Hisao

Study and Scrutiny 20-04

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A game?” I echoed.

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

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

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

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

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 7A – Miranda

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“Well, that was a bit of a surprise, wasn’t it?”

Minutes after watching Flick leave with her blonde instructor, Miranda Wallbern stood on the street of the town she had spent six years of her life in, beside the man who had been most responsible for training her since the moment she’d been taken out of the life she’d had here. “Yeah, pretty surprising.”

Hisao, who seemed to be in a pretty good mood considering the fact that he and the Crossroads instructor apparently hadn’t actually found anything useful, gazed down at her curiously for a second before clearing his throat. “I’ve still got some work to do around here, but you look pretty distracted. You wanna head back and I’ll shoot you a message if I need to ask you anything about this place?”

Miranda’s gaze lifted to look at the man briefly. Did he know anything about what she and Flick had talked about? Hisao was far from a hardliner for the Garden, and she might even be able to get some help from him. But it wasn’t a sure thing, and she had already promised to keep Flick’s secret. Besides, considering the stakes, just thinking that the man might be helpful wasn’t enough to risk including him.

In the end, she kept her expression as passive as possible. In the Garden, one learned very quickly how to maintain a good poker face and avoid showing emotion. Letting people know you were affected by something was too dangerous. “Are you sure you don’t need me to be your guide, Vigile Hisao?”

Vigile. It was the title that the Garden used for their detectives, the Heretics who investigated suspected Stranger situations. The name originated from the Vigiles Urbani that the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus had brought together as the closest thing Rome had to a dedicated city police organization. Miranda had heard that the Crossroads equivalent were actually called Runners, though they were organized differently. For one thing, Vigiles tended to have completely autonomous authority. They didn’t report to any command structure or have everyday oversight. Only the Vigile’s tribal chief or a vote from the combined Council could overrule a judgment that the Vigile made. They acted as not only detectives, but also judge, jury, and executioner for rogue Gardeners as well as Strangers.

“I think I can manage to find my way,” Hisao replied, his tone somewhat bemused. “Considering I could throw a rock from one side of this town and make it reach the opposite side pretty easily.”

“That’s not really fair,” the dark-skinned girl pointed out while giving a little shrug of one shoulder. “I’ve seen how strong you are, Vigile Hisao. You could probably do the same thing in Los Angeles.”

The man gave a loud bark of laughter before nodding. “Fair enough, kid. I’ve got this though. Considering Dare and her student were here, I doubt there’s any more Strangers lurking around. I’ll do a walk through and make sure it looks clear, check out the police station, see if there’s anything to find. If I need you for anything else, I’ll let you know. You go ahead, I’m sure you’ve got plenty on your mind.”

Miranda gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir. I mean, thank you, sir.” Turning on her heel then, she began to walk away while digging into her pocket. A moment later, she came out with a piece of bark. Holding it in one hand, the girl glanced back toward her mentor while walking around a pair of older women who were arguing about which of their grandsons was going to be the first to graduate college. Hisao gave her a brief wave, then turned his attention back to the city. Despite what he’d said, Miranda knew the man wouldn’t leave until he had a better idea of what had happened here. No matter how long that took.

Which meant she had to be fast. As she went around the corner of the building, ostensibly to put herself out of sight of any Bystanders, the girl focused on the power that she had inherited so relatively recently. As usual, there was a brief sense of disorientation, and then she was staring at herself.

“Remember,” she told her duplicate quickly, “You have to be fast. And don’t let Hisao see you.”

“Duh,” the other Miranda told herself while rolling her eyes. “We don’t wanna answer those questions.”

The duplicate peered around the corner of the building carefully, watching to make sure the coast was clear and Hisao wasn’t watching before giving the original Miranda a thumbs up. Then she took off, sprinting away from the building and across the street, heading back into town as fast as she could.

The original Miranda wouldn’t know what her duplicate was up to until she absorbed her again, which would only happen once the other her gave their mental tug to indicate she was ready, or something happened to kill her. The latter was a situation that Miranda had only experienced once before, but it was something she had absolutely no desire to go through again. The disorienting shock that came from the combination of feeling the sharp loss of one of her other selves combined with the flood of memories that filled her mind right up to the point of death had practically been a physical blow.

“Good luck,” she spoke aloud to her departing self, then turned her attention back to the piece of bark in her hand. Flipping it over to put the inside part out, she lifted it while muttering, “Time to go home.”

With that, Miranda shoved the bark upward and out, slapping it against the wall of the building. An instant later, both the girl and the wood vanished, leaving no sign that she had ever been there.

******

Miranda B

Once she was sure the coast was clear, the girl who chose to think of herself as Miranda B (or just B) ran away from the building. Hisao was further down the street, walking purposefully on his way to explore the city. He would be methodical in his search, which meant she still had time to make it.

Considering the years of physical training she’d gone through, it didn’t take long to reach her destination. The sight of Flick’s neighborhood, and the house itself, was instantly familiar. It brought back memories of a far more innocent and simple time, before she’d known about all the creatures that secretly lived alongside humanity. Some evil, others not so much. It reminded her of childhood.

Flick had mentioned that her father was going to be busy doing his job all day considering everything that had happened over the weekend, and sure enough, the driveway was empty. The man was probably at the sheriff’s office, hounding the people there for answers that they had no way of actually having.

Still, considering what was waiting inside the house, B didn’t want to go barging inside. That was a recipe for disaster. Startling a vampire who was in an unfamiliar location and was probably on edge anyway considering everything that was going on would probably end up with her original self experiencing the death of another duplicate. And considering she was that particular duplicate, the girl was going to give that result the hardest and definitive pass she could manage.

So, rather than force her way in and set off a nuclear chain of events, B bent down to pick a small rock out of the grass. Rubbing her left thumb along it, she began to whisper a quick, simple enchantment, the first one she’d learned when magical instruction had begun earlier that year.

Once the rock was glowing with the magic she’d infused it with, the girl held it tightly while whispering into it. “Asenath. I know you’re a vampire. My name is Miranda, Flick’s friend. She said that she told you about me and that you saw a picture of me. I’m a Heretic for Eden’s Garden, but I’m here to help. There’s another Heretic, my teacher, walking through town right now. He’s investigating the city, and if he happens to see you or the other Stranger that you’re working with, things might go bad. Please come to the door and knock, then back away so the sun doesn’t hit you when I open it. I want to help you make sure that Hisao doesn’t find out about you, or your friend. That’s all.”

Once her message was complete, B watched as the rock crumbled to dust in her hand. She gave the dust a toss, and it disappeared under the door jam. The rock would seek the nearest occupant, reassemble itself, and then recite its message several times to make sure the point was made.

After that was done, she only had to wait about two minutes before there was a single knock against the other side of the door, followed by the sound of the deadbolt being unlocked. B waited a few seconds to give the vampire inside time to back away, then opened the door. She stepped quickly inside while closing it behind her to block out the sun as quickly as possible. Once the door was safely shut, she looked up. As soon as she did, that familiar hunger kicked in. Seeing the vampire standing there, safely away from the sun’s reach, Miranda B could feel the adrenaline pump into her system, priming her for a hunt. It was a feeling sort of like being at the start of a race, or an important baseball game. The figure standing there was, without a doubt, a Stranger. Not that that came as a surprise.

Asenath looked her up and down briefly, then gave a curious sniff. “Well, you’re definitely a Heretic. Flick didn’t mention that. She said she didn’t know anything about you after you moved away.”

“We just met again,” B replied. “My mentor and I, we were investigating what happened. We ran into Flick and her teacher, and she told me what’s going on. I know Hisao, he won’t leave here until he’s positive that he’s seen everything he can. And if I know Flick’s dad the way I know I do, the two of them are going to meet at some point. I know, Flick said that your… shapeshifting friend was invisible to her Stranger sense, but Hisao has other ways to test for that sort of thing. He’s a professional.”

Asenath paused, seeming to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Thank you, I’ll warn her. And we’ll make sure to stay out of sight until the Heretic is gone. I have… experience with some of your people. Some good, some bad. Unfortunately, I don’t know which side of the line this Hisao falls on.”

“He’s pretty accepting,” B acknowledged with a tiny smile. “But even so, I figured that him seeing you guys would make things more complicated for Flick, even if he does let you explain. And the last thing this situation needs is even more complications. Besides, from the way Flick talked, the less people know about this situation, the better. Especially if Garden Heretics helped wipe her mom’s memory.”

“And since Seller knew about it, that’s a likely scenario,” Asenath agreed. “Okay. Well, I guess we should figure out how to get Twister away from Lincoln before anything bad happens.”

******

As soon as her hand pressed the bark against the wall of the building, Miranda felt the world spin around her. It was, as always, incredibly disorienting, and she almost stumbled before catching herself.

Once her vision cleared, she saw what looked like a solid wall of tree bark in front of her. The bit of bark that had been carefully cut from the tree was back in its spot, and as she watched, it fused itself into place. The tree was left whole, without so much as a blemish where the piece had been broken.

Stepping back from the spot, Miranda turned, letting her gaze take in the view while trying to imagine how Flick would feel if she saw this place. It was familiar to her by now, but when she’d first arrived, she’d had a hard time believing that it was real, that this majestic view wasn’t a hallucination.

She wasn’t standing on the ground, or even on a floor. No, her feet were planted solidly on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to drive three semi trucks side by side along it without bumping into one another, and long enough that those same trucks would run out of gas before they reached the end of it. And this was only one branch of the Tree of Knowledge. One of eight.

Some tribes left the edges of their branches completely open, saying that anyone dumb enough to fall off deserved what they got. Miranda’s tribe was one of those that actually put safety rails up, though there were several open patio-type areas (some used for eating or relaxing and others used for training) extending away from the branch that could be reached for an even better view. Though she didn’t have time to go out there at the moment, Miranda had spent plenty of time gazing down from one of those patio areas, admiring the unbelievably gorgeous sight.

The place they called Eden’s Garden was most beautiful, lush, and vibrant area that she had ever seen. It stretched on for over hundreds of miles in every direction, a forest of giant trees (though the Tree of Knowledge was by far the largest, standing twice as tall as any of its competition). Far below, the area between the giant trees, where the sun reached, was filled with what could only be described as paradise. There were flowers as tall as Miranda herself and in every color she could think of as well as wide fields of grass where normal animals such as deer and wild horses mingled alongside magical creatures such as pegasi, sprites, and even the occasional unicorn (a fact that had made the very young Miranda nearly pee herself in glee). Eden’s Garden cultivated what they called ‘acceptable Strangers’, which were magical creatures that the Victors declared both non-threatening and useful to the Garden’s cause. The denser foliage was full of predators on both sides of the Magical/Mundane scale.

Over time, Miranda had come to realize that most of the tribes didn’t see these creatures as their equals or even as fully sapient. While they didn’t actively kill all of them the way that Crossroads did, the majority of Eden’s Garden treated even the Strangers they accepted like animals and as unfeeling servants, even slaves in some respects. They weren’t afforded equal rights and protections just because they weren’t openly murdered.

Crossroads killed every Stranger they could find. Eden’s Garden enslaved and bred the ones they didn’t kill. No one bothered to ask the Strangers themselves what they wanted. It was an inconsistency that had bothered her for awhile, though always in the back of her mind until today, until she’d spoken with Flick. The news about her mother, that she’d been part of some kind of ‘rebellion’, made Miranda think about how Eden’s Garden treated their own supposed allies, the Strangers that they ‘saved’ from Crossroads. If someone wanted to rebel against Crossroads, her first thought had been that they would join Eden’s Garden. But if that person wanted to be true and equal allies with Strangers… then no, Eden’s Garden would not be a place for them.

Shaking that off, Miranda glanced down the length of her tribe’s branch. There were rules against building anything too near the central trunk (it was supposed to ensure that any tribe that turned hostile and tried to attack the central trunk itself didn’t have any defensive structures or ways to disguise their approach), but in the distance she could see the first of her tribe’s buildings. The branch, wide enough to be a large freeway, became a road with literal and quite expansive houses on either side. There were grass yards, fountains, even a couple of parks for the little ones to run around in, safely enclosed to protect against accidents.

Other tribes kept their own branches far more war-like, she knew. Her tribe was one of those that focused more on the family aspect of the tribe than their wars. But some of them eschewed all of that in exchange for constant battle preparations. They lived and breathed their hunts from the time they were born or brought into the tribe until they finally died. Each branch was a tribute to its tribe’s way of thinking.

Meanwhile, the main trunk of the tree itself was so mind-mindbogglingly enormous that Miranda felt like an ant climbing along its surface. The interior of the tree was mostly hollow, and it functioned essentially like a massive skyscraper. There were offices inside, training rooms, laboratories, meeting halls, and so on. Everything that the eight Garden tribes needed to do as a group took place inside the tree, including their joint ruling body. Known as the Council of Victors, or just the Victors, the sixteen-member group consisted of two representatives from each tribe that were nominated by that tribe’s chief and then confirmed in a vote by the adult members of that tribe. The Victors lived and met within a chamber at the very top of the tree, directly beneath the area where the fruit of knowledge grew. Both the Victors and the fruit were heavily guarded by a group of Gardeners who called themselves the Unset. Essentially, the Unset were Heretics without a tribe, whose loyalty was only to the Council of Victors and who could not be convinced to side with one particular group in the event that one tribe or another tried to take over the tree. Which, considering the way some of the Garden tribes behaved, wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Outwardly, Gardeners were united. But inside, there were always some petty arguments going on, disagreements that often went back centuries.

The branch that Miranda was standing on belonged to her own tribe. Like every other tribe, the name of the tribe had been changed several times as the years passed on. At the moment, they called themselves the Eternal Eye. If she looked up and to the right, she could see the edge of the branch that belonged to her tribe’s nearest neighbors and closest allies, the branch that belonged to the tribe known as the Vigilant Sons. That was the tribe that Flick’s ancestor Seller belonged to, the same one that her new roommate had been a part of, though the females of the tribe called themselves Vigilant Daughters.

Further on around the tree were the remaining six primary branches, belonging to the Dust-Striders, the Children of Bosch, the Reapers, the Remnant Guardians, Fate’s Shepherds, and Lost Scar respectively.

It was that last one that Miranda was focused on. Lost Scar was the tribe that Trice and his friends belonged to. Thinking about those nasty pieces of shit attacking the girl that had been her best friend throughout elementary school almost made Miranda angry enough to reach for the pouch on her belt that held her weapon, the one that she’d chosen just a few months earlier after being trained for several years to handle over a dozen different weapon types. Her weapon.

In the end, however, she forced herself to calm down. Grabbing her weapon and charging up to where Trice was wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. She didn’t know how just yet, but she’d find out who they were working with in Flick’s school. No matter what it took.

“Hey, Randi!” One of her tribe mates called out a greeting as he past her on his way out of the tree interior. “You and Hisao already back from that… uhh, where were you going again?”

“Hey, Noble,” Miranda returned the greeting easily before answering. “We were at Laramie Falls, but Hisao’s still there. He sent me back, said he could handle the rest of it by himself.”

Noble, an incredibly tanned and well-toned guy who knew just how attractive his tendency to run around shirtless (as he was now) made him, flashed her one of his perfect smiles. “You lived there?”

“For a few years,” Miranda replied while starting to walk toward the same entrance that the young man himself come out of, a hole in the enormous wooden wall that was the Tree of Knowledge’s trunk. “I’ll catch you later, got some stuff to do.”

“You know where to find me, babe,” Noble gave her another charming smile that she knew would have affected her much more if she hadn’t been so preoccupied, then turned to jog on his way.

She watched him go for a moment, partly to make sure he didn’t try to follow her and partly because watching Noble walk (or jog) away was a very enjoyable way to pass a few seconds.

Shaking that off, the girl began to head into the tree interior once more. As she passed through the hole, Miranda found herself on the entrance hall. Essentially, it was an enormous room surrounded by three different levels of balconies overlooking a central area. Each balcony was connected via multiple stairways and ladders to one another and to the center of the room. Each balcony was also connected to several different holes that led out to each tribe’s branch.

Meanwhile, in the center of the open room there were several Unset guards that kept their eyes open for any single tribe that might make any untoward moves. The paranoia was real, considering each tribe essentially governed itself save for very important issues that the Victors voted on. And some of those tribes had openly advocated taking over the tree at various points in their history, some not exactly a long time ago. The Eden’s Garden alliance was fragile in some respects.

There were also both stairways and elevators leading up and down throughout the tree, though Miranda only had clearance to go down. Up were the more important rooms, the Victors’ quarters and meeting hall, and the fruit. She’d been up there one time, when she was first brought here and had to eat the fruit to become a Heretic. Other than that, she had only ever gone down the stairs. The watchful Unset made sure of that.

Giving the nearest of those guardians a brief smile, Miranda headed down the stairs. Her next stop would be the main library, a room located near the base of the tree, close to where people were able to go out into the Garden itself, where no one was allowed to build anything for fear of destroying the paradise that existed beyond the Tree of Knowledge (plus the fact that any single tribe being allowed to build at ground level would, in the minds of some, give that tribe an advantage over others).

Eventually, Miranda would have to find out what Trice and his thug friends actually knew. But for now, she would scour the library for any mention of this Fossor.

Surely, between the Crossroads library and the one here at Eden’s Garden, there was some information about the man who had abducted Flick’s mother. There had to be answers about where he came from, what he wanted, and what he was capable of.

And, most importantly, how to stop him.

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Getting Some Answers 6-05

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It was her. It was Miranda Wallbern, the girl who had been my best friend starting in the second grade and going all the way up to seventh. When she had showed up about a third of the way through the school year, Miranda had been the only black girl in my grade. Wyoming isn’t exactly super-diverse, to put it mildly, and it was the first time many of the elementary students had seen anyone like that.

I personally met Miranda after a third grade girl named Terry had tripped me in the lunch line, making me spill my milk all over my shirt. While others laughed, the new girl who had only been there a week and was constantly being stared at took her own milk and threw it in Terry’s face. That had pissed the older girl off, and she had jumped on Miranda, screaming like a banshee. So I grabbed her leg from where I was on the floor, dragging the older girl down. Everything had degenerated from there until all three of us ended up in the principal’s office, doomed to three weeks of after school detention.

From that moment, at around the age of eight, until she left town at the age of thirteen, Miranda and I had been inseparable. She had helped to fill a void that had been there after my mother had left the year before. Then, when she too had to leave because of her mother’s new job, I had stopped trying to make any close friends, afraid of the feeling that would come every time they had to leave as well.

“Well now, isn’t that interesting?” Somewhere in the background, I heard Hisao speak, his tone curious. “Sounds to me like we might have a little reunion going on after all. You two know each other?”

Miranda spoke first, her eyes never leaving me. “Yes, sir. This is Flick. My umm, my…” She hesitated, trailing off uncertainly before settling on a quiet, “We were friends before I joined the Garden.”

“Is that right?” Hisao glanced to me, but I barely noticed the attention. My mind was too busy reeling, trying to comprehend the odds of not only my mother secretly having been a Heretic, but my best friend becoming one as well. How unbelievably small were the chances that would happen on its own?

Clearing his throat when I didn’t respond right away, Hisao made a courteous gesture toward Professor Dare. “Ah, well, Virginia, it doesn’t seem fair for us to rip these two apart so soon if they were so close. What do you say to a brief consultation? We can compare notes, you could give a bit of information to your Runners when they show up, and these two could use that time to have little conversation.”

The blonde woman at my side started to shake her head before pausing. “We don’t–” She stopped then, glancing down toward me before letting out a quiet sigh. “All right.” To me, she said, “Hisao and I will go for a walk. You should catch up with your friend. I will meet you here in one hour.” She pointed to the bus stop where I had met my father. “You will be waiting here, ready to go. Do you understand?”

Slowly, distractedly, I nodded. My eyes still hadn’t left the dark skinned girl who stood across from me.

The two adults stepped away to confer, leaving us standing there. For a minute, neither of us spoke. Miranda opened her mouth a couple times, but nothing came out. I just stared, unable to make a sound.

In the end, she was the one who broke the silence first. “You’re a… a Heretic.” Her voice was strained.

My head jerked in a weird nod, and I finally forced myself to speak. “So are you,” I lifted a hand to point at her, unable to stop myself. “You’re from Eden’s Garden. You—Miranda, you’re a… you’re…”

She started to look away from me, her gaze dropping a bit while she spoke quietly. “I’m sorry I didn’t-”

That was as far as she managed to get before I dropped my bag and bodily threw myself at her, blurting, “You’re here!”

I had intended to hug her. Unfortunately for me, Miranda had been a Heretic for much longer than I had. Her reaction to me flinging myself in her direction was to quickly and smoothly sidestep before catching my arms. The next thing I knew, I was tossed up and over, the world spinning around once before I came down on my back on the nearby grass, the impact knocking the wind out of me.

I laid there on the cold and dirty ground for a few seconds, gazing blearily at the light blue sky while making a low wheezing noise. All I could focus on just then was trying to catch my breath.

“Oh my god!” Miranda’s face appeared above me as she dropped to her knees in the grass, looking horrified. “I’m sorry, Flick, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Are you all right? Can you breathe?”

With effort, I inhaled sharply, refilling my lungs while groggily lifting a hand into a thumbs up. It took me a few more long seconds of wheezing before I had enough air to actually try speaking. “P-peachy.”

The other girl’s head shook rapidly. “God, I’m sorry about that. Really, I just, I didn’t expect that.”

“Uggnnm, neither did I.” Coughing, I made myself sit up. The pain was already gone thanks to the power I’d absorbed from the peridles, and I found myself smiling wryly in spite of myself. “Good thing you didn’t know how to do that with Terry. That would’ve been like, six weeks of detention, at least.”

Her sudden snicker seemed to surprise Miranda, judging from the way her hand flew up to cover her mouth. I saw her eyes widen a bit before she slowly lowered it. Her voice was quiet. “Worth it.”

“So umm, you’re a Heretic,” I managed while shifting myself into a seated position there on the grass.

“I think we’ve been through that part already,” the girl reminded me as a tiny smirk pulled at her face.

Blinking once, I tilted my head. “We have? Oh, right. That was just before I went wheee ker-thump.” My hand gestured through the air in demonstration before slapping hard against the grass.

Miranda winced, head shaking. “Like I said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I uhh, it was instinct.”

“It’s okay,” I promised her before letting out a long breath. “I probably had it coming. Throwing myself at you like that after finding out you’ve been training to be a bad ass monster hunter was pretty dumb.”

“Impulsive,” she corrected gently. “Not dumb, just impulsive. And kind of understandable.” Shrugging a little awkwardly, the other girl added, “I mean, I almost did the same thing. You were just first.”

“You probably should’ve,” I informed my old friend with a sage nod. “Then we’d be hugging instead of sitting here on the grass doing, uhh, whatever you call this.” Gesturing around us absently, I shrugged.

“You’re not mad at me?” Miranda’s voice was clearly hesitant and uncertain. She looked at me, biting her lip. “I thought you’d be upset that I didn’t really keep in contact, that I umm, disappeared.”

Looking at the grass, I took in a long breath before letting it out again. “Maybe I was for awhile. Maybe I’ve been upset before, when I think about you leaving. But I don’t care about that right now, Randi. I don’t care about being mad, or what happened. You’re my… I mean, you were my… I mean… fuck it, you were my best friend for years. Who cares about being mad or petty? You’re here. Now I’m gonna hug you for real this time. You can either accept it, or throw me on the ground again.”

That little smile returned, and Miranda shook her head. “Thanks, I think I can control myself this time.”

With that, I shifted closer and promptly put both arms around the other girl, embracing her as tight as I could. “You’re really here,” I managed to speak in a low voice that cracked only a little. “You’re here.”

After a second, Miranda returned the hug. Her arms closed around me and I felt her grip tighten almost painfully. She was clearly a lot stronger than she looked. “Flick,” she spoke hesitantly while hugging me. “I can’t believe it. I thought I might see you when we came, that I might have a chance to say, to say… something. But I never thought you’d be a Heretic. I never thought you’d know any of this!”

In spite of myself, I had to smile while continuing to embrace her. “It is kind of crazy, huh?”

“Super crazy,” she replied before leaning back to look at me. “Flick, my god. How long have you…”

“Been a Heretic?” I finished with a shrug. “Just couple months, actually. Since the school year started.”

Her head bobbed up and down then. “Right, right, I remember. Crossroads starts way later than we do.”

Belatedly realizing what that meant, my eyes widened a little bit. “Wait, you left here when you were thirteen. Was that when you, umm, became a Heretic? Was that why you really moved?”

She shifted a little, leaning back to nod slightly. “I didn’t know at the time, but sort of. The Garden people were the ones that made sure Mom got that new job in New Hampshire. It was to, umm, you know, avoid a bunch of questions from people we knew about why I just disappeared. Easier to have a kid not be around very much when you just moved into a brand new area like that, where nobody knows your family. They do it a lot, since people tend to pay more attention to younger kids disappearing for most of the year than the older teens that Crossroads takes in. So they moved us out there and recruited me before we even got there. Mom and Dad think that I’ve been at military school for years now, and that I’m being recruited straight into the army after graduation.”

My head was shaking slowly while I struggled to deal with all this. Finally, I bit my lip and gestured with a hand. “Do you want to, um, take a walk? We could get a soda or something at Billy’s on Third.”

“Billy’s?” Miranda echoed blankly, head tilting. “I thought Dale’s was on Third, by the laundromat?”

“Yeah, that’s Billy’s now,” I informed her with a shrug. “Dale moved to Oregon. Billy’s his nephew. You know, that guy a few years older than us that used to sell Playboys behind the school to the kids whose parents actually had decent locks on the internet? Now he sells them straight off the rack.”

Sighing, Miranda stood up while offering a hand to me. “Should’ve kept the name Dale’s. It’s better.”

I accepted her hand and straightened to my feet, an easy smile coming then. “I know, right? He just had to change it to prove it was his.” Making a face then, I added, “He redecorated too. Took away the benches that were outside and the arcade machines, because they–” I raised my hands to make air quotes. “encourage people to sit around and gossip instead of spending their money and moving on.

“He took out the machines?!” Miranda sounded appalled. “Not Mortal Kombat. Tell me he left my baby alone, at least.” When I shook my head, she made a strangled sound. “Gah, are you sure he’s not a Stranger, Flick? Cuz he sounds like an unrepentant monster to me. Some kind of fun-hating bastard.”

“Right now I’m not sure about anything,” I replied while shrugging once more. “If you’re a Heretic, and my–” I stopped talking abruptly then, falling silent while realizing what I had been about to say.

Looking at me quizzically then, the other girl asked, “And your what? What’s going on, Flick?”

I remained silent for a moment, biting my lip hard while looking at Miranda. Part of me felt like I should keep quiet, like sharing what I knew with someone who was still part of Eden’s Garden was a bad idea. After all, Trice and his friends who had tried to kill Avalon were from there.

But so what? I was pretty sure Doxer was left handed. Did that mean I was going to be suspicious of left handed people from now on? Just being from another school didn’t mean anything. Avalon proved that by herself. Plus there was Seller. He knew pretty much everything already. More than I did, actually, considering the spell that prevented him from actually explaining anything about my mother.

Most of all, however, more importantly than any of that, Miranda was my friend. She’d been there for me for years after my mother disappeared. She helped me through some of the worst times, sitting with me and helping me move on with my life. She wasn’t just a friend or someone I used to know, she had been my best friend. I could tell her anything and everything. If I couldn’t trust her with my secrets, then I might as well curl up and die on the ground right then, because nobody was trustworthy.

“My mom,” I finally spoke out loud after several long seconds. “She… she was a Heretic too.”

Performing a sharp double-take, Miranda’s eyes went wide. “Wh—huh? But she… what do you mean?”

Biting my lip, I gestured once more while bending down to grab my heavy bag, hauling it back up onto my shoulders. “Come on, Randi. Let’s go get a drink. I’ll tell you all about it. But I’m pretty sure that you’re going to be even more pissed off that Billy took out those benches after I do.

“Because this is a story you’ll probably want to sit down for.”

******

In the end, after getting a couple sodas from the convenience store, the two of us walked over to a small park that was down the street, and sat down at one of the picnic tables there. I worked my way through the whole story, explaining everything that had happened since the moment I woke up on that empty bus. I told her about all of it, leaving absolutely nothing out. Once I started talking, it all came in a rush.

By the time I was done, Miranda was staring at me in open shock. “Oh my god. Oh my god, Flick. Your mom. Your mom is still out there. She’s—it wasn’t her fault. You were– you mean all this time, she’s been–” Cutting herself off, I saw the surprise fade sharply into horrible guilt. “Oh…”

Flinching, I nodded. “Yeah, oh. She did it for me. She surrendered herself to protect me. All this time I hated her, and she’s been suffering just to protect me. I—I’m an awful daughter, Randi. I’m–”

“You didn’t know,” she interrupted quickly. “Stop that. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know about it. You couldn’t have known, Flick. So don’t you dare put that on yourself. This Fossor piece of shit, he’s the bad guy. He’s the one that needs to go down.”

Before I could say anything else, the other girl pressed on. “I’ll look around the Garden. Maybe they’ll have information about this guy that Crossroads doesn’t. Plus from what I’ve heard, your place tends to uhh, babysit you guys a lot more and restrict what information you can have until you’re older. At Eden’s Garden, it’s all out there. If you know what to look for and how to find it, you can look up anything.”

“You’d do that?” I asked hesitantly, looking up at the girl.

“That’s a dumb question, Miss Super Reporter,” Randi shot back at me. “I’m your friend. Okay, maybe we haven’t talked in a long time, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re still friends. I mean, if you…”

“I still want to be,” I confirmed before she had even finished the sentence. “Damn straight.”

“Even if I go to Eden’s Garden and you go to Crossroads?” she asked. “This is kind of bigger than your average football team rivalry. It’s more like the US and Russia during the Cold War. Some of them can get along, like Hisao and, umm, what was her name?”

“Professor Dare,” I replied. “Virginia Dare. And before you ask, I’m pretty sure it’s the same person, but I haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask her about specifics yet.”

Miranda just shook her head. “If you still want to be friends, I want to help. If you’re really not mad about me disappearing. I… kind of thought you’d hate me after what happened with your mom.”

Smiling at the other girl, I replied, “Even if you didn’t wanna help, I’d still want to be friends, Rands. You disappearing, it… hurt. But I got over it. I’d rather be your friend than hold grudges. Grudges are just stupid. They waste time that we could spend having fun and they don’t accomplish anything, so to hell with them. You’re my friend, period. And if you happen to get any info on the son of a bitch who stole my mom, that’s even better.”

She reached across the picnic table, grabbing my hand tightly. “You’ve got it. I swear. If there’s anything in the Garden about this Fossor fucker, I’ll find it. And I’ll check out Trice and his thug friends too, see if I can figure out who they’ve been working with over at your place.”

My head shook. “I don’t want you to get in trouble, Randi. Those guys are dangerous.”

Her smirk grew while she leaned back in her seat? “Dangerous? You know who else is dangerous?”

“Oooh, ooooh, I know, I know!” A voice spoke up from beside me on the left. I turned that way to see Randi sitting there, waving her hand eagerly. “Me, I’m dangerous!”

“Don’t forget about me!” An identical voice on my right put in, and I turned to see Randi there as well.

Slowly, I looked at Randi on my right, then Randi on my left, then Randi across from me. She wasn’t teleporting, there was just that many of her. Three. There were three of her. “Wh—you’re… you can…”

All three of them grinned broadly at me, while the one across from me (the original, I guessed?) gave me a thumbs up. “Multiply, yup. I can make about twenty before things get too stressed. So believe me when I say, I’ll be okay. I know how to take care of myself, Flick, I promise.”

Unable to help myself, I laughed out loud, covering my mouth while my shoulders shook.

After watching me for a moment with all three pairs of eyes, the trio of Mirandas all spoke together as one. “What’s so funny?”

Getting myself under control, I managed a little shrug. “Oh, you know… I was just thinking about that conversation I had with Asenath. She asked about why I didn’t have a many friends before Crossroads.”

Gesturing around at the three of them, I finished with, “Turns out I’ve had a bunch of them.

“It’s just that they all happen to be the exact same person.”

Snickering at that, the Miranda across from me shrugged while the ones on either side high fived over the top of my head. Those two disappeared then, leaving only the one across from me to speak. “You can trust me, Flick. If there’s anything in the Garden, I’ll find it, I swear. About your mom, about this Fossor fuck, about whoever’s trying to kill your roommate over there, I’ll dig it up.”

“We’ll have to use a code when we talk to each other,” I pointed out. “So no one knows what we’re doing, or who you are.”

“Secret codes?” Randi was smiling back at me. “Remember when we tried to make up our own language?”

“Yeah,” I drawled the word out before shaking my head. “That’s a lot harder than it sounds when people do it in books and stuff.”

The other girl’s head nodded while she informed me sagely, “It’s because we’re not twins. They cheat.”

“I’ll be sure to ask Sands and Scout about that,” I promised before taking her hand once more. “Seriously, Miranda. Be careful, okay? I don’t care what school you go to or how long it’s been, you’re my friend. I want to keep you around. I…” Swallowing hard, I blinked back tears. “I need you to be okay.”

Her gaze met mine seriously, and the girl nodded without breaking eye contact. “I’ll be careful, Flick. I promise. But let’s figure out that code right now, while we’ve got the chance.

“You and me, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-04

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“So how does it feel to be seventeen years old, kid?”

It was later the same night, my last night away from Crossroads, and I was sitting with my father. The two of us were on the couch, and I had nestled up against his side with my head against his chest while he held me close with one arm. Being there, listening to his heart beating steadily, was comforting.

A few seconds passed before I answered him quietly. “It’s pretty exciting so far, I’ll tell you that much.” Shrugging then, I added, “But I don’t think you really get to call me a kid anymore.”

“Puh shaw,” Dad replied simply. “Puh shaw, I say. You could be forty years old and I’ll still call you kid.” His arm squeezed me a little tighter against him. “Cuz you’re mine.” Turning a little, he lifted his other hand around to muss my hair fondly, his voice soft with what sounded like wonder. “My kid.”

Lifting my head from his chest to look up, I smiled, embracing him a bit more fully. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Felicity,” he replied gently while returning the hug. He held me tight for a few more seconds before asking, “You sure your friend’s gonna be okay walking around out there by herself?”

I couldn’t help the chuckle that came then. “Yeah, because this place is such a hot spot for crime.”

Dad’s voice turned a bit hollow then. “It was last night.” I felt his embrace tighten. “My god, all those people. How does something like that happen in a place like this? A terrorist attack in Laramie Falls?”

The now-familiar pang of guilt popped up as I shook my head. “Trust me, Senny’ll be okay. She just wants to get the lay of the land if she’s gonna be staying here. Besides, she’s used to being out at night.”

Nodding a little, Dad mused thoughtfully. “I guess she would be. Allergic to the sun, that’s gotta be rough.” Chuckling, he rubbed a hand over my hair once more. “Probably gets called a vampire a lot.”

I coughed to cover the reflexive snicker that came before giving a serious nod. “I bet she does too.” Shifting on the couch, I straightened to look at my dad directly. “Thanks for letting her stay here.”

“Ehh, I was getting pretty lonely anyway.” Dad waved a hand dismissively. “Your pops is a social creature. I like to bounce ideas off someone. Since you’re off getting an education, I need another sounding board. Hell, I was talking to that Ammon kid about a lot of the stuff I’d usually tell you.”

Before I could find a response to that, he frowned thoughtfully. “It’s still kind of weird that he and Rose would just up and take off like that. That letter they left on the door about moving was pretty vague.”

Rose hadn’t left a letter, of course. Asenath had written it after making sure that the woman herself was sent back to her home. As far as her family and doctors would be concerned, the woman had simply wandered off, gotten confused, and lost her memory for awhile. Which, while the idea of making that poor woman think she had some kind of mental problem like that seemed bad, I figured having doctors keep an eye on her brain after what she’d been through was a good idea. Even if they didn’t know exactly what had really happened, they would at least be watching for any problems.

“They probably rushed it because of what happened,” I offered a little lamely. I really didn’t want to talk about Ammon at the moment. “You know, because that stuff is enough to scare anyone.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, my father nodded. “You’re telling me. Makes me glad you’re nice and safe at that school.” Raising a hand, he pointed at my nose before poking it. “No more drug dealer busts for a good long while, kid. You just focus on your schoolwork instead of throwing yourself into trouble.”

Somehow, I managed to resist the urge to tell him he had to pick one, do my schoolwork or don’t get into trouble. “Don’t worry, Dad. I do everything my teachers tell me to. I’m a good little student.”

“Uh huh,” Dad’s response was somewhat less than totally convinced. Rather than press the issue, however, he glanced to his watch thoughtfully. “Well, I guess we’ve got time for one last present.”

Blinking at that, I echoed, “Present?” Shifting on the couch, I brightened. “Pressie? For me? But we already opened all the presents, even the phone you bought today.” He’d stopped by the store on his way home to get a replacement for the one that I’d told him was lost while Senny and I looked for him.

“You’re right, all those presents were opened already. All the presents from me,” Dad confirmed. He shifted then, looking somewhat guilty or nervous for a second. “But not the present from your mother.”

My gaze snapped up, eyes widening noticeably as I stammered, “Pre-present from who? What, huh?”

“Shhh, hey, calm down.” Dad raised both hands to settle on my shoulders. “It’s just something I’ve been holding for you until you were ready to see it, something your mother made for you a long time ago. Until now, I didn’t think you were… ready for it. But now, well, I think it’s time for you to have it.”

I just sat there, quietly confused and anxious while my father stood up and moved to the nearby closet. He dug around inside it for a few moments, setting some old game boards and boxes out of the way before coming out with a very thick black binder that looked pretty heavy as he hauled it out of the closet a little awkwardly.

Before I could ask what it was, Dad came back over to the couch and sat down. Up close, I could see that it wasn’t a binder, but a photo album. Or rather, a couple of photo albums that had been bound together. On the new cover of the joined albums were white handprints of two very differently sized hands, one large and one tiny, clearly an adult’s and a child’s. The lock was in between them. And it really was heavy. I grunted as he laid the thing on my lap.

“This,” Dad began by picking up my wrist to lay my hand against the smaller print, “is yours. You were about four years old at the time. I remember you wanted to paint your hand on everything after that.”

Leaving my hand where it was, my eyes moved toward the larger print. Something stuck in my throat for a moment before I managed to speak through it. “Does that mean that that… is that… hers?”

Smiling, my father nodded before touching a finger against the mark. He traced all the way along the handprint with a wistful sigh. “Yup, this is your mother’s. She wanted you to have it at your graduation. Which, I guess technically means I should’ve waited another year, but I think you need it now.”

“There’s a lock on it,” I noted, touching the clasp thoughtfully. “Do we have the key?”

“Check the back,” Dad replied, turning the heavy album over to show me the envelope taped there.

Taking the envelope off, I slid it open and dug a tiny silver key out of it before looking up again as my father stood up from the couch. “Where are you going?”

“Just going into the other room, kid,” my father answered with a slightly weak smile. “This bit is between you and your mother. I’ll be here after when you wanna talk or just sit for awhile, but you should have a chance to see this by yourself. I’ll be in the kitchen going through those leftovers.” Managing a smile then, he added with a chuckle, “Too bad Asenath’s mother couldn’t stick around long enough for me to meet her. I would’ve tried to see how much she’d charge to cook for us full time.”

That was the story we’d gone with for where all of Twister’s amazing food had come from, that Asenath’s mom had stopped by to make sure she was settling in, but had to leave before he came back.

“I’m sure she’ll come by and cook again,” I murmured absently while still staring at the album. Somehow, knowing it was from my mother made it feel even heavier than it should have.

Dad laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Take your time, Felicity. It’s okay. Your mom wanted to share this with you. She umm.” He coughed, closing his eyes briefly before clearly forcing himself to continue. “She was working on it since they day you were born. It’s umm, well, you’ll see.”

He stepped out of the room then, leaving me sitting on the couch with the album on my lap. For a couple minutes, I just sat there, staring at the two handprints while trying desperately to remember making them. Please. I could see the print, I knew it was mine. Why couldn’t I just remember the day that Mom and I put them on the book? It was a happy memory, it had to be. I wanted it back.

Finally, a heavy sigh escaped me as I lifted a slightly trembling hand to press the tiny key into the lock. Turning it, I unlatched the clasp and set the key on the nearby table before opening the large book.

The first thing I saw on the very first page was a photograph of a hospital room. My mother was lying in the bed, and she had an absurdly tiny bundle in her arms. A baby. Me. She was holding me.

Beside the picture there was the date, followed by a note. It read, ‘My happiness. My luck. From the day we learned that you were coming, I knew who you were. Felicitas. Luck and good fortune. If all the stars should fall and touch the Earth, I will still never see one which brightens my life more than you have throughout every moment I have known you. You are, and will always be, my Felicity.’

“Mom,” I managed the single word, tears stinging my vision as I touched the words, then the picture. My eyes moved to the next photograph, which showed the baby me in one of those hospital bassinets alongside several other infants. The date written beside the picture was the day after the first, and written below it was another short note from my mother. In this one, she wrote about how she wanted to go home with me, but the doctors insisted that she rest for a day or two first. She talked about how freaked out Dad had been throughout the whole thing, and that she was going to tease him forever about being the panicked one when the birth had actually happened. It was a brief note, but she managed to get a lot across with few words, ending with a simple, ‘I love you, my Felicity.’

That continued, I realized even as it became harder to see the actual book through my own tears. Every page of the thick book was filled with photographs and short notes. My mother, my mom… she had taken a picture of me every single day since I was born. She put all of them in this book, with a dated note beside it. Sometimes the notes were very short, only a few words about how proud she was of me, how much she loved and treasured me, and sometimes they ran on for a bit. There were a few times that the notes were written on lined notebook paper that had been folded up and attached to the page. She didn’t just talk about me either. Sometimes she went on about a conversation she’d had at the grocery store, something funny someone at the sheriff’s office had done, or just what the weather had been like lately. She talked about anything that came to mind, leaving a note for me by each picture.

I couldn’t make myself read each and every note just then. The tears were coming too heavily. But I flipped through and saw the last page. I saw the very last thing my mother had written in the book before she had closed and locked it for the very last time.

It was a photograph of seven-year old me sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of soup. The soup she had heated up for me right before disappearing for the last time. I remembered that day. I remembered the soup. She’d fixed the bowl for me when I said I was hungry. Halfway through it, I’d heard noises in my parent’s room. When I went to investigate, I found my mother filling suitcases with clothes. She promised me there was nothing wrong and that she just had to get rid of a few things, that she would be back soon. Then she’d hugged me, so tight it had almost been painful, telling me she loved me before taking the suitcases out to a waiting car. I’d watched from the window as she shoved the suitcases into the back and then got in the car to be driven away. That was the last time I saw my mother. I never knew she took the picture while I was eating that soup.

Beside the picture was another short note. This one read, in shaky handwriting, ‘You are the most amazing, wonderful thing I have ever done. I love you, Felicity. I can’t begin to tell you how much. I love you, my baby girl, my brilliant little one. Of every creature I have seen, you are the most magical to me. You are my gift, my luck, my light. I will always love you, and no matter what happens, I will always choose to protect you. Be safe, my child. Be careful.’

It ended with four words, clearly scribbled at the last second and in a rush. ‘You can trust Gaia.’

For a few seconds afterward, I simply sat there, staring at the words on the page, and the last photograph. No words came. No thoughts would come. All I could do was sit there, staring at the very words that my mother had written to me, the last thing she had said.

No, I reminded myself a moment later. Not the last thing. Because she was still out there, still alive.

“I’m coming, Mom,” I whispered under my breath while touching the album. My other hand clenched tightly shut. Before the tears overtook me once again, I finished with, “I swear, I’ll find you. I will.

“I’ll save you.”

******

The next morning, after giving my father what had to be the longest hug in recorded history, and making sure that Senny and Twister were set up with everything they needed, I left. It was time to head back to the Academy.

Dad thought I was taking the bus again, of course. He wanted to drop me off, but I convinced him I could get there myself, that I wanted to walk and enjoy the fresh air. Really, I didn’t want to cause a scene because I knew how hard it was going to be for me to leave him again, especially after everything that had happened and what I now knew.

But he was as safe as I could make him without being able to tell him the truth. He had Asenath and Twister on his side, and they’d let me know if anything happened.

It was a good thing I’d left him behind, because I barely came within sight of the bus stop with my bag (much heavier now with the photo album added to it) over my shoulder before a figure stepped into view ahead of me.

“Professor Dare?” I managed to get out before the blonde woman took a knee in front of me. “I—I’m sorry about the phone, I’m sorry I didn’t–”

“Miss Chambers,” she spoke abruptly, her expression clearly worried. “Are you… are you all right?”

I blinked once. “All right? I—umm, I don’t know. A lot—there was this… kid and he could– I umm, I’m sorry, Professor. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him. I’m sorry I couldn’t–”

“No, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare replied firmly while lifting her hands to my arms. “Listen to me, you did nothing wrong, all right? Nothing. You are a student. We are the ones who failed. We failed to be there for you, we failed to protect you. We failed to notice you were in trouble. Our safety measures were compromised, our methods failed. We are at fault, not you. You are not in trouble. You did nothing wrong.” Her hands squeezed my arms. “Are you sure you’re okay? We only found out that one of the attacks took place here this morning, when I mentioned where I was picking you up. Then we tried to call you, but you didn’t answer, and the emergency beacon was deactivated.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. Asenath and I had planned out how much to tell them, but it was sticking in my throat. “I—I–” Coughing, I managed a nod. “The boy, he… he controlled minds or something. He almost made my Dad kill this woman, and he made all those deputies, they’re the ones who killed—they–did it because he told them to. He was—I don’t know. I don’t know. He took my phone and I don’t know where it is, and–”

“Shhh,” Professor Dare took both of my hands in hers. “It is all right now, Miss Chambers. We will talk about everything you saw, everything that happened, but take your time. What matters is that you are safe now. You are all right. Thank the Edge, you’re okay. Let’s get back to the school first, then you can sit down and talk about everything.”

Unfortunately, even that was doomed, apparently. Because even as Professor Dare straightened up and turned while keeping one of my hands in hers, another voice spoke up.

“Virginia Dare, how remarkable to meet you wandering around a nowhere place like this.”

Turning, both of us took in the sight of the Asian man standing a few yards away, leaning against a no parking sign. He wore urban camo military pants along with a black turtleneck. His dark hair was shaped into a simple crew cut, and he looked like he was in his late thirties.

“Hisao, what are you doing here?” Professor Dare addressed the man curtly without releasing my hand.

The Asian man shrugged dismissively. “Oh, you know. Investigating Stranger attacks. Crossroads still does that, right? I know Garden’s always been better, but you shouldn’t just give up completely.”

He held that for another handful of seconds before abruptly laughing. Waving a hand in front of his face, the man continued. “Oh I’m kidding and you know it. Don’t glare at me so hard. I had to say it just to see that look on your face. Don’t kill me. Seriously, is Crossroads investigating this place? That your new partner? Looks kind of young for you guys.”

“This is… my student,” Professor Dare answered. Her stance had relaxed somewhat, though she glanced toward me curiously before going on. “I’m picking her up to go back to school. Our investigators will be along shortly. We’ve been a bit…”

“Overworked?” The man, Hisao apparently, finished for her. “Yeah, us too. The last few days have just run us all completely ragged. Must be a full moon or something, huh?” Before either of us could say anything else, he brightened. “Ah, there’s my little assistant. You find anything, kid?”

Another figure moved past us to join him while shrugging. “I’m not sure, it’s been a long time.”

“Had to bring the kid along since she used to live here,” Hisao explained casually. “Thought she might notice anything that was off.”

He was right. The girl standing beside him now, only just turning to face us, had lived here a few years earlier. I knew exactly how long it had been since she left, because it was the moment that I had lost my best friend, when her mother had gotten a new job that took them far away.

Our eyes met, and I saw the dawning recognition even as I blurted her name.

“Miranda?”

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