I quickly asked, “How much can you see? I mean, you heard those sand-goblins a long time before I did, so I’m guessing your night vision is better than mine too.”

Even now, I saw the way she flinched. Calling attention to her exceptional senses still made the girl at least somewhat reflexively panic. Her mouth opened with what would obviously be a quick denial before she caught herself. I watched quietly while she fought back the urge, still looking worried.

“Hey,” I put a hand on her arm. “Your senses are amazing. That helps us now, Shiori. Are we alone?”

Biting her lip, the Asian girl steeled herself for a second before looking around once more. I saw her eyes scan over the entire room before she nodded. “As far as I can tell. I mean, it’s not perfectly light for me either. There’s still shadows and stuff, but… I think it’s clear. For now anyway. I’m pretty sure there’s doorways over that way, that way, and that way.” She pointed three different directions.

I nodded. “As long as we’ve got a little time to work with. Because,” Digging into my pocket, I felt around before producing Herbie. “There’s more than one way to see what’s going on in this room.”

I could see Shiori’s eyebrow raise in the dim light that cast shadows over her face. “Your pet rock?”

Smiling, I gave the rock a little pat with a couple fingers. “Remember the light spell we’ve been learning? There’s no reason it shouldn’t work on my little buddy.” Closing my eyes then, I focused.

The words that directed the spell came easily. “Ilecus duven seran.” I had no idea what the words actually meant, since they were apparently from some alien language. But even as I spoke them, I could feel the power tug its way out of me, searching for a target. I directed it into the rock in my palm.

Saying the words, starting the spell, that was only the start of it. Enchanting something meant opening a connection between yourself and an object. In this case, me and Herbie. The spell itself determined the effect that the target was being enchanted with. In this case, I wanted Herbie to glow. From that point, the brightness of the light would depend on how much power I put into it, and the duration would depend on how long I kept charging it. If I only let out a little bit of power, a trickle from the hose, the light would be dim.

On the other hand, if I kept that trickle going for several minutes, that dim light would last for hours. If I invested a lot of power all at once, turning the hose up to full blast, the light would be very bright. But I only had so much energy that I could put into enchanting things, especially as new as I was.

Which meant that it was a balancing act between making the light bright enough to see, and making it last long enough to matter. I settled on making it about as bright as a normal flashlight, and made it last about twenty minutes. If we weren’t done looking around by then, I could redo the spell. This was a good enough for a start.

Eventually, I finished the spell and triggered it with a thought. Herbie immediately began to glow like a lantern, and I smiled while holding him up over my head. “There we go. Now let’s see what we’ve got.”

My impression had been right. The room, itself so enormous it was probably bigger than an actual football field, was lined with floor to ceiling pillars that divided the room into thirds, with the middle part being some kind of walkway that led straight from the doorway to the back of the room, where something that looked an awful lot like a throne sat.

“We’re in some kind of royal court or something,” I announced slowly, listening as my words were bounced around by the room’s acoustics, creating that whispering effect from both sides.

It really was a royal court, or the equivalent. The whole room, dim as it might have been even in the light from Herbie, radiated wealth and power. The pillars looked like they were made out of some kind of highly polished jade, and the ceiling that stretched high above our heads reflected the light from Herbie back down at us. All throughout the room, I saw various statues of people I didn’t recognize, though they looked human.

And in the back of the room, there was that throne. The tiny twinkling light I’d seen earlier was even more apparent now. The throne itself had some kind of diamond embedded in the back of it that seemed to produce a little bit of its own light.

“Well,” I started, looking around the room a bit more to see the various doorways that Shiori had mentioned. “I guess the only way we’re gonna find out what brought us here and how to get home is by exploring this place. Ready, Short Round?”

“Sure thing, Dr. Jones,” Shiori shot back in a decent impersonation of the character.

“But if we run into a guy ripping people’s hearts out of their chests, I am leaving.

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Basic Training 7-05

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“Come on, Chambers, move it, move it!” Professor Katarin bellowed at the top of his lungs (I hoped), his voice echoing over the grounds from the top of the hill near the main building. “Don’t tell me you’re tired, cuz we all know that’s a damn lie! Pick up the pace, let’s go! Moon, you too, keep running!”

It was Thursday morning, and today’s Introduction to Combat class had started out with a brisk jog around the school grounds, just to warm everyone up. From there, Katarin had led us to the bottom of the hill, pointed to the top, and told us that we were going to be running wind sprints. Only in this case, it would be up the hill and back down again, over and over until he thought we’d had enough.

Knowing Katarin as we did by that point, most of us figured that things wouldn’t be nearly that simple, so even as we started out, there were a lot of cautious glances. The man had a reputation for starting what seemed like a relatively mundane exercise, and then transforming it partway through into something that could only be described as completely insane. He called it keeping things interesting.

Still, it was good exercise, and the man was great at his job. Maybe just a little enthusiastic in his creativity. He was definitely making every effort to both get us in shape and teach us how to fight.

Columbus was a little behind me, panting as we made our fifth trip up the hill. I was deliberately slowing myself down so that he could keep up, and apparently Professor Katarin had noticed.

“So… damn…. jealous.” Columbus complained just as we reached the top and leaned over to touch the red tape that Katarin had laid down across the width of our running area. Somehow, the tape registered whose fingers touched it and how many times. That way, Katarin could make absolutely sure he knew exactly how many repetitions each person had done, and call them over when they’d done enough. Plus it stopped anyone from being able to cheat while the man’s attention was on a different part of the hill.

“Hey,” I called back pivoting around. “Just be glad you guys got the upgrade from those chamrosh. Imagine how tired you’d be if you didn’t have that.” While the bird-dog things hadn’t given my teammates quite as much of a stamina gift as I’d gotten from the amarok, they still seemed to help a lot.

