Hisao

Fusion 1-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We appeared at the back of what looked like an ordinary auditorium or theater. Rows upon rows of seats stretched out on either side of the narrow aisle we were in, leading down toward a large stage. Our seating area was the fourth from the left wall, with one more section to the right. In those other sections were more people of varying age groups, younger to the left and older to the right. Everyone was being directed to find seats. 

“Well, hello again.” The voice came from a man stepping in front of our little group, a familiar figure, with a scruffy, unshaven face, unkempt blond hair, and a pinstripe suit.

“Mr. Reinswield!” Tabbris blurted, quickly jumping that way to embrace the man. “Hiya!”

Sure enough, it was the former Eden’s Garden Heretic-turned-teacher we had met during our last stay here. The man looked surprised, but returned the embrace, murmuring, “You seem a bit more comfortable in your own skin, puella.” 

“We found Mama,” Tabbris declared with a bright smile. 

The man returned her smile, squeezing her again. “Well, that is very good news. But come, we can catch up later. Let’s find some seats for you before this assembly gets started.”

He guided us to a row of empty chairs, and everyone began filing in to sit down. I stayed back, however, waving for the others to go on. My gaze was centered on the man, as I swallowed hard. “Sir,” I started quietly, “I’m really sorry. I… I asked my friend from Eden’s Garden if she knew anything about a Sonya Eulcid, your… your old student, but she didn’t have a chance to ask around before… before she had to leave.” My head shook guiltily. This was the girl he had gotten himself banished to Seosten space by trying to stop her being being turned into a Heretic and losing her innocence when he was posing as a Bystander teacher. No excuse for still not finding out what happened to her felt good enough. “And things have been so busy all this time that–” 

He held up a hand to stop me. “I understand, Flick. Trust me, I do. And now we’ve made it back to Earth. We’re here. If Sonya is alive… I will find her.” His gaze met mine with a wince. “Though it has been so long since I have been here that… some help in that regard might be useful. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Earth in the decades since my disappearance.” 

My head bobbed rapidly. “Of course. Anything. I’ll help you find her. So will Miranda, I know. We talked about it, we just… there wasn’t a way to…” Shaking that off, I waved a hand while pushing on. “We’ll find her. Seller can probably help, he’s my ancestor and knows a lot about–” 

“The sellsword?” Mr. Rienswield raised an eyebrow. “He is your… interesting.” For a second, it looked like he was about to say something else. But in the end, the man just raised a hand to gesture to the seats where the others were. “Yes, we’ll talk about it soon. I may even be able to find answers among my new colleagues here. But for now, I know your sister is quite eager to ensure this presentation comes off without a hitch.” He offered me a wink.  “Let’s not add to her nerves by throwing hitches onto the stage before anything even starts, hmm?” 

It was hard for me to imagine Abigail ever being nervous. At least, not in a situation like this. In a fight maybe, or worried about her daughter or me… yeah. But nervous about talking to a bunch of students? Still, I nodded and squeezed in to find my seat by Avalon. Tabbris took the seat on the other side of me, with Shiori by her. There was enough space in front of us to put our bags down, most likely to accommodate various-sized species. Plus, when I actually sat, the chair itself adjusted to fit me perfectly. Looking around, I saw larger beings, Alters who were bigger than an average human, on seats that had grown to match. Giving a quick look around, I could see just how… eclectic of a population we had in this auditorium. True, it was about three-quarters human or human-passing, a mix of Bosch/Natural Heretics and Alters who didn’t stand out. But it was also one quarter Alters who could not have passed as human without the Bystander Effect. Beings of all different shapes and sizes scattered in groups throughout the room. They bunched up together, some clearly making a point of staying away from Bosch Heretics. And, of course, there were plenty of Heretics who were staying away from Alters. Even though we’d all chosen this side, that didn’t mean everyone was instantly comfortable with each other. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were the boogeymen for entire generations worth of Alters. And Alters had been the ‘evil monsters out to destroy humanity’ for Bosch Heretics for hundreds of years too. This was… definitely going to take time. But that was a big part of what the whole school thing was for, to get us interacting in a… closer to casual environment. In between all the violent life and death stuff happening back on Earth. 

Reaching down to my bag, I opened up the side pocket, taking out Jaq and Gus before setting them on my shoulders so they could look around. Then I produced Herbie, letting him sit on the armrest. Once he was arranged and comfortable, I looked over to Avalon. She had Porthos out, though he was down on the floor having what appeared to be an intense conversation with Choo, who by that point was as large as a normal warthog. His growth was also supposed to accelerate even more around now, apparently. In another month or so, he’d be as tall as I was. It was hard to imagine the tiny sneezing electric-pig as this big, dangerous figure. And also weird to think that there were several more smaller Choos stacked up inside of him, nesting doll-style.

Just another example of the fact that things had changed. And were still changing.I didn’t know what was going to happen this year. But if it was anything even remotely like last year… yeah, I would have to enjoy the relative calm while I had the chance.  

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked in a whisper, leaning over to rub Herbie gently. 

I nodded. “Yeah, I just… that’s Mr. Reinswield, the guy I told you about. And I never found out what happened to Sonya Eulcid, that girl he wanted us to look for.” 

Overhearing that, Miranda, who was seated on the far side of Avalon, leaned forward and looked down at me. “I can ask around, find out if she’s part of the group that rebelled. I probably should’ve done that already, it’s just–” 

“We’ve been busy, yeah.” Grimacing, I nodded. “Can you just check next chance you get? She’d be way too old to be part of this whole school thing, but maybe she’s still out there and has a kid or something here.”

The other girl agreed, just as the lights on the stage came up, while the ones over the audience dimmed a fair bit. Apparently the introduction and orientation speeches were about to start. 

Focusing on the stage, I saw some teachers from Crossroads. Not just the ones from the first year, but a few from higher years too. And there was Hisao, standing by a few other Heretics he was quietly talking to. I was guessing they, like him, were the ones from Eden’s Garden.

Of course, there were also Alter teachers, both ones that had been here already and a couple who had been recruited from on-world, thanks to both Wonderland and Prosser’s people. 

Basically, we had a lot of different teachers from a lot of different groups, to go with all the different students. 

Oh, and Abigail, of course. She stood there on the stage, deep in private conversation with Professor Dare, Miss Handsy (the school administrator lady whose body consisted of a green flesh ball with a bunch of tentacles stretching out in every direction to act as both arms and legs, with a smaller ball for her head connected to the larger one), and one of the Eden’s Garden teachers. With the lights down over the audience, all the attention was on that stage. Abigail glanced our way, said something else to the others, and then stepped up to the front. Her mouth opened, before she stopped herself and reached into her pocket to produce a small light blue rock, which she spoke a word into. The spell on it glowed briefly before fading. 

“Good morning,” Abigail started again, her voice magically magnified to fill the room. “Err, wow. Wow, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Good morning–orning–ning…” Making her own echo while a few people snickered and others just stared, she shook her head. “Magic. It uhh, it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Mostly because I only found out it existed a… less than a year ago. It’s still very new to me. All of this is. I’m still a beginner in… every sense of the word.” 

There were some audible murmurs to that, which Abigail allowed for a few seconds before speaking up again. “Then why am I the one standing here talking as though I have any authority? Why am I talking to you instead of any of these people behind me who all know a lot more than I do about all of this?” 

Watching the general agreement with her questions, my big sister added, “For that matter, you all already have so much to grow into here. You’re sitting in this room alongside people you would have run from, hunted, fought, even killed just a few months ago. Many of you have been told your whole lives that the people sitting ten feet away from you right now were monsters. Some of you have lived in fear of being hunted and killed since the day you were born. And now in these past few months, you’ve been told that we, together, are going to try a different way. You Heretics have been told that your entire society, everything you are, has been manipulated; that while you have done a lot of good, others used and manipulated you to make you into the very monsters that you were trying to protect the innocents from. You’ve all been told that everything you know, everything that has been fact for you since before the United States even existed, is changing. 

“In just these short few months, you have all been trying to understand this, trying to come to terms with it. And now you’re here, expected to live and learn and even fight alongside people who have been your enemies for generations. That is so much to ask of any of you. But you’re here. You came to try. But now you get here, you’re among these people, many of whom make you uncomfortable, or even afraid. And you look up here, and you see the person talking to you has barely even known anything of your society, of your existence, for less than a year? Why am I here? What could I possibly present to you that wouldn’t be better coming from someone who has understood you for so much longer? After all, I’m barely even a Heretic. I don’t fight. I barely have any power at all. I’m one step removed from a total Bystander.”