“Well then!” Katarin called out from what sounded like an inch from my ear, as loud as he was. “If you people are feeling bored enough to chatter, I guess it’s time to make this a little more interesting!”

His words were met by groans combined with a few scowls in our direction. Whoops. Not that I felt too bad. Katarin would have upped the ante on the exercise any minute any way. It was what he did.

“All right, people,” the man went on, the smirk obvious in his tone. “You showed me you can hustle. Now let’s see you keep that hustle and pay attention to your surroundings. Sinclaire, your left!”

An instant after he spoke, something popped up out of the ground near Avalon. It looked like almost like a tetherball pole, about seven feet tall. One second it wasn’t there, and in the next second, fwoosh, it shot up into place. A second after that, two horizontal wooden sticks about four feet long popped out of opposite the sides of the post. One was around five feet and the other around one foot. As soon as they appeared, the post spun around several times in a row, the wooden sticks making whistling noises.

Avalon reacted by doing this little side flip that brought her over the lower stick, while keeping herself low enough that the higher stick didn’t smack her in the face as it whipped around into position. The flip put her just barely out of its range before she turned to watch the spinning thing with the rest of us.

“My little friends here are stationed all over this hill,” Katarin announced. “You will keep running. When they pop out, they will give you a second to react and then they will spin. When you get hit, and you will get hit, you will keep moving. Do you understand? We are not keeping score, we are not even counting the hits, not this time. What I am counting is how many of you give up because you get a little hurt. Remember, the peridles will heal anything these little sticks can do, so keep running.”

As a group, we all looked at one another just long enough for Katarin to bellow, “Let’s go, move it!”

So we did. The uphill wind sprints continued, this time with the added fun of being randomly attacked by spinning sticks popping up out of the ground without warning. We dodged where we could, some more effective than others, but everyone was hit eventually. The sticks stung, but as Katarin had said, the healing from the peridles made sure it didn’t last that long. It was bad enough to want to avoid being hit by them, but not so bad that it would actually do real, lasting damage.

Just another gym class on an island full of monster hunters-in-training.

******

A few hours later, once classes had ended for the day, the whole team was sitting out on the grass, near to the beach but still within range of the temperature shield. I could see tropical birds flying overhead, and heard vague hints of the heavily muted jungle sounds coming from the nearby trees. Herbie sat on the grass beside me, his little plastic toy sword replaced with the metal one that Columbus had made. The little guy was keeping a wary eye out, and I was sure he’d let us know if anyone approached.

In the distance, we could see Shiori’s team being put through some kind of training drill by Andrew. At the moment, Aylen was dueling Stephen. The Native American girl was fighting hand to hand while Stephen had his spear, though we’d watched Andrew work some kind of spell over the end of it to dull the blade before they’d started. Almost like he was an actually competent mentor. I’m sure it was a real treat.

Sovereign, Aylen’s mechanical hawk, was circling over head, but thus far hadn’t actually contributed other than to make loud screeing noises now and again as if he was giving advice.

As we watched, Stephen whipped his spear around. Aylen stepped in close, ducked the spear, and popped him in the face with a quick jab that barely connected. She tried to follow it up with a more solid hit, but Stephen’s spear suddenly whipped through the same space it had already passed through, knocking the girl down. She hit the grass and rolled back to her feet.

Wait. No, Stephen was still holding his spear outstretched. The one that had swung through the air disappeared a second after it had finished the swing. What?

As if in answer to my silent question, the boy took a step back, swinging his spear in a complicated maneuver while Aylen danced in and out, looking for an opening. The spear spun up and then around, twirling in a brief protective move before he stopped, pulling the spear back to his chest.

A moment later, a different spear appeared out of nowhere, copying that same maneuver. Before it had finished, another one appeared, and so on. Apparently Stephen’s spear was able to duplicate itself performing its own maneuvers. He swung it once, recorded the move, and then his spear could manifest new versions of itself swinging in that same spot over and over again. Which meant that while you were fighting him, you didn’t just have to watch for where his spear was currently swinging. You had to watch everywhere it had already been.

Aylen was still moving, watching for an opening while Sovereign flew overhead, calling down his own guidance. Yet no matter where the girl stepped, Stephen’s spear was there. He added a protective swipe here and there to cut her off, which kept repeating themselves whenever she tried to get close.

Finally, Aylen gave a sharp whistle. Sovereign came swooping down, talons extended. Yet instead of attacking Stephen the way I figured he would, the hawk seemed to practically plow directly into his owner’s back. Aylen was knocked forward a step as the mechanical bird attached himself to her. His wings folded in under her arms to cross in front of her chest, while his body was flat against her back with his beak upright pointed to the sky directly behind her head.

For a second, it looked like the girl was wearing a special backpack or something. Then the hawk reshaped itself. Metal plates slid out of its body and wings, more than I thought could actually fit inside the animal. They continued to slide and rotate, locking themselves into position until most of the actual bird shape was gone, and Aylen herself was completely covered in a metal suit that hugged her figure. Only her face was left exposed. And a second later, the birds head slid up over the top of hers while more metal plates slid down from the beak, forming a protective helmet over every spot except her eyes. Finally, the birds own eyes lowered into place over Aylen’s before they widened to form lenses for the helmet.

Stephen tried to use his spear, but he’d hesitated too long. The blow glanced off the metal armor, and Aylen was able to push right through the duplicated spears that kept trying to knock her back, easily catching Stephen by the arm before taking him to the ground.

“Dude,” I nudged Columbus with my foot. “I think you just found your Colossus.”

“I can totally live with that,” the boy replied, still staring in awe for a few more seconds before forcing himself to look back toward the rest of us. “Anyway, uhh, right. Let’s go through it one thing at a time. What’s everything we already know we need to do? I mean, besides dealing with a psychopathic necromancer with a Flick obsession.”

“We need to find out if Sands’ and Scout’s father has my mother’s weapons stored away,” I pointed out with a glance toward the twins. I still wasn’t sure how they felt about sneaking behind their dad’s back.

“We’ll take care of it,” Sands replied with an unhappy sigh. “If they’re anywhere in our place, we’ll find them. But I still don’t think he’d have them. Why wouldn’t he just turn them over after he got them?”

I nodded. “He might’ve. But we need to be sure. And even if he did, he went out of his way to get them back. So he might have some other record or something. Maybe a picture with my mother, maybe a note, maybe… anything. So you’ll have to be thorough. Can you do it without letting him know?”

This time, Sands snorted. A slight smile played at her mouth in spite of her obvious uncertainty about the general situation. “You clearly don’t know us well enough, Flick. I may not totally agree with all of this, but if there’s one thing Scout and I know how to do, it’s sneaking around without Dad finding out about it. Let’s just say we spent our childhood figuring out how to get even with all the people who thought they were so much better than us because they were students and we weren’t allowed to be yet. You know, glue here, dye in the shower there. Silly stuff. But we did learn how to get around most of the alarm spells and other things that they stick up around here. Especially the ones that Dad makes.”

Sean spoke up then while rolling a metal ball around in his hand as Vulcan watched intently. “You said you wanted to talk to Deveron’s roommate, didn’t you? “ He reared back and threw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it. “Did you ever get around to that? Anything come out of it?”

It was Avalon’s turn to look just a little bit embarrassed, shifting her weight slightly. “Ah, no. Not really. Turns out you’re gonna have to be the one to talk to him if we want any information.”

Vulcan came running back with the metal ball in his mouth. He dropped it into Sean’s hand, and the boy reared back before throwing it again as he replied with a raised eyebrow. “Me? Why me?”

Avalon gave him a look. “Let’s just say I managed to get him alone, but my method of persuasion was ineffective. Judging from his reaction, I’m pretty sure that you’d have more luck.”

Scout got it first, hiding a giggle behind her hand just before Sean barked out a single laugh. “You think—oh, right.” Without a hint of shame, the boy heaved a put-upon sigh. “Well, if I must, I guess I’ll gussy myself up and see what I can find out. Honestly, you people only keep me around for my body.”

“That’s not true,” I argued. “You’re the one that brings Vulcan. We’ve gotta keep you to have him.” At the sound of his name, Vulcan came over with the metal ball in his mouth, sniffing at me a little eagerly. With a smile, I accepted the ball from him and gave it a toss. The mechanical dog gave a loud bark of excitement, leaned up to lick my face with a cold metallic tongue before bounding off again.

“Uh, should I even ask why his tongue’s actually wet?” I asked while rubbing a palm over my face. “Or what it’s wet with?” I looked at my hand briefly before drying it off on the grass.

“Guess they want him to be realistic,” Sean replied with an easy shrug. “You know, except for that whole folding up into a minigun thing. Pretty sure there’s not a lot of dogs that do that.”

Avalon was shaking her head. “Fine, you’ve got the lazy asshole’s roommate. Let us know what you can get out of him. But there’s also that whole security room thing.” Her eyes moved to me then.

I groaned, nodding as I resisted the urge to fall onto my back. “Like I said, that’s not gonna be easy. I’ve walked past there a few times already and someone’s always in there. Plus, you know, there’s all those alarms on the place. If anyone goes in there that they don’t know about, I don’t think we’d be able to take two steps before half the faculty came down on our heads. For some silly reason they actually take security seriously around here. Which I’m sure is a good thing, but it’s kind of annoying right now.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “If you go out at night, the security guys go on patrol once every two hours. Should give you at least fifteen minutes in the room without company. And uh, we could teach you how to disable the alarm spells so you don’t attract attention, but you’d have to know where they were for that to do any good. See, Scout and I used to spend weeks tracking down the exact spots where the alarm enchantments were cast so we could disable them. You’ll have minutes, not weeks. And I don’t know any way to find them any quicker.”

“Actually, uhh, I might be able to help with that.” It was Columbus’s turn to speak up as he raised a hand. “I was messing with my goggle settings in the lab on Monday night during track class, and I sort of found a setting that highlights magic stuff. It uhh, took me awhile to figure out what it was, but yeah, it makes all these glowing line things where magic is. It’s kind of cool. I should be able to point the alarm lines out to you pretty quick. You know, assuming we actually get there without getting caught.”

“Maybe we should go too,” Sands pointed out. “Instead of just teaching you how to do it. Scout and me, we know how to take the alarm spells down quick, once we know where they are.”

I hesitated, but nodded in the end. “Okay, if you’re sure. You don’t have to. This thing is sort of my big issue. You guys sure you wanna take the risk of getting caught sneaking into the security room?”

Sands shook her head. “Hey, you’re our teammate. And our friend. Plus, Deveron’s a jerk and I wanna know why. Like I said, we’ve been waiting a long time for this. Getting a pathetic, lazy mentor wasn’t part of the plan. I want someone that’ll actually help us, damn it. So figuring out what the hell’s wrong with him and why he keeps acting that way now? That’s definitely something we want to be part of.”

“Did you know him last year?” I suddenly asked, tilting my head. “Back when they said he was this amazing student. Top of his class, all that stuff. Did you guys see him around? Was he… that different?”

The twins exchanged glances before nodding emphatically. Sands scowled. “You have no idea, dude. Seriously. That guy was the top of practically everything. He was amazing. I Thought… you know, when I found out he was gonna be our mentor, I was kind of happy. Hell, that’s why Scout and I went out to the lighthouse that first day, cuz we wanted to see what he was doing.” Her scowl darkened a little further. “Turns out his Hyde stuffed his Jekyll in a closet over the summer and we ended up standing around with you guys while that lazy jerk took off. Would you believe I actually thought he was trying to teach something?”

Wincing, I cleared my throat. “Okay, so, the four of us? I hope we can get in and out before they get back. Especially since we’ve gotta read everything we find in the room. Can’t take anything out of there or that damn spell will just make sure we can’t read what’s on them anymore, so they’ll be useless.”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “Sean and I will make sure you have enough time.” When the boy looked at her, she gave him a humorless smile. “Assuming you’re not afraid of being a distraction, of course. If being chased by security scares you too much, I’ll just do it all by myself.”

“Me?” Sean gave an exaggerated gasp of offense. “Afraid? Why, I never.” Lifting his chin, the boy added, “You sure your mom won’t be upset if you end up in detention for being out after hours?”

He was kidding, but I saw the way Avalon flinched a little bit before resuming her stoic expression. “She’ll be okay. I’ll tell her the truth as soon as we can, and well, we’ll talk it out. Right now, what’s important is getting into that room and finding out what’s on those records as soon as we can.”

“Scout and I can show you some places you can hide if you need to,” Sands put in. “We used them to hide from security whenever we wanted to go where we weren’t supposed to. Or, you know, whenever someone we were pranking happened to come back early and get all upset or whatever. They’re these, uhh, hidden room things. I dunno what they’re for, but they’re really useful when you’re being chased.”

“Hidden rooms that even security doesn’t know about?” I asked with a blink. “Is that possible? Wait, how did you guys find them then?”

The twins shrugged, and Sands replied, “All I know is they never found us when we hid in there. As to how we found them, well, when you’re bored and wandering around this place for years, you tend to touch a lot of things. You find stuff you’re not supposed to. Stuff other people don’t know about. Like those hidden rooms.”

“Either way, it’s convenient for us,” Avalon announced, which I was pretty sure was her way of congratulating the twins for being incredibly useful. “The question is, when do we do it?”

Aww, she was totally softening up! It hadn’t been that long since she would have just flat out told us when we should be there and what we were going to do.

“Tomorrow night?” I offered, looking around the team. “It’ll be Friday, so we can stay out late without sleeping through classes.”

“Tomorrow works for me,” Sean agreed. The rest of the group nodded, and I let out a long breath. Tomorrow night. Whatever was in that security room, whatever answers were recorded there, we would find them tomorrow night.

Hold on, Mom, I thought to myself. We’ll find answers.

And then we’ll find you.

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Basic Training 7-04

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“Could I ask you a few questions, Pro—errr, umm, Nevada?”

It was a couple hours later. After our cross-country field trip (and how amazing would it be if every school could just walk through a door and end up on whole new continent for an hourly field trip like it was nothing?), we’d gone on through Introduction to Heretical Magic and Stranger Truths 101. Now that class was over, but I’d told the others to go on to lunch without me while I talked to the teacher.

Nevada, looking as bubbly as ever, perked up even more. “A question? Oooh, I do love answering questions!” She stood from the desk, looking like she could barely restrain the urge to clap. Instead, the woman (who still looked like she was barely older than me), asked, “What can I do for you, Flick?”

I’d spent most of the class hour rehearsing what I wanted to ask her and in what order. “Professor Ross took us to ‘s-Hertogenbosch.” I was careful to pronounce the name of the city the way the teacher had.

Nevada’s thousand watt smile brightened even further at that. “Oh! I bet that was fun and interesting. I remember my first time there. Did you get a chance to have one of the Bossche bollen?” When I shook my head, she gasped. “No? Aww, you have to go back and get one. They’re these chocolate pastry balls with whipped cream inside. Seriously, Flick, they’re almost as big as a baseball. You’ve gotta try them.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before pressing on. “But why do they leave that rope just sitting there? I mean, why do they leave the hangman demon’s rope hanging from that tree like that? It seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it?” I had other questions, but the feeling that rope had given me made it the first on my mind. And I wanted to work my way up to the others after seeing how she reacted to this.

Nevada paused, a slight flinch marring that perfectly cheerful expression for a split second before she let out a long breath. “You wanna know why that rope is still there, huh? Well, because it’s cursed.”

“Cursed?” I echoed, frowning in spite of myself. “What do you mean, cursed? Like an enchantment?”

She cocked her head to the side a bit, considering. “A little, only this one’s permanent. You see—okay, we don’t have time for a full lesson, so I’ll give you the… what do bystanders call it, Clifford’s Notes?”

“Cliff’s notes,” I replied. “Close enough. Thank you, Pro—Nevada, I just really need to know.”

“Aww, darn.” Nevada shook her head slowly. “I thought it was Clifford’s notes and I liked picturing that big red dog telling short versions of all these books.” She gave a brief wistful sigh before shaking it off as she continued. “Okay, so here’s the short truth. The hangman demon is a sub-group of what we call Reapers. You know, as in the Grim? Reapers are these demons that are attracted to death. Like, super-attracted, they basically feed off of death. Most people think they actually absorb part of the dead person’s… soul or essence or whatever. They take in their memories, their past, their whole lives and add all those thoughts to their own collection. They’re like hoarders who collect people’s memories.”

I couldn’t help the slight shudder that came. “So what’s the difference between them and Hangmen?”

Nevada hesitated, drumming her fingers a little before she finally answered me. “The difference is that Reapers are willing to wait. They go where death happens to be and feeding when opportunity presents itself. Hangmen actually make those opportunities happen. See, the way the story goes, it started in Britain back in the fifth century, when the Germanic tribes introduced hanging to them. There was a public execution, and a man tried to stop it from happening. He was killed on the spot, and his death attracted a Reaper, who was feeding off of his, you know, memories while the actual execution happened. According to the story, the combination of seeing bystanders execute a healthy human being and absorbing the already dead man’s memories of, you know, how unjust and wrong that was actually changed the Reaper. It made him understand that he didn’t have to wait for death to happen.

“So the demon took the rope of the man who had been executed and used it to murder the executioner and three others. For the first time, the reaper made his own food. He became the first Hangman. And from there, he made more of it. He went from place to place recreating what had led to his change. Whether it was a personal choice or one magically enforced because of the exact situation that led to his change from Reaper to Hangman, well, people still debate that. But what we know is that he killed a lot of people, and every time he killed someone, that rope of his took in some of the… energy of their deaths, the same way the Hangman himself did. With every death, the rope grew more powerful. And as the Reaper introduced more of his own to these changes and more became Hangmen, they too took the ropes of the execution that they first witnessed and used them as their preferred tools of death.”

I swallowed hard in spite of myself. “Are other Strangers like that? Do they change because of things that humanity does, or concepts that humans introduce them to? Is that a common thing?”

“More common than you’d think,” Nevada admitted before sighing. “Anyway, to the point of your question, a Hangman’s rope is cursed. Anyone who takes it is infused with a completely irresistible urge to kill, to murder everyone they can in order to give the rope more power. No one can resist it.”

I almost exploded at that, “So why the hell is it just sitting out in the middle of nowhere tied to a tree?!”

Rather than chastise me for the outburst, Nevada replied simply, “Because we can’t move it, Flick. Like I said, anyone who takes it becomes a vicious murderer. That includes any method of transportation. Any attempt to move it makes the rope consider that person its new owner, and the urge to kill overwhelms them. Do you want someone like the Headmistress to risk moving it? As powerful as she is, if she was taken over by the rope’s murderous energy, how many of us would it take to stop her? How many of her own students would she kill to appease its hunger? It’s not worth the risk. So Bosch and the old Heretics did the best they could. They erected a magical barrier around the whole area that keeps Bystanders from noticing the rope, and prevents them from building up the land. You might’ve noticed that that whole area is still undeveloped. That’s because of the magic that makes them ignore it. Beyond that, there are the same enchantments around the rope itself that are around the Pathmaker building. So anyone approaching it anyway, like a student who can see through the first spell, or a Heretic that completely loses their mind, shouldn’t make it more than a few steps toward it. And if they do, there are at least two more lines of magic protecting the rope that I won’t detail to you right now.

“No one can move the rope without being seen as its new master and thus end up a murderous psychopath. So they did the best they could by making sure that no one could get close enough to take it.”

I almost asked her about the feeling I’d had, the sensation that had come over me when I looked at the rope back in that grove. But no one else had said anything about it. Avalon had even said that she hadn’t felt anything when she looked at it. Which meant that whatever the feeling was, it wasn’t normal.

“What about Stranger breeding?” I forced myself to change the subject, even as the very thought of the rope made me want to continue talking about it, almost like a compulsion. It took effort to push on to a different subject. “One time Sands said that one of the reasons people hate Eden’s Garden here is that they supposedly experiment in Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments. Why would you need to experiment? I mean, we’re practically Strangers ourselves, aren’t we? The Edge changes our genetics so that we can see Strangers, so that we can absorb their powers, so we can… do everything we do. Why wouldn’t we be able to procreate with certain Strangers anyway, at that point?”

Nevada winced once more, her bubbly expression dampened a bit. “Careful, Flick. Some people are really sensitive about that line of thought. They say that we use the demon magic, but we’re not overtaken by it. The idea that we’re so far not human that a Stranger could breed with us is a… a very harsh topic. There’s dangerous people on both sides of that debate. But the gist of the argument isn’t that breeding a Stranger and a Heretic is impossible, it’s that the offspring won’t be viable. The problem isn’t making an actual genetic match, it’s that, according to one side, any offspring will die shortly after being born. The experiments that Eden’s Garden gets into are to make those offspring live after birth.”

I thought about Ammon, about how dangerous he was, and couldn’t help the little shiver that came. But before I could say anything else, there was a short knock at the door and Professor Carfried poked his head in. “Hey, I was wondering if you had a chance to—oooh, sorry, am I interrupting something?”

Realizing that any other questions I had would have to wait, I shook my head. “No, sir. I should probably get to lunch anyway.” To Nevada, I managed a weak smile. “Thanks, that’s… helpful.”

“Of course, Flick,” she replied. “Let me know if you have any other questions, okay?”

Nodding slowly, I made my way past Professor Carfried and out the door. I had a couple of answers now, though not nearly enough to really do anything with. And I still had no idea why the rope had given me the feeling it had when nobody else had experienced it. Questions were still piling up.

And if I wanted to start really answering them, I needed to get busy.

******

Later that same night, I was making the first step of that effort by standing outside of the twins’ room about an hour before the three of us were supposed to report to track training (I’d missed the last one for my birthday visit). Forcing my nerves down, I raised a hand to knock on the door.

Scout was the one who opened the door. Her eyes flicked up to me and then the girl hesitated before nodding once. She stepped back out of the way a bit, gesturing for me to come into their room.

“Who is–” Sands started to ask before falling silent as I stepped into the room. She was sitting on her bed, looking at a box that was in her lap. When she saw me, the girl closed the lid of the box, setting it aside on the nearby dresser. “Oh, uhh, hi, Flick.” Her voice betrayed her own confused feelings.

“Hi,” I replied, pausing slightly before looking toward her sister. “Scout, umm, could I have a minute?” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock. “Herbie can keep you company.”

The quiet girl nodded quickly and shot her sister a brief glance before taking the little guy out of my hand as she stepped out to the hall. She closed the door after herself, leaving Sands and me alone in the suddenly very quiet room.

In the end, it was Sands who broke the silence. Without looking up, she asked, “Are you mad at me?”

The question made me blink. “Wha—mad? Why would—I was going to ask you the same thing.”

That actually made the girl look toward me. Her face was pensive. “I thought you’d be mad because you thought I didn’t care about saving your mother, that my—that I didn’t want to help.”

I was quiet for a moment, thinking that through before stepping over to sit down on the bed beside her. “I guess part of me did hope that you’d just… get over this reaction. But that’s not very fair, is it?”

Emotion twisted the girl’s face before she turned away again, shoulders hunching up. “They’re supposed to be monsters. Vicious, evil, irredeemable monsters. And we’re supposed to be heroes.”

Before I could say anything, she looked back to me. There were tears in her eyes. “You’re asking me to throw away everything I’ve been taught since I was born. You’re asking me to change… to change everything. I’ve been waiting for this year my whole life, Flick. Do you have any idea how many times I had to sit and watch everybody else get to learn this stuff? I grew up here, on this island, with these people. I watched class after class go through, all of them going on to do… amazing things. They went on quests, they saved people, they protected everyone. I just wanted that. I just wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s what I’m asking you to be, Sands.” My voice was soft as I met the girl’s gaze. “Because, as far as I know, being a hero isn’t about killing something because someone tells you it’s bad. It’s about doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is or how many people tell not to. It’s about saving someone, protecting someone, even if everyone you know says it’s wrong, because you know it’s right.”

Her gaze flickered a little, and I went on. “I’m not trying to tell you that every Stranger is good, or that everything you know is wrong. I’m telling you that the vampire I met was not evil. I’m telling you that if it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead, or worse. Without her, my father would be dead, or in prison. Without her, an awful lot of innocent people would have been killed by the deputies that Ammon took control of. She saved me, she saved my father, she saved Rose, and she saved all those people.

“I’m asking you to believe that evil is something we do, not something we are. If someone is evil just because they exist, then what’s the point? How can you judge someone or something that doesn’t have a choice? That’s not evil. That’s just… programming. Real evil requires having a choice. And even if ninety-five percent of them choose evil, that means there are five percent who don’t. Five percent that might be able to help. Five percent who wouldn’t hurt an innocent, who are innocent. Five percent for whom we are the monsters, Sands. Not heroes, not champions, monsters. We are the creatures under the bed that they scare their children with. Children who grow up hating us, who might not have if we gave them a chance. If we could find those five percent, help them, grow with them… well then it might actually turn into more than five percent.

“But for now, for now we’re killing all of them that we find. We are killing them, Sands. No trial, no jury, no chance to defend themselves. And that’s not heroic. That’s murder. And it’s wrong.”

Reaching out then, I took the girl’s limp hand and squeezed it with both of mine. “Listen. I want you to think about this. A human is altered by a Stranger’s blood and becomes a powerful being who can live for a very long time and gains strength by fighting others. Think about that and then tell me if I’m talking about vampires or heretics, Sands. Because I don’t see that much of a difference.

“What I want… is for you to believe that it’s possible for a Stranger to make a choice. Call it mutation, call it random, call it whatever you want. I just want you to… believe that the girl who saved my life and helped me save my father isn’t evil. Don’t look at what she is, look at what she does, what she did.

“I’m not asking you not to be a hero, Sands. I’m asking you to be a real one. Make the hard choice.”

My hands squeezed both of hers. “I need your help, Sands. I need my team. I refuse to be a victim. I will not just sit around and cry for a year until that son of a bitch comes after me again. I will train. I will work my ass off. I will be ready. Most of all, I will save my mother. But if I don’t have you guys… I… I won’t make it. A year isn’t enough time. I need you. Please. If I’m going to have any chance, I need help. I can’t do it by myself.”

For the first time, Sands actually returned the squeeze against my hands. She took a breath and let it out before looking up. I could still see the doubt in her eyes, but she gave a tiny little nod. “I’ll try. I’ll… think about what you said, I promise. All of it. I still think they’re mostly evil, but maybe there’s…” She trailed off before shrugging. “I dunno. But I’ll help you save your mom. Of course I will. We’re teammates. As long as you want to be, I… I’ll be there. I’ll help.”

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t known I was holding, I managed a weak smile. “Oh, good. Because you’re probably not going to like the first thing we need to do.”

“Less than I like everything else you’ve said?” Sands managed an even weaker smile to meet mine. “I find that pretty hard to believe.”

I gave a weak shrug at that. “Well, that depends on how you feel about sneaking around your own father.

“Because I’m pretty sure he’s the one who took my mother’s weapons.”

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Visitations 5-01

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Like a light snapping on, the darkness that had surrounded Avalon’s side of the dorm room all night long vanished. The girl herself stood there, yawning as she squinted toward me with bleary eyes.

“Good, you’re up. Come look at this.” I beckoned the girl over to my desk, where a half dozen books from the library had been scattered, matching the equal number littering my bed. “I found something.”

Avalon’s yawn continued while she stepped toward the closet for a fresh set of clothes. When she spoke, it was a somewhat groggy mumble, her voice was thick from sleep, “Is it an emergency?”

Fully aware of how bad overstating it would go, no matter how much I wanted to show the girl what I had found, I was forced to shake my head. “No, it’s important, but it’s not an emergency.”

Cracking her neck to one side, the busty brunette stepped back from the closet with her clothes in hand. “Good. Then don’t talk to me until I get back. I need a shower before I can deal with any conspiracies.”

With that, she stalked from the room on her way to the restroom, grumbling not-so-quietly under her breath the whole way about crazy roommates who never went to sleep anymore. Which totally wasn’t fair. I still slept. Granted, it was only about an hour a night, but it was still sleeping!

Yeah, in the two weeks that had passed since our encounter with the Eden’s Garden students, I had averaged an hour of sleep a night. I honestly didn’t need any more than that. Even working myself hard throughout the day, doing all of my work, exercising twice as much as I had been, and doing all that training with Avalon still wasn’t enough to make me all that tired. I had the feeling I could have gotten away with even less sleep, maybe an hour every couple of nights, if I had been less active.

Honestly, after two weeks of this… it was still absolutely amazing. Seriously, not needing to sleep gave me another third of the day to use. What the hell kind of crazy person would ever complain about that? Yeah, I was stuck in my room for the extra time, since I still had to follow the school rules, which meant staying in my room during curfew. No matter how awake and incapable of sleeping I happened to be, I was trapped inside these four walls. But so what? I could still get things done. It just meant that I could do all my schoolwork and other studying during that time, saving my hours outside the room for more active activities. It let me get a jump on all my classes while also spending an almost absurd amount of time scanning through those library books looking for any mention of my mother or Deveron, or anything related to either of them. I did all of that during the time I should have been sleeping, while doing my training and team bonding things during the day. I made it work.

According to Professor Dare, they had a system for dealing with things like this, where powers that were inherited by a student changed how the rules affected them. Obviously, curfew was meant to ensure that students received enough sleep. Yet I physically did not need as much any more. There were other students like me (though all of them were older), who for whatever reason required less sleep. They had different night schedules to follow, dependent on their specific needs. I just had to be added to that list, which meant sending the request through that school committee, which took time. Supposedly, it just took awhile because there were some on the council that wanted to forbid any exceptions to the rules, no matter how little sense they made. Each and every exception had to be debated about and voted on. Which reminded me that these were the same stubborn people who had needed the Headmistress to break the tie on whether I should even be allowed in the school or not, so maybe I shouldn’t actually hold my breath for a ruling in my favor after all. I’d read way too many of my father’s old articles to end up surprised if the people who didn’t want me in the school to begin with held it against me by voting against bending the rules about when I had to stay in my room.

And speaking of things that weren’t settled yet, we still hadn’t heard anything about what they were going to do about the Eden’s Garden students attacking us. Which, to be fair, didn’t mean that they weren’t doing anything about it, only that they weren’t sharing those actions with us.

We did have some answers at least. Apparently, there had been some kind of sabotage against the Pathmaker. As soon as our group had gone through, its connection to that area was severed. Someone had entered the Pathmaker building at any of the locations it existed within and had left some kind of enchanted item that blocked the building from reestablishing that connection. The people inside, including our teachers, had had to locate that item and destroy it before they could make the building create a portal anywhere within a few hundred miles. Even then, a couple of the teachers had transported that far before using their own abilities to get to our location as quickly as possible. But it had been too late. By the time they arrived, the fight had been over for a couple of minutes.

I’d already waited almost two hours since finding the thing I wanted to show Avalon, so waiting another forty-five minutes shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Still, by the time the other girl finally returned, her worn and half-exhausted look turned into the goddess of perfection and cleavage that everyone else knew, I was practically bouncing up and down in my chair. Any longer and I swear I probably would have been scratching at the door, whining like a puppy for her to pay attention to me.

“Okay!” I stood up, unable to sit any longer once she was ready. “Look at this yearbook from 1918.”

Avalon obliged, taking the book from me to flip through it. “Okay, what am I looking for?”

Scooting over beside her, I used my finger to point. “So this yearbook is so old, they do things a little different. Each page has just a few student pictures along the left page, with their names and a little paragraph about them on the right page. See, Julius Markin, Penselvi Kresh, and so on.”

The other girl was nodding. “Right, seven students every two pages. What’s your point?”

I shook my head. “That’s the thing, it’s not quite four students each. See, it goes seven students, seven students, six students. Every third set of pages has six instead of seven because of this floral design banner that comes up over that empty space. See how it goes over each page, low on two of them, then up higher on the third to reduce the number of student pictures that can be there? Weird design choice.”

Avalon took a second, flipping through it for herself before nodding. “Right, what does it mean?”

“By itself? Nothing,” I replied. “Except for the fact that the designer had a weird thing for flowers. But look at the first page of student pictures again, then the second page, then the third.”

Flipping back to the front of the book, Avalon looked at them, changing the page over. “Six, six, six?”

I nodded. “They tried to cover it up by spacing those ones further apart so that it looks like there’s the same amount as the pages that have seven pictures on them. You have to pay attention. But just look at the names that are left on that first page. The first name and then the name after it.”

Running her finger down the page, Avalon read aloud. “Aaronson, Frederick and Bonwerth, David.”

“Yup. Guess which two names fit right in those two spaces that should’ve been where the flowers are,” I put my finger in that spot. “Adams, Deveron and Atherby, Joselyn. They should be right there. They took two people off the first page, and to make it fit they restructured the first two pages to have six each instead of the seven they should have had. They re-spaced these first couple of pages to try to make it look as normal as they could, but they couldn’t just redo the whole book for some reason.”

“Enchantment,” Avalon replied. “The magic that it would have taken to redo each yearbook, even the ones that aren’t here would be very taxing. The more pages that needed to be altered, the harder it would be, because they would have had to make the enchantment specifically to alter those pages. The more it had to alter, the harder it would be. So they just set it to take away those two pictures and set up the ones that were left to try to hide it by putting six on each of the first three pages.”

“When you point it out like that, it seems obvious,” Avalon frowned. “Why did it take so long to find?”

“Because they did a much better job of hiding it in the later yearbooks,” I pointed out. “This was my mother’s first year here. The other three books have more pictures per page, and are structured more like a normal yearbook like you and I would know. This is the only one that’s that different.”

“So what you need is an unaltered yearbook,” the other girl frowned in consideration. “Or a way to undo the enchantment that’s been put onto this one so you can see what was there before.”

I nodded. “See how they list more than the student’s name? Each student wrote something about themselves. Like this David Bonwerth guy said that his goal was to explore the bottom of the ocean. If we can get what my mother and the old Deveron wrote, it might tell us something about them.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds, letting out a long breath before looking toward me. “I may have someone that can help erase the enchantment on this. But he’s not part of this school.”

I opened my mouth, then hesitated. “You mean he’s from your old school, don’t you?”

Her head dipped into a slight nod. “Seller. He’s, uh…” For once, the other girl actually looked a little nervous, bringing a hand up to brush through her own hair. “He’s one of the teachers there. He’s the only reason I survived, the reason I escaped after everything that went down. I trust him. If we give him the book and tell him it’s important, he’ll get the enchantment off. We just have to get it to him.”

Realizing where she was going with that, I breathed out. “Just how far does this trust extend?”

She met my gaze, knowing what I was asking. “I would put my life in his hands. If he knows that it’s important to me, he’ll take care of it and keep the whole thing quiet. Even from Gaia.”

I flinched. “Sorry. I… it’s not fair for me to ask you to keep things from your mother. Even your adopted mother. It’s asking too much, I know. I get it. I’m really sorry.”

Looking away briefly, Avalon remained quiet. “I care about Gaia. She’s just trying to protect us. But in this case, fuck that. We need to know. You deserve to know about your family, Chambers. So we’ll do this, then talk to her about it. She’ll understand… I hope.” There was a slight dip in her voice at the end before she cleared her throat. “Whatever, I told you I’d help you figure this out, and you haven’t pissed me off enough to take it back yet. So either be more annoying or shut up about how sorry you are.”

Smiling faintly, I poked her. “See? I knew we were friends.” Before she could object, I pressed on. “I’ll take care of getting the book to Seller. As long as you think you can actually get a message to him.”

“I will,” she answered flatly. “There are ways of contacting him. Most of them involve dead birds. But I’ll only do it if you’re sure. You have to be absolutely positive that you’re okay involving him in this.”

Nodding emphatically, I stood up. “More than sure. I want to know the truth. This is the next step to that. If you say you trust him, that’s good enough for me. As long as he’s not going to drag his feet.”

“He’ll take care of it. Just give him the book. And try not to look so vulnerable, Chambers,” she sighed.

“You are eventually going to use my first name,” I declared, pointing at the other girl. “With Herbie as my witness,” I declared while grabbing my aforementioned buddy from his spot on my desk to tuck him into my pocket, “You will call me Flick before this semester is over. You already use Scout’s preferred name.”

“Go get an identical twin with the same last name,” Avalon replied dryly. “So that using your last name for both of you would just confuse everyone.”

“Then you’d use my first name?”

She couldn’t hide the slight smirk entirely as she shrugged at me. “No, I’d still call you Chambers. I’d just use your twin’s first name instead.”

Sighing dramatically, I put my hand against my forehead. “And lo, I am jealous of a sister I’ve never had.” Straightening then, I added, “That reminds me. You told me about your whole umm, your life before.” When the other girl stiffened, I pressed on quickly. “I know, I know, I know. Not pushing things, not trying to drag up bad memories or anything. I just have a serious question, and it’s one you sort of already talked about so I hope it’s okay to ask for clarification.”

She was still stiff, but at she wasn’t running away. “What is it?”

Speaking carefully, I asked, “You said that you hoped your father wasn’t dead, because you want to kill him. But later you said that… well the story you told me left your father dying on the floor, alone.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds, looking away from me. When she spoke, her voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it. “He was found by a vampire, who turned him into one of them. That’s what he is now. And he’s tried to kill me a couple of times since then. It’s kind of our idea of a family reunion. We try to kill each other every year or so. Eventually, I’ll get it right.” Turning toward me, she glared. “Happy now? Go away. I’ve got work to do.”

Obliging her, I headed out to take my own shower rather than push things. By this point, I knew well enough when to leave the girl alone and stop pushing things. She was a lot more open with me than she had been when we first met, but sometimes I still had to back off. Especially after pushing her more than usual. But today was pretty much the best time for me to do that.

After cleaning up, I emerged from the restroom to find Sands and Scout waiting. Both embraced me quickly, hugging tightly while Sands lamented, “I can’t believe you’re leaving for a whole weekend.”

“Pretty sure my dad would object if I missed spending my birthday with him,” I pointed out to her, chuckling. “Besides, you guys’ll be fine. Just don’t let the boys slack off while I’m gone, okay? And try to get Avalon to spend time with the team. I know it’s hard but… she really does need it.”

“Don’t worry,” Sands promised. “Scout’s got this. You just focus on having a good time.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled a little weakly. “Having a good time while lying constantly to my own father all weekend.” The reality of it still hurt. I didn’t want to lie to my dad. I hated the very idea of it so much it almost hurt. I kind of didn’t want to go back if it meant having to lie to his face, but that would have made everything even worse. Mom had abandoned him. I wasn’t going to do the same thing just to avoid feeling a little uncomfortable.

“Miss Chambers,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up from down the hall. “Are you ready to go? We should get you sent on your way before morning exercises begin.” She nodded then to the twins. “Speaking of which, girls…”

“On our way!” Sands chirped, saluting quickly before starting off with her sister. “We’ll just grab Avalon and head down there.”

“I’m ready,” I confirmed with a nod. “I just have to grab my bag, then uhh, we teleport, I guess?” I hoped that my obvious nervousness would look like it stemmed from the idea of using the portal again, rather than the fact that one of the things that I would be taking in my bag was the 1919 yearbook.

Yeah. Not only was I about to meet and talk to my father face to face for the first time since all of this had started, I was also going to take a yearbook from the school so I could meet one of the teachers from the school whose students had tried to kill us and ask him to please undo the magic enchantment that was covering up the history of my mother. Oh yeah, and I was still incapable of sleeping more than an hour a night. All of which I had to get through without my father the super-reporter realizing that anything weird was going on at all.

But at least I wouldn’t have to deal with any Strangers while I was there.

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