From where he was sitting a bit further down the line, Jason whispered, “Is she trying to talk herself out of this job, or something?”

Smiling a little to myself, I quietly replied, “Just wait for it.”

Abigail let whispers like that go on for another few seconds before she spoke again. “But here’s the thing. That’s exactly why I’m here. Because I didn’t grow up in this society, in this world. I am not here in spite of the fact that I am a terrible Heretic, I am here because I’m a terrible Heretic. I don’t know much about fighting. Almost nothing, really. To the chagrin of my colleagues, I assure you. But I know about learning. I know about injustice, about righting it, and about making others understand it. You do not need the person in charge of this school to be a warrior. You don’t. As I said, that’s what all these people behind me are for. Your principal does not need to be a demigod. She needs to be a principal. That’s headmistress for those of you who might be confused right now. But please don’t call me that, because it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’ve stepped into a Harry Potter fan fiction. And let’s be honest, this entire thing is kind of teetering on the edge of that as it is. 

“I am Principal Fellows. I’m here to organize your teachers, to be the person who talks without any previous personal history in your society. I’m here to teach you, to learn from you, and to listen to you. I’m here to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, Alter, Bosch, or Natural.”

Visibly considering that for a moment, Abigail shrugged. “Besides, considering everything I just said about this being new to everyone, I guess it just fits the theme to have someone who is new to all of it anyway. You all have history. Learn from it, grow from it, but do not allow it to dictate your future. There’s a lot of dirt in everyone’s pasts here. You can use that dirt to bury this whole thing that we’re trying to do. Or you can use it to grow the seed we’ve got into something truly beautiful. It’s up to each of you.” 

Asenath appeared then, stepping across the stage to whisper something in Abigail’s ear. The other woman looked to her, nodded, then turned back to us. “And now that I have… hopefully successfully talked myself out of and then back into this job, we’ll discuss a few particulars. 

“First, you are all being initially grouped by general age level. If you are of a species that matures slower or faster than humans, we have attempted through discussions with you and others of your kind to put you into the appropriate group. Those who are more experienced than their age group generally is may test into higher groups. But do not attempt this lightly, because you will be judged by several critical eyes, in subjects including your physical, magical, and mental faculties.” 

Tabbris nudged me at that, and I smiled a bit before nodding. We’d already gone through arranging for her to live with me, though she was going to be visiting and learning with the younger groups too, just to have time with people her own age. 

Abigail was still explaining. “Our groups begin at age twelve, and each covers two years, up through twenty and twenty-one year olds. Five age groups, which is how you’re sitting right now. If you are in the first two sections here, those who will be twelve and thirteen by December thirty-first, and those who will be fourteen and fifteen, please stand up.” Abigail waited for those first two sections to rise, before explaining, “You are part of our trainee program. For now, please follow Miss Senny here to your dorms, where more will be explained and you can drop off your bags and get settled in. Staff members will be happy to answer more questions throughout the day, and we will all discuss this more at supper this evening.” She indicated Asenath, who descended the stage to lead the first couple groups out. 

Once they were gone, Abigail focused on the third section. “Next, our students who will be sixteen and seventeen years old this year. You will also live in dorms, but separate from the younger groups, as your training and education requirements are different. You may also, if you wish, participate in certain low-danger missions for–” At that point, she had to stop talking for a moment because of the whoops and cheers going up from that middle section. A few quiet words from the staff members in the aisles there quieted the students, and Abigail continued. “That is, if you wish and if your staff mentors sign off on you. These will be missions of mercy, helping those who need us.

“Now, please follow Hisao, the nice gentleman standing right there, to your dorms, where you will be given more information. As I said, use the rest of the day to get settled in and direct any questions you might have to your staff advisers. We will meet again for dinner, and classes will begin tomorrow.” 

She started to move on, but one of the students from that section raised a hand and blurted in a loud voice that carried really well, “What about those of us that are still human and were supposed to get to visit the Edge this year? Are we just boned?” 

A small smile touched Abigail’s face then before she shook her head. “No, you’re not ‘boned’. We have plans to assist all interested human students with potential Natural bonding. Ideally, this will happen when you are younger in order to allow a longer bonding process. But it will work here as well. As I said, there will be details when you reach your dorm. You’ll be able to sign up to match with Alters who have volunteered to help bond with others like you.” 

With that, Hisao led that group out, leaving two more. Ours and the twenty and twenty-one-year-olds. Once it was just us, Abigial focused our way. “And finally, our adults. Or those who will be adults within the next couple of months.” She smiled just a little, a goofy gesture that vanished a moment later. “Instead of dorms, you will live in houses in one of this station’s… neighborhoods. You will be assigned your house to live in, but if you and another person would like to change places, you may do so if both of you agree. Generally, each house will have ten people living in it. These will be a mixture of Alters and Heretics. If there are problems that simply cannot be settled, we will assign people to new homes. But do try to remember that our entire goal here is for everyone to learn to live in harmony together.

“As with the group before, you will be allowed to participate in voluntary aid missions, as well as combat missions for those who have passed a certain level of training and psychological certifications, both of which will be tested and renewed once per month and also at the discretion of faculty. But beyond simply passing your training and psychological evaluations, you must also keep up with your schoolwork. Yes, school even for you, though not quite as long. Generally, your school days will last from nine in the morning until lunch, one hour for each of the three classes you will have each day. Then you will have lunch, followed by training and any missions that have been requested or volunteered for. Again, your participation in these missions is not required in any way, shape, or form. They are not mandatory and never will be. And you may opt out of any. But if you do wish to participate, you must keep up your schoolwork, and pass your evaluations.” 

Raising both hands to forestall all the hands (and tentacles and claws and hooves and… more) that were going up, Abigail assured everyone, “I know, I know, you all have questions. We’ll get to them, I promise. Let’s try to get everyone to your houses so you can put your stuff away and get settled in, like the younger groups. Professor Dare and Kaev here will lead you out.” For the latter name (which was pronounced Cave), she indicated a green gelatinous figure who looked a lot like a full adult-sized version of the Flubber figure from that old Robin Williams movie. 

Dare and that Kaev (I wasn’t sure if they were male or female, or if it mattered) left the stage, walking up the aisles. Well, Dare walked. Kaev sorta… bounced. It was like he or… she or… they were on one of those toys where you sit on the ball and hop with it. Complete with an audible ‘boing’ after each motion. 

Looking over to Tabbris and the others, I shrugged. “Well, I guess we should go see our new home, huh? 

“Let’s hope we don’t end up going to war against this one too.”

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Exodus 44-06

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Please note that there is an important opinion question in my first comment after this chapter regarding where the new upcoming second story that will be written side-by-side with the second year of this one will be posted. Anyone who has a chance and a preference, it would be great if you could take a look and let me know what you think. Thank you. 

We started running. Dozens of us, by that point. There was me, Avalon, Aylen, Shiori, Columbus, and a bunch of hybrid students, each of whom had friends or teammates who were coming along.

Well, they started running. I took a few steps before stumbling a little bit. When I did, everyone looked at each other before Columbus of all people held a hand out. “It’s okay,” he said quietly, “I… trust you.” Despite his words, there was tension in his voice that told me, as if I hadn’t already known how big this was.

I met his gaze for a moment, then took his hand and possessed the boy. I made a point of staying out of his thoughts. Still, I could tell even from surface impressions that he was nervous. Not that I personally would do anything, but just… the idea of having anyone who could take control of him. He didn’t like it, and even though he trusted me, he wanted me out as soon as possible.

We were all following Harper. Or… or… Lancelot. Lancelot. We were following Harper, who was actually Lancelot. Yeah, that was taking awhile to sink in. Even with Tabbris having a complete ranting fangirl moment in my head, going on about how awesome that was, complete with her own mental sound effects.

There were others following. Some of the teachers and other students were trailing behind, blurting out confused words or demands about what was going on or about where we were going. But after what had just happened with Ruthers, not even any of the staff were willing to get in the newly-transformed Harper’s way. Which meant they weren’t willing to get in our way. So instead, they just followed along with a bunch of other students who had no idea what was going on.

And it wasn’t like there was time to explain it. Because Harper, or Lancelot, or whoever she happened to be was right. The rest of the Committee would be on its way. We had to leave.

Running beside Columbus, Shiori blurted, “Do you think the shield’ll be down before we get there?”

Before anyone could say answer that, Deveron was suddenly there. “It’s down,” he informed her, and the rest of us. “Where’s–”

“In me,” Columbus put in. “Easier to run.”

Deveron gave a quick nod then, briefly looking around as we ran before his gaze fell on the new Harper at the head of the pack. “We can get… Who–what…” He paused, as though realizing that he’d missed something enormous.  “…. What just happened?”

“Dude…” Shiori managed, “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”

“She’s right,” Columbus put in while Vulcan gave a low bark to the side. “You really wouldn’t.”

“Short version,” Avalon announced. “Harper is Lancelot. Yeah, that one. She just beat Ruthers and made him retreat. But he’ll probably be back with more help. We’re leaving.”

“Wait, wait, back up to the part about beating Ruthers,” Deveron started. “Because I really–”

Shiori shook her head quickly, interrupting. “Sorry, we super don’t have time for you to get popcorn for the play-by-play. You said the shield was down?”

Koren joined us then, nodding quickly. “It’s down, we’re–wait, are we taking the whole school?”

I felt Columbus open his mouth to respond to that, but someone else spoke first. It was Nevada. She appeared in front of us just as we reached the beach, looking briefly taken aback by the size of the group  before nodding over her shoulder. “Go, guys! If you’re leaving, get to the boat out there.”

“Yeah, guys,” Sands piped up. She and Scout were there next to Nevada, along with their mother and Doug. “Let’s get on the boat and get the hell out of here.”

“No, just stop!” That was Reid Rucker, the acting head of security with Kohaku on her recovery vacation, previously her second-in-command. The man came out of nowhere, panting briefly as he straightened up with a shotgun in one hand and a shield in the other. His eyes scanned the group. The hybrids, their friends, and my people were all clustered together, with the rest of the students and older teachers back a bit. Everyone had skidded to a halt when Nevada appeared. Now they looked to Rucker, some anxiously, some angrily, and some with relief.

“I don’t know who you are,” Rucker announced, his eyes on Harp–Lancelot (seriously, what the fuck) as he continued. “But no one is going anywhere. This is all just one big misunderstanding, okay? There’s no evacuation order. There’s no Strangers overrunning the school. It’s all going to be straightened out. Everyone just calm down and back up.”

It was Deveron who spoke then, before anyone else could. “Sorry, man. We’re leaving. So can anyone who wants to come with.”

Some of the students who didn’t know what was going on started to all talk over each other, asking why anyone would want to leave. They were interrupted by one of the older teachers, who spoke up. “Rucker’s right. I don’t know what exactly is happening here, but no one needs to leave. Let’s all take a breath and remember that we’re on the same side.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right thing. Because it prompted Shiori to blurt, “Are we?!”

That brought everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s attention to her. They were staring, as the Asian girl flushed a little, shrinking back reflexively before stopping herself. She straightened, glancing to the other obvious Hybrids. Then she looked back to the teacher who had spoken, and the rest of the students who had followed us this far. “Are we really on the same side?” she began, her voice cracking briefly. “Because… because…”

Stepping out of Columbus (taking Rucker by surprise, by his reaction), I reached out, putting a hand on Shiori’s shoulder. Columbus himself did the same, his voice soft. “It’s okay.”

It was enough. Shiori spoke more clearly then. “Because I’m not human. Not completely.”

She pushed on while the confused murmuring started, ignoring all of it. “They’re going to tell you lies. They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters, that our parents were monsters. They’re going to tell you anything they can to avoid admitting the truth, that we’re people. We’re just people. My father is human. My mother… isn’t. My sister isn’t. I’m half-human. I’m a Hybrid.”

“So am I.” That was one of the second-year students, a lanky boy with dark, shaggy hair. He was surrounded by what looked like his entire team, all of whom were right at his side and looked like they already knew all of this. “I’m a Hybrid. My father isn’t human either. And he’s not a monster. Neither am I.”

“That’s right,” a red-haired, freckled girl that was clearly part of his team put in. “Miles isn’t a monster, you dickheads.”

There were a few more agreements with that, while the teachers and all the students who hadn’t known what was going on looked at them with a wide assortment of reactions. I saw confusion, betrayal, understanding, relief, anger, pity, and more all spread throughout everyone who was seeing and hearing these words.

Shiori continued. “They’re going to tell you that we’re monsters because we’re not completely human! They’re going to tell you that it’s a lie, that we were always monsters and that Gaia just shoved human DNA in us to let us become Heretics. They’re the ones who are lying!

Another voice spoke up then. Rebecca Jameson blurted at her roommate, “Sh-Shiori? What… what are you talking about? What’s going on? Aylen, Koren? What are you guys doing? What–are… are you really…”

“We’re not monsters,” Aylen said in a voice that was somehow simultaneously quiet and yet audible to everyone. “We’re just people. Our parents aren’t evil.”

“Speak for yourself,” one of the other Hybrids muttered before flushing with a mumbled apology.

“That’s the point!” Avalon suddenly cut in. “Some are evil, some aren’t! This isn’t rocket science! Good people, bad people, good Strangers, bad Strangers! It’s not advanced ethics, it’s fucking kindergarten!”

“What are you talking about?” That was one of the third-year students who had no clue what was happening. She moved forward out of the crowd, shaking her head. “You guys aren’t related to Strangers. That’s ridiculous. You’re… you’re just…”

“Just people?” Dare finished for her. She was there, coming through the crowd with Hisao right at her side. I felt an immediate rush of relief at the sight of her. She and Hisao had clearly been through… well, a lot. Both of them looked worn and ragged. And wet. Really wet. They were both soaked through for some reason, neither apparently taking the time to dry themselves even with powers or magic. They moved together, Dare continuing to address the student who had spoken. “Yes, they’re just people, Theresa. That’s the point. No one is born a monster. You choose to be one, or you don’t.”

That caused even more murmuring, everyone trying to talk over one another. There were small arguments breaking out throughout the crowd of onlooking students and teachers. I saw some staff members trying to quiet them, and, unfortunately, I even saw a couple small shoving fights break out in the crowd. A few people shouted about how we were lying, others about how their hybrid class and teammates were monsters. That started even more arguments, and the whole thing looked like it was going to turn into an all-out brawl.  

“Stop, stop!” That was Reid Rucker again, his voice shaking just a little as he pointed to us. “No more. I don’t what’s going on here, but this… this joke has gone far enough. You’re done now.”

“Quite right, Mr. Rucker,” a new voice spoke up. “That is enough.”

It was Litonya. She was there, along with a recovered Ruthers, the Asian woman Jue, and the big black guy, Geta. Four Committee members, none of them friendly. They stood facing us down, looking pretty much as though they would like nothing more than an excuse to end this whole thing permanently and without mercy. Worse, they were joined very quickly by more of their people, more loyal Committee lackeys who looked as though they were spoiling for an excuse to fight. Their presence also quieted all the arguments that had started throughout the crowd, as everyone snapped basically to attention, staring that way.

Litonya continued. “There will be no leaving the island. We have indulged far too much nonsense this year, and leading up to it. Everything will be put back to its proper place now.”

“Proper place?” Gordon started then, as he came into view from the beach. Jazz was with him, along with Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, Larees, Misty, her brother Duncan, Enguerrand, and a few others. And Gabriel Prosser, he was there too. That was enough to make a few people start whispering again, their wide eyes locked on the man who had become a legend even amongst Crossroads despite not being part of them.

Gordon continued, while everyone who didn’t know what was going on reacted to his sudden appearance. “You mean in the ground for me and everyone like me? Or cages, like Eden’s Garden has done with my father? That’s what you mean by proper place, right? Are you better because you kill us rather than enslave us?”

More people appeared. More of Prosser’s people from the Atherby camp. They faced down the Committee and their people, the tension high enough that it seemed to make an almost audible buzzing sound. There was a war brewing, one that had been building up for a long time and was now right on the cusp of breaking out.

“Jazz!?” Travis Colby blurted, sounding more shocked by her appearance than by anything else. “You’re okay!? You’re–you’re… what the fuck?”

That last bit was because Jazz had been joined by Jokai. Yeah. He was there, standing beside her as Jazz took his hand. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Hey, guys. Guess what, I have a boyfriend.”

Your degenerate filth is not welcome here!” The shout came from Jue, the handsome Asian woman practically screaming it, spittle flying from her lips as she threw her hand out, sending a bolt of orange fire that way.

It was caught by Prosser, who held a hand up to make a brief energy shield to stop the fire. “Raise a hand to those under my protection again, any of you,” he advised, “and I promise you will regret it.”

Litonya seemed to be analyzing the situation, her eyes snapping back and forth between the crowd of supporters behind them, the confused students and teachers who didn’t know what to do, our group, and Gabriel Prosser and his people. Finally, she snapped, “Enough. This has gone on for far too long. We end it now, beginning with Headmistress Sinclaire admitting what she did, what she has been doing.”

Her fingers snapped, and Gaia herself appeared between Geta and Jue. Her wrists were shackled with what were clearly magical chains, yet she appeared just as regal and in control as ever.

As the rest of the students blurted the headmistress’s name, or started shouting questions, Avalon said something very different. Taking a step that way, her mouth opened and she spoke a single word that cut through everything else.  

“Mom.”

It was quiet, plaintive, and desperate. It was a single word, a word full of yearning, apologies, and need. Avalon said it, and with it, she said a whole lot more.

Everyone else had stopped with that word, and the tone and meaning behind it. For a few long seconds, Gaia and Avalon simply met gazes, before the woman gave a soft smile. “It’s okay, Valley,” she said quietly. “It’s going to be okay.”

Litonya was pointing to her. “No, it really won’t. Not for you, or for any of your conspirators. You never should have been given this position, witch. And you will never hold it again. You will confess your part in all of this. You will tell everyone that you murdered Oliver because of what he discovered about your activities. You will tell everyone just how much you have perverted our institution for your own ends. You will confess all of it.”

Gaia, however, wasn’t looking at her. Her eyes were on the new Harper. On Lancelot. She stared, head tilting a little. “You… you’re… you were…” Then she gave a single, soft little laugh, a chuckle. “Take care of them, please, until I can come back.”

“Yes,” Harper agreed in a voice that made it clear that there was a lot more behind what they were saying to each other than any of us had a chance of following. “I will. I have.”

Litonya opened her mouth to say something else then, but Gaia interrupted. “Miss Chambers,” she started, looking to me of all people. “It’s time for a revelation.”

I heard the others saying something. I heard demands being flung around, words of confusion from other teachers, threats from the Committee, all of it. I heard it, but I didn’t care.

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

“So I really won’t remember anything about this?” I hesitantly asked Gaia while standing in her office beside a table that she had conjured up. My eyes were focused on the two items laying in the middle of that table.

The headmistress gave a slight nod. “That is the easiest, safest way of doing this.” Her eyes softened a bit then as she watched me. “This is very dangerous, Miss… Felicity. What we are doing, what we want to do, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. If anyone learns what we intend before we are ready, it will be… dangerous, for everyone involved. You will do what you need to do, but you will not know why. You will not remember why it is that important.”

I swallowed. “I understand. You have to keep everyone safe. You have to keep the secret safe.”

“You are very good at keeping secrets, Felicity,” Gaia assured me. “But this one… it is better if you don’t have to think about it until it’s time. Until I tell you that it is time for a revelation. That will be the signal for the spell blocking your memory of this to fade, the signal that it is time to use the spell that we have created.”

Stepping over to the table then, I reached out, hesitating slightly before setting my hands almost reverently against the items that rested there. “So I’ll just stop looking for these?”

“You will move on to other things,” Gaia assured me with a slight smile. “I trust you will not run out of items and mysteries to occupy your time.”

Shrugging at that, I nodded. “I guess so. But you really think I can just write in a notebook for months without knowing why I’m doing it? Hell, not just write it in it. You’re talking about me powering it with magic for months without knowing why I’m doing it, about me protecting it and keeping it secret. And in all that time, I won’t know why?”

Gaia chuckled. “Part of you will, I’m sure. It’s just that your conscious mind will not. That’s the safest way. Unless you disagree. If you would prefer not to do this–”

“No,” I interrupted quickly. “No, I want to. I… I want to do it.” Looking to her, I bit my lip before adding, “Whatever it takes. Block my memories, hide it from me, I don’t care. It’s worth it. If… if it does what you say it will, it’s worth anything.”

For a few silent seconds then, our gazes met. Gaia watched me with a soft, almost sad smile. “You’re right, of course,” she murmured under her breath. “This is worth it. We will begin the spell and block it from your memory.”

“And you’re really sure I won’t remember?” I had to ask once more. “I won’t remember our plan, or what I’m really doing, or… or anything about it? It won’t even bother me that I don’t remember?”

Gaia winked at me. “You won’t even remember that I’ve already teased you about your rather important conversation with Avalon and Shiori about your relationships when I do so again, after your memory is blocked.”

I started to nod to that. “Right, I won’t rememb–wait, what?”

*****

“A revelation?” That was Ruthers, gaze snapping back and forth between us. “No. Stop her. Stop them. Something’s wrong. Something is wrong, they’ve planned. She has a weapon of some kind, a–”

It was too late. I had my notebook, the one I’d been writing in ever since that meeting at Gaia’s office, the one that I had taken care of and kept on me every chance I had even though I didn’t really know why I was doing so. The one that Tabbris had clearly known, but kept silent about. I held it, while everyone stared at me.

“That is not a weapon,” Jue observed, her tone dismissive as she gave a quick look at it.

“You’re wrong about that,” I informed her simply. “This is the most dangerous weapon in the world, the one that terrifies you guys beyond everything else. This? This is knowledge. It’s news. And you know what I was before you people brought me here?

“I was a reporter.”  

With those words, I extended my other hand and spoke the word that Gaia had told me about months earlier, the word that summoned one of the items that had been on her table.

Mom’s Hunga Munga. That was what had been there that day. One of them appeared in my hand, and seeing it drove all four Committee members to action. They tried to stop me, tried to stop what was about to happen. But between Gabriel, Harper, and the rest of the Atherby’s, even four Committee members couldn’t get to me in time.

I dropped the notebook I had written in all year, and hurled the throwing axe through the middle of it.

The notebook burst into flames and disintegrated as the spell came to life. The spell connected itself to the Hunga Munga. And through that, to its partner, the other Hunga Munga, which I knew from our conversation months ago would be seated in the middle of the ritual table in a secret, hidden area of Gaia’s private rooms. The second throwing axe, partner to this one, would be tied by a bit of rope from the Crossroads’ Reaper’s hangman rope that Gaia had sent Asenath to retrieve. The rope, a bit of dragon bone, and other pieces of the ritual, secretly prepared over the past few months for this exact moment.

No one could stop it now. The spell came to life. And in an instant, everything that I had written in the notebook was sent through the minds of every single person connected to the Heretical Edge, to the Reaper whose rope had been used for this.

Two things. I’d written two things in that notebook. First, I’d written down everything I’d learned about my mother. Who she was, what she’d done, everything she had accomplished. Everything about the rebellion, about how Ruthers had stopped it, about Wyatt and Abigail being abducted and held hostage. About Mom being taken by Fossor after spending years in Laramie Falls. Everything. All of it. Everything I knew about my mother and her rebellion against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden.

The other thing I had written in that notebook was the spell that Gaia had told me to add to the very end. The spell that would, apparently, undo the memory eraser that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden had done to finally end the rebellion. It was a spell she always could have done, but it would only work on one person at a time. There was no way to hit everyone.

Until now. Until they had something that connected everyone. Like that piece of the Hangman’s rope. Because all of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were connected to that. All of them were connected to him. Everyone was connected to the Heretical Edge.

In that single motion, with the spell that Gaia had spent decades preparing before I even came along, and the past few months finalizing, we erased the spell that had ended the rebellion. But we did more than that. Because it wasn’t just old Heretics, those who had known the rebellion and chosen a side at the time, who remembered. It was everyone. Every single Heretic who had ever come through Crossroads or Eden’s Garden suddenly knew the truth.

They knew my mother. They knew what she had done, what she had stood for. They knew who she was.

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Day After Day 39-05

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

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that was crazy.

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Convalescence 38-02

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My knees hit the floor before I knew what was happening. My head went down, and I threw up right there on the floor. My stomach was rolling violently, even as indescribable shame overtook me.

Deveron was there first, dropping beside me to offer a cup of water that he had summoned before doing something that took the… mess from the floor. Neither of us spoke. I was too ashamed to for that moment, and he clearly wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

Actually, of all people, it was Percival who found his voice first. “Well,” the man announced into the silence that had taken over the room, “this is an interesting development, I’ve gotta say.”

“Interesting?!” Doug’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal before he got it under control. “You think it’s interesting that my dead teammate is standing right here because Flick accidentally summoned him? Are you fucking cra–” He stopped there, seeming to realize only at that point who he was actually talking to, and I saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen.

“Fucking crazy?” Percival finished for him. He didn’t look offended. Actually, he didn’t look much like a super-powerful member of the Committee either. He was wearing dark jeans with random holes over them, and a black shirt advertising Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” He also had a metal-studded wristband, and I caught sight of a tattoo of a bloody sword on his opposite arm. That last one could have been decorative or a spell, I wasn’t sure.

“Lots of people ask me that,” the man continued before Doug could stammer any explanation or excuse. “You’re not even the first one today. Or the first one from your family.”

Dare moved to me then, her eyes flicking toward the still motionless Rudolph. I saw a lot of emotions pass through her face as she looked to the boy before focusing on me once more. “Felicity,” she started softly, “it’s okay. You can… you can let him down now.”

“Let him down?!” I gave her a brief look before my head shook rapidly, still on my knees. “I don’t even know how I’m keeping him up. I’m not doing it on purpose, I swear. I didn’t call him down here on purpose, or, or… or do any of this on purpose. It just happened. I mean, I think I maybe felt something back when I first did it, and maybe I feel something now like… at the back of my head, but I don’t know how to actually control it, or–or–I don’t know anything about it, anything!”

Okay, it was just maybe a tiny bit possible that after everything that had happened that night, I was kind of losing it just a little bit. But really, was that hard to understand?

It was Deveron who spoke up then, his hand resting on my shoulder while his other one touched my wrist. “I’ve seen a lot of necromancy, and if his is anything like that, he’ll follow your subconscious commands and the conscious ones. Verbal or silent, he’s connected to you. That’s probably why it was so easy this time. You know Rudolph pretty well and you really wanted him–” He hesitated, grimacing a little while coughing out the next couple words. “You really wanted him back. So the first thing you do is let him down. Think about him laying down.”

Trying to ignore the fact that I could feel and see everyone else staring at me, I swallowed hard before focusing on Rudolph–no, Rudolph’s body. Rudolph was dead. Rudolph was already dead. I wasn’t killing him again, because this wasn’t really him. It was some… some magic animating his body. That’s it. I had to remember that.

Keeping that thought in my mind, I willed Rudolph to lay down. Aloud, I quietly said, “It’s okay. You–” My voice cracked, and I tightened my hands into fists. “You can go back to sleep.”

It took a minute, probably because a good part of me didn’t want Rudolph to go away. As much as I told myself that it wasn’t really him, there was still a little bit that clung to the fact that he was standing right in front of me, and this did kind of feel like killing him again. It hurt. It really hurt.

But eventually, I managed it. Rudolph’s body slowly laid down there on the floor and went still. As it did, Deveron quietly talked me through pulling my power out of him. His voice was gentle. “Picture a line of power running from yourself to Rudolph, just a single tendril. Imagine he’s completely deaf, and that line is how you communicate with him. Like a cord between a computer and a keyboard. Focus on that line. It’s your power. It’s how you reach him, how you control him. Everything between you and Rudolph is in that line, okay? Now I want you to carefully pull that line out. Take the line out of him. Pull your power back and let him go.”

I did. Slowly and haltingly, I managed to extract the power from Rudolph’s body. Picturing it the way that Deveron described, I could feel the way the dead boy was connected to me, the way that the power I had taken from Manakel had extended itself into him.

Him. It. I kept flipping back and forth about what to refer to Rudolph as in my head. Both felt wrong. I was trying to remind myself that the dead body wasn’t really Rudolph anymore. But calling him ‘it’ even in my head also felt wrong. I just… I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Once it was done, and I felt like the power was completely out of the body, I straightened up, moving back away from the body as quickly as I could. I couldn’t look at it, at him. I didn’t want to see Rudolph like… like that. Even more bile rose in my throat at the thought of it, at the thought of what I had done with my power, puppeting him around like that. I almost threw up again.

It wasn’t right.

Everyone seemed to know exactly how I felt. Hisao moved closer, taking a knee beside the body. “I’ll take him back,” the man announced in a soft, respectful voice. I thought he had a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder, or maybe his stomach. I was really trying not to look.

A moment later, Hisao was gone, teleporting away with the body and leaving that spot of floor empty. And that was when I found myself staring at it, at the bit of floor where the body had been, where I had commanded Rudolph to move. My voice shook a little bit. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I–”

“We know you didn’t.” That was Dare. “We know you didn’t mean to.”

“It is, however,” Percival announced, “something else to explain. And unfortunately, keeping it secret isn’t in the cards. Rudolph wasn’t that subtle coming down here, and plenty of people saw him. Which means the rest of the Committee already knows. And, well, there’s some that tend to frown on necromancy. It has something of a negative reputation.”

Yeah, I could believe that. Not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what Fossor had done. “Let me guess,” I started, “Ruthers is one of the ones who ‘tends to frown on it.’”

The man gave me a wry smile then. “You could say that. The man does have something of a shit history with necromancers.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “given the necromancer in question has my mom, we should be on the same side.”

“Ah,” Percival replied with a quick grin, “so you do know more about the Fossor situation than you’ve told the Committee.”

That made me do a double take, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before my hand found my forehead. “Shit. I knew that was going to trip me up eventually.” It had been an incredibly long night, after an incredibly long couple of days, after an incredibly long couple of months. I knew from Gaia that Percival could be trusted with that, but still, I should be more careful.

The man shrugged at me. “Don’t worry, most of us already know that you know more than you’re sharing. But it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell situation. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of arguments about it. As long as you don’t let something like that slip in front of the others, they shouldn’t push you too hard about it. They’re afraid that if you don’t know much, asking you directly could create problems. Memory spells are tricky that way.”

“Wait,” Columbus started then, stepping closer. “How much do you know about what’s going on? No tricks or doubletalk. How much do you know?”

For a moment, I didn’t know if the man would answer. He looked at Columbus in silence briefly before turning back to glance toward Professor Dare and Hisao. Then he let out a breath and nodded as if coming to a decision. “Cards on the table, I know more than most on the Committee. Not all of it, but a lot. I also know that one of my fellow Counselors is definitely possessed. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s one of them. I’ve been trying to work that out. I know that Calafia, Teach, and Sophronia can be trusted so far as the Seosten situation is concerned, and I’m moderately confident that none of them are possessed. Particularly Calafia.”

“You know that they’ve been behind this whole organization,” I put in quietly. “You know that they were behind creating Crossroads, and the Bystander Effect.”

“Not originally,” the man replied. “I mean, I didn’t know they were the ones behind it. I knew who the Seosten were, just not that they were behind Crossroads. Not until more recently. But yeah, it fits with what I already knew before.  

“And I know that Joselyn disappeared because Fossor took her. I’m guessing the kid who showed up with mind-control powers was their son, and that he was visiting his big sister on her first trip back home after becoming a Heretic. Fossor objected and came to collect him, then let you know that he had your mother and that he’d be coming for you on some future date. Probably your eighteenth birthday.”

Well, I was definitely staring by that point. Around me, everyone else was doing pretty much the same. My mouth opened and shut before I managed a weak, “You are good.”

He winked at me. “We can talk about it some more later. I’m sure you’ve got questions. But right now, the rest of the Committee is gonna want to talk to you–to all of you, but especially Flick here. And they’re gonna want to talk about this necromancy thing.”

Making a face, I sighed while slumping back a bit. “What am I supposed to tell them… you… them? You’ll be there, but something tells me you’re gonna play dumb about most of this.”

Dare was the one who answered. “Just tell them the truth, Felicity. Well, part of it. The man who did all of this was a necromancer. You killed him and inherited his power, and you’re not sure how to control it yet. Be honest about that part. Ruthers may have a problem with it, but not everyone does. Especially when it’s an inherited power rather than magic that you’ve deliberately worked at.”

Percival was nodding. “She’s right. There’s no need to hold back on that point. It explains how the zombies got into Crossroads a few months back. Just…” He paused then, clearly thinking about what he was about to say before continuing with, “… answer the questions as well as you can. I know you’ve got a way to lie to us, probably thanks to Gaia. Keep your answers as honest as you can without giving too much away. It’s easier to keep track of what you’ve said then.”

“Right,” I replied, “so just like we said before. There’s a race of body snatchers that took us. The necromancer was one of them. They’re the ones who have been trying to kill Avalon, and they took advantage of us escaping… or possibly let us escape, as a distraction to grab her. They brought her here to the hospital that they took over and we accidentally found her, so they unleashed everything to stop us from escaping. During the fighting, the necromancer in charge k-killed Rudolph and then ran away from Gaia. I possessed him and made him kill himself.”

“And now you have his power,” Percival finished for me, nodding. “Exactly. They’ll probably push you on how much you know about these people and if you’ve been keeping things back. Which you are, but like I said, they probably won’t openly ask you directly about things like your mother because they’re afraid of weakening the memory spell, or leading you toward things that could weaken it. Even with something like this, they’ll beat around the bush a bit. Unless, of course, you give them reason to be more direct.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before asking, “Is there anything else you can tell us about what’s going on in there? Anything we should know?”

Percival paused. I could tell there was indeed something he wanted to tell me. Instead, however, he shook his head. “Let’s just say there’s some pretty unbelievable shit going on. But trust me, it’s better for everyone involved if you’re surprised by it. Your first reaction needs to be genuine. Otherwise the hardcore guys will… well, they don’t need any more ammunition.”

And now I was really curious. But I couldn’t very well argue with him. Instead, I managed a weak, “Let me guess, they’re ready for us?”

Dare nodded. “Ready for you. They’ll talk to the others afterward. We thought you might want to get done first so that you could see Avalon and…” She paused, looking toward Percival.

“And my dad,” I finished for her. “Since they’re both at the Atherby camp.”

If he was surprised at all by that, Percival didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny smile, nodding once. “That’s a good place for them. Calafia told me that she helped your father.”

“Right,” I muttered, “people communicate with each other even when they’re not talking to me. I have got to remember that.”

Chuckling, Percival gestured. “I’ve gotta get back. Oh, but first, before I forget…” He paused, then looked up toward Shiori, who had ushered Choo back into his bag the moment company had arrived. “Here,” he continued, tossing something that way. “A present for your little friend. Gaia thought you could use it.”

Shiori, looking surprised, caught the thing and looked at it. As did the rest of us. It was a collar. A really pretty purple collar, with intricate golden designs that were clearly spells. “Err… um. What–um… what frie–”

“Please don’t,” Percival looked slightly pained. “We have enough to deal with without playing the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game. Use the collar. It’ll help keep him secret and safe, I promise. Virginia can show you how it works. Calafia and I put it together in our spare time. Consider it a little gift to make up for all the shit you’ve been through this year, and the shit you’ll no doubt go through in the future.”

There was clearly a lot that Shiori wanted to say to that, but the man had already moved on, as if handing her a way (handmade by no less than two Crossroads Committee members) to protect her pet from being horrifically murdered was no big deal.

Percival, in turn, had already turned his attention to Dare, adding, “You bring her up for our little Q&A. The others and I will do our best to make it as short as possible.”

He turned then, before pausing. When the man looked back, his eyes moved not to me, but to the silent, somewhat listless Doug. “I’ll let your great-great-grandfather know you’re okay.”

As Doug (and, to be honest, the rest of us) blinked at that, Percival continued. “Sulan’s gonna be glad you made it through all that. And he’ll want to talk to you about it, soon as possible.”

“You… you know my Grandpa Sulan?” Doug stared at him for a second. “How? I mean, I know that’s a stupid question because he came through Crossroads too, but he wasn’t–I mean you were never–”

“It’s a long story,” Percival carefully replied. “Come see me another time, when everything isn’t so crazy, and maybe I can tell you. But make sure you ask Sulan how many eggs he has. He’ll get it.” He reached out, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder then. “He’ll want to come for the funeral too. If you’d be okay with him showing up.”

“I–” Doug looked choked up, his face contorting with emotion before he nodded quickly. “I-if he can come. He was… he was banished.”

“Banished from your colony world,” Percival corrected, “not from Earth. Though he tends to keep his distance to avoid making any of the people around here who don’t like him very much look too hard at you. But he’ll be here for this, if you want him.”

Sounding like there was a thick lump in his throat, Doug slowly nodded. “Ye-yes. I–I’d like him to come.”

“Then he’ll be here.” Percival sounded absolutely certain, which made me wonder just how well he knew this Sulan guy. “I’ll be sure he makes it. You have my word, Douglas. And… and I’m sorry about your friend.”

With that, he was gone, leaving the rest of us there with just Deveron and Dare. The latter of which looked to me apologetically. “You have no idea how much I would like to tell the Committee to shove it and take you out of here. All of you. You’ve been through too much. An interrogation right now is asinine.”  

“You’re not the only one,” Deveron assured her. “Believe me, there’s more than one guy on that Committee I’m real close to popping in the face.”

Of all people, it was Sean who replied to that. “Something tells me that’ll just make things worse.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, and I did a brief double-take upon the realization that he had clearly been silently crying.

Guilt, I realized. Sean felt guilty. Of course he did. He and Rudolph had both been down there, and he had been the one that was spared. How must that make him feel?  Did he have any idea why Manakel had chosen him instead of Rudolph to live?

Because I was pretty sure he’d done it because Manakel assumed I’d be less likely to risk killing Sean than Rudolph, since we knew each other better. And the guilt about that was already killing me. I couldn’t even imagine how Sean was doing.

Yeah, Manakel being dead right now was a good thing. A very fucking good thing.

After taking a moment to embrace Shiori tightly (and slightly longer than strictly necessary given how much I would have preferred to stay with her than go be interrogated by the Committee some more), I nodded to the others. “Okay guys, see you in a few minutes, I guess.”

“Good luck,” Koren spoke up, echoed by everyone else.

“Thanks,” I replied, “and thanks for the message. That’s pretty much what tied it all together.”

Wincing, the other girl shook her head. “I just wish I didn’t fuck up that one word. I was trying to fix it, but–”

“Yeah.” Swallowing, I nodded to her. “It’s okay. I got the point in time. Trust me, I’m just glad you’re okay, and that he didn’t–” Stopping myself, I blanched.

I didn’t have to continue that thought. Koren just met my gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed softly, “me too.”

There was so much else that I wanted to say, so much more I needed and wanted to do with the people I actually cared about. After everything that we had been through, the last fucking thing I wanted to do was sit through another ‘discussion’ with the Committee, even if a few of them were on my side.

But I had to. They were the authorities and they were too powerful to ignore (in every sense of the word). I had to go through this.

So, with a sigh, I turned back and nodded toward Professor Dare. “Okay. Let’s go, I guess. Now I’ve got literal necromancer powers and Ruthers, who is already suspicious about me and hates my mom to the point of blinding rage, also happens to utterly loathe necromancers, probably even more than he hates her. Oh, and to top it all off, he probably knows I’m lying to him about some things.

“So, you know… this oughta be fun.”

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Convalescence 38-01

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To say that things moved quickly after Manakel’s death would have been a drastic understatement. Everything was a total whirlwind that I barely had time to comprehend.

What I did know was that a bunch more Heretic reinforcements had shown up, just in time for what was left of the living Seosten forces to disappear, while the zombies that Manakel had brought back to life dropped dead once more. Or whatever it was when undead things stopped moving around. The point was, there were suddenly a lot of very amped up Heretics with nothing to fight.

Sariel took the cure for the poison from the necromancer’s body, before she and Gaia gave it to Avalon. I didn’t see an immediate effect, but Sariel assured us that the girl would be okay. She just needed time to recover. Time that she would definitely get, as Gaia had Gabriel Prosser take Avalon back to his camp to make sure that there was no chance of any last-second, unknown assassins taking one last shot at her while she was still weak.

Sariel had gone as well to make sure Avalon got all the help she needed, taking Tabbris with her for the time being. Which I couldn’t really object to given everything that was going on, no matter how much more comfortable I felt with my partner. I’d just given her a brief hug and promised to see her as soon as possible. She would tell Dad what happened, and that I was okay, since my leaving right then absolutely wasn’t in the cards.

Meanwhile, Gaia, Dare, and Nevada were dealing with the Committee and their representatives, who had finally all showing up to find out what the hell was going on. They were in the hospital director’s office where everything had gone down. Kohaku was still in there with them, along with Rudolph’s body.

Which left me sitting in another room in the hospital along with Doug, Shiori, Columbus, Scout, Sean, Vulcan, Choo, Koren, and Deveron. Those last two had woken up around the time that Manakel and I had had our final… conversation, while Sean had been a bit later. We were waiting for our turn to talk to the Committee, after they were done with Gaia and the other adults. That and I was pretty sure there were some pretty intense discussions going on as far as I was concerned, which had to be ironed out before Gaia would let them anywhere near me.

That was okay. I really appreciated the chance to breathe for a few seconds before having to deal with… well, all of that. Time to breathe, in this case, translating to time to explain everything that had happened to the others and finally put everyone (mostly) on the same page.

“So… so he’s dead.” That was Koren, staring at me. “Y-you… you killed Manakel.”

My head shook at that. “Not me. Well, technically. But it was Sariel. She killed him. It’s just that she used my body to do it. I’m more like the knife than the stabber, in this situation.”

The room we were in was some kind of conference place, with a long wooden table taking up most of it, and several of those screen-windows that showed views of various exotic locations, like a waterfall in a rainforest, and a long expanse of empty desert with sand blowing heavily.

Deveron was standing by the desert window, staring through it for a moment before he turned back to where I was sitting at the table with most of the others aside from him and Douglas (who was sitting on the floor against the far wall) around me. “I can’t believe he was possessing Risa and I didn’t know about it. I–” A pained look crossed his face then before he let out a long, low sigh and moved to sit across from me. “I’m sorry. To all of you. I should have been… I should have done more. Everything you’ve been through this year and it was all because we didn’t figure out that the head of security was possessed.”

My head shook at that. “It’s not your fault. It’s… we all missed it. I dismissed her because of the choker. I never really thought it could be anyone that close to Gaia. I didn’t–” Flinching then, I dropped my gaze to the table. “God, how bad must Gaia feel about it? She was–” Cutting myself off then, I just bit my lip hard. If we felt this guilty about Kohaku, if I felt this guilty, Gaia must feel even worse. To say nothing of the idea that the woman she obviously cared about had been enslaved for… for… God only knew how long.

How long had Kohaku been possessed? Clearly at least since the beginning of the year. She had been the one who killed Pericles. Well, Manakel had, while possessing her. That’s how he managed to get so close to the man, and why Security had never been able to figure it out: because their leader was the one whose body had done it. Through Kohaku, Manakel had been able to control most of the investigation. And even the parts he couldn’t control directly, like Tribald Kine, were still confided in her. Because she was the head of Security. So Manakel had always known exactly how to push the investigation any way he wanted.

Doug spoke up. “There’s no point to playing the shoulda, coulda, woulda game. The point is, that fucking… fucking piece of shit is dead. He’s dead. That’s what matters. Whoever did it, congratulations. I just wish you’d pulled it off before he–” In mid-sentence, the boy suddenly stopped, clearly choking on his own words.

Before he’d killed Rudolph. That was what he’d been about to say, I knew. I felt the same way. If we’d figured it out sooner, if–well, there were a lot of if’s. But it was like Doug said, they didn’t matter. There may have been a lot of powers floating around, but we couldn’t just change the past like that.

Picking myself up from the table, I moved over to kneel next to the boy. My own voice was soft, cracking a little. “I’m sorry about Rudolph,” I whispered. “He didn’t–he shouldn’t have been involved in any of this. He was just–” Cutting myself off as tears filled my eyes, I looked away. “He wasn’t a threat to Manakel. He wasn’t… anything to Manakel. That asshole just–” I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what I’d been trying to say in the first place. It just felt better if I was talking, like I was actually accomplishing something. But that was just stupid.

Doug’s voice was hollow. “Rudolph was my friend. Paul died. Jazz and Gordon are still gone. Isaac’s an evil piece of shit. Roxa disappeared and then ended up out in space. Rudolph… Rudolph was there. Maybe he joined our team late, but he was there. He did his best, he tried to help anyone he could. He listened when I needed to talk. He was there, and now he’s–he’s–”

His head fell then, arms wrapping around himself as he cried. It made me want to touch him, even hug him, but I didn’t know how he’d take it. I didn’t want to make things worse.

In the end, it was Sean who moved first. The other boy moved past me, sitting next to Doug before putting one arm around his shoulders. Vulcan sat on the other side of him, the metal dog leaning in to rub against Doug’s arm until the boy listlessly lifted it to pat him.

“He’s dead.” The flat announcement came from Scout, who seemed to be trying the words out for size, trying to understand them. “Manakel’s dead.” She sounded just as stunned as I felt. I knew why she was saying it, because saying it made it feel a little more real. And this… well, this didn’t feel all that real yet.

Shiori, shifting a bit in her seat to look over to me, asked, “Avalon’s going to be okay, right?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Between Gabriel and Sariel, yeah, she’ll be okay. Gaia wouldn’t have left her side if she had any doubt, no matter what the Committee said. So yeah, she just needs time.”

“It’s still not over though, is it?” Koren was the one speaking again. She had picked herself up from the table and now stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. “I mean, the Seosten aren’t just going to give up because Manakel’s dead. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh well, fair shot, chaps. Jolly good, catch you all next time, what what.’”

My mouth opened, but before I could speak, Columbus interrupted. “Did you just give your hypothetical Seosten a really terrible British accent for some reason?”

Flushing noticeably, the girl shrugged while mumbling, “Maybe. Lots of evil space empires sound British in the movies.” Clearing her throat then pointedly, she looked back to me. “But the point is, they won’t just give up.”

“Nope,” I agreed. “They won’t. They lost their leader on-planet, so it’ll take them some time to figure out how to deal with that and bring in a replacement. But until they do that, we have a break. And we can use it.”

“To get to the vault,” Columbus finished for me. He held his goggles in one hand, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to get to the vault with Avalon and open it before the Seosten recover from losing Manakel.”

“I wasn’t going to bring it up just yet since everything just happened,” I replied, “but pretty much. Avalon needs time to recover from everything. And so do we. I mean, I doubt whatever Seosten are left will just let us walk in there. So we’ll need time to plan, time to rest, and time to… well, deal with everything. But eventually, that’s what we have to do. Look at how open they were about this whole hospital thing. They’ve gone completely insane. They’re not even trying to be subtle anymore. Not really. So yeah, our best next move is to get to the vault, open it, and figure out how to safely use whatever’s in it. If it’s over and done with, the Seosten might be pissed, but going after Avalon will be pointless from a… you know, objective standpoint.”

Deveron gave me a small smile. “You mean you hope that whatever Liesje’s spell does will make the Seosten too busy dealing with that to worry about going after Avalon anymore.”

“Make them too busy chasing the horses to worry about the barn they ran out of, yeah.” I nodded with a helpless shrug. “It’s the best I can think of. It’s a whole Empire we’re talking about here. Losing Manakel was big for them. Really big. But it’s not the end of it.”

“Avalon won’t be ready to do that for awhile,” Shiori put in.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “None of us are ready for that. And even when we are, like I said, we can’t just use the spell immediately. They’ll have to work out what it does, exactly. And try to fix it so that… so that Seosten and humans who agree to possession can still do it.”

Columbus squinted at me, holding his goggles tightly in one hand by his side. “You mean like you and…  and the girl.”

“And Tabbris,” I confirmed, staring right back at him. “She saved all of us, more than once. And her mother, Sariel, she did too. Manakel would’ve gotten away if it wasn’t for her. He would have gotten away if Sariel hadn’t been able to possess me. After everything that happened, he still would’ve gotten away. So yeah, I think we should fix the spell so that possession can be voluntary. Maybe when the others get back here, Dries can… can fix it, with Wyatt and Sariel’s help. And anyone else. But first, we just need to get into the vault. When we’re ready. When Avalon’s ready.”

It was Doug who spoke next, first mumbling into his arms as his face was buried in them, before raising his head to speak more clearly. “I’m surprised you can think at all. Rudolph’s dead. How can you even… how can you even think about anything else?” His tone sounded more… sad and lost than accusatory, though there was a tiny bit of that too, which I couldn’t blame him for.

My voice was soft as I hesitantly reached out to touch the boy’s arm. “Doug, believe me, I wish Rudolph was alive. I do. I’d do anything to have him standing right here in the room with us now. If it would help, if there was anything we could do, I just…” Taking a deep, slightly shuddering breath, I forced myself to continue. “I just can’t do anything. That stupid, psycho piece of shit k-killed him. And we can’t fix that. I want to fix it, but we can’t. So… so I’m trying to focus on other things. It doesn’t really help, because I keep seeing Rudolph. And Paul. And Professor Katarin. Even Professor Pericles and I only knew him for like a day.”

“They’re responsible for killing a lot of people,” Columbus put in, his own voice hard.

“Too many,” Sean agreed, still sitting there beside Douglas with one arm around him. “But now, at least Manakel is dead. He paid for it.”

Doug shook his head emphatically, his voice dark while he tightened both of his hands into fists. “He didn’t pay enough.” He spat the words “All the people he killed, all that… all the shit he was responsible for? He didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Before I could respond to that, Deveron spoke. He’d moved over to stand in front of us. “Sometimes you can’t focus on that. You can’t dwell on how much punishment you can give to the people who deserve it. You don’t focus on how much pain they’ve already inflicted on people in the past. You have to focus on how much pain you’re saving future people from.”

He took a knee then, meeting Doug’s gaze. “If you fall into the hole of obsessing over how much pain these people, and people like them, have inflicted on innocents before they were stopped, nothing will ever be enough. Nothing. That is a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.”

It took Doug a few seconds to respond to that. And when he did, his voice cracked a little. “S-so focus on the fact that they won’t be able to hurt anyone else like that? Focus on the fact that Manakel can’t torture or kill any other people like–like Rudolph?”

Deveron nodded once. “Exactly. That’s all you can do. Anything else is just… it’s just too much.”

Rather than respond to that immediately, Doug lowered his gaze to stare at his feet for a few seconds as he sat there. “I… I don’t know if I can do that. Rudolph was my friend. He… he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t–” Stopping himself, he just shook his head.

I knew how he felt. He wanted his friend back. Manakel dying was good and all, but Rudolph still deserved to be alive. He deserved to be here with us. Instead, he was dead. Dead because we hadn’t been able to protect him, because we had failed to-

Before I could continue that thought, there was a sudden commotion at the door. My eyes snapped that way, hand grabbing reflexively for my staff. After everything that had happened, it would just figure that another problem would present itself. But when the door opened, all thoughts of defense or attack left my head. Actually, all thoughts left my head, completely.

Because it was Rudolph who walked through the door. There were others with him. Professor Dare, that Percival guy from the Committee, and Hisao. They were right on his heels, as the boy entered the room.

“Rudolph!” Doug was the first to react, scrambling to his feet. He took two steps that way before suddenly stopping, his movement turning into a brief stumble. “Wh-what–no. No, no, what?”

Because while Rudolph was upright and moving… he was still dead. His eyes were empty, his movements listless. He was very, very clearly not alive.

There was a whole lot of cursing and scrambling then, while the dead Rudolph simply entered the room and stood there.

“He just got up and started moving,” Dare announced in a low voice, her sword drawn as she squinted at Rudolph, having put herself between the body and us. “We wanted to see where he was going.”

Percival and Hisao stood near the door, the former speaking up. “He came straight here. No detours, no hesitation.”

“H-he’s fucking with us.” That was Columbus, standing by his sister and partway in front of her. “Manakel, he found a way to… to give the body orders ahead of time or something.”

“No,” Deveron replied, his own voice soft as he shook his head. “Manakel isn’t the one controlling him, posthumously or otherwise.”

“Then wha–” I started to look that way, only to stop as I found Deveron staring at me. Confusion filled me for another second, before just as quickly fading. “Why a–oh.”

“Oh?” Shiori looked back and forth between us. “What do you mean, oh? What–oh.”

Yeah. Oh. A minute earlier, when talking to Doug, I had said that I would do anything for Rudolph to be right there with us.

And now… he was right there with us. Or his body was, at least. It was here because I asked it to be, because I wished for it.

Because I made it.

Sariel may have killed Manakel. But she used my body to do it. And my body had absorbed his power. Specifically, his unique Olympian power to raise and control the dead. The power that was now… now mine.

I was a necromancer.

Just like Fossor.  

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Mini-Interlude 32 – Miranda

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda as a character outside of and apart from Flick. 

About Six Months Ago

“Duck, duck, throw your duck! Come on, Randi, just try it. Right over here. I got you. I got you. I’m right on you. Just try it.”

Pacing sideways quickly, following the circular line that had been drawn over the grass a short distance from the base of the giant tree that she had called home for several years, Miranda eyed the boy who was taunting her. His name was Duane, and he was standing in the middle of the sixty-foot wide circle, right next to a wooden stump that was about two feet tall. In the middle of the stump, a softball-sized stone had been set.

Miranda held a similarly-sized rock in her left hand, as did the nine other people who were all pacing around the outside of the circle as well. The ten of them had spread out along the circle, watching for an opening even as the boy in the middle continually turned, pivoting to keep an eye on as many of them as possible. Every once in awhile, he’d call out a taunt, trying to goad one of them into making the first move.

From what Miranda had heard over the years since she’d come to this place, the game they were playing, ‘Duck On A Rock’, had been the initial inspiration for what had eventually become the game of basketball. Not that there were that many similarities when it came down to it. The rocks she and the others were carrying were called ducks, as was the rock that was sitting on the stump in the middle of the circle. That one was the titular ‘duck on a rock’, though in this case, the duck part was a rock and the rock part was a tree stump. Sports were weird sometimes.

It was originally a medieval children’s game, though here they played with enough variations to make it interesting even for the older teens, such as making it a full circle surrounding the stump instead of the single throwing line from the original game, as well as some other changes.

One of the other boys, seeing Duane’s distraction, took three quick steps sideways to put himself more into the boy’s blindspot before rearing back to hurl his own stone. The rock arced in toward the rock that was sitting on the stump, coming oh-so-close to colliding with its target before Duane spun around to catch the incoming rock out of the air with one hand.

Along the sidelines, several of the people who were just watching the game rather than playing began to count out loud, “One! Two! Three!” They continued that way, each number growing louder as more people joined in the count.

Meanwhile, the boy whose stone had been caught ran straight at Duane. If he didn’t manage to get his own stone (or duck) away from the guard before the audience’s count reached thirty, he would be considered ‘turned’, and would become another guard alongside Duane.

Essentially, the goal of the people outside the circle was to throw their own rock/duck in order to knock the one that was sitting on the stump off and to the ground. If you missed and your stone hit the ground, you had to retrieve it. But any time that you were inside the circle, the guard (or guards) could try to take you to the ground (originally it was simply tagging, but they played with rougher rules). If they took you down, the guard who managed it earned two points, while every other guard earned one point. If you made it to your rock, you could put your foot on it as a safety zone. As long as your foot was on your stone, you couldn’t be attacked by a guard. But neither could you do anything else. You had to wait for the right opportunity, while the guards were distracted by those outside of the circle, and use that time to pick up your rock and run back outside the circle. If you managed to retrieve your rock and make it out, that was worth two points. If you got taken to the ground, the guards got a point and you were expelled from the circle without earning any.

If the rock on the stump was knocked off its perch, the person who threw it earned an immediate three points. The guards couldn’t chase or tag anyone until one of them returned to the stump to put their rock back where it belonged. Additionally, for every non-guard in the circle when the guard’s duck was knocked off the stump that managed to escape because of that period of safety, the thrower earned another point. So, assuming the person who knocked the guard’s duck off the stump managed to retrieve their own rock and escape, that was five points for them and an additional point for every other person who managed to escape the circle because of it.

However, if, as in this case, your rock was caught by one of the guards before it touched the ground, you had that thirty second countdown before you became one of the guards yourself. There was strategy involved there. Some people did better as guards than as attackers, and so they would deliberately let themselves be turned.

They had turned what began as a very simple children’s game into an intense, often-brutal affair as rocks were thrown from all sides, the ratio of attackers to guards gradually changed, and some encounters in the middle of the circle turned into small-scale fistfights. After all, the rules were ‘taken to the ground’; it didn’t say how, exactly.

It was a fun game, and one that Miranda had gotten very good at over the years. Her accuracy with the thrown rocks was almost legendary among the group that they played with, so most guards tended to focus at least part of their attention on her so that she couldn’t get a good shot at the stump.

In this case, however, Miranda saw an opening while Duane was dealing with the other boy trying to get his rock back. Taking aim at the one on the stump, she was about to let fly when something else caught her attention. Far beyond the circle, deeper in the forest, there were several more boys. Not that that was anything newsworthy. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that a few of the boys were clearly throwing something back and forth between them to keep it away from the other one, who kept trying to get it back. Whatever it was, the boys were playing keepaway with it rather effectively while heading deeper into the forest. And from the look of things, it wasn’t exactly a game.

Bullies. For as long as Miranda could remember, she had hated bullies. People who used their own strength or power to push others around. Be they adult or child, she had always loathed them. Her very first memory, the earliest that she could remember, was of being in preschool and dumping a cup that was full of water that had been dirtied and stained by watercolors over the head of a girl who had stolen an Oreo from one of the other students.

It was a proclivity that had followed the girl throughout her life, right up to (and definitely including) the present day. So instead of throwing her rock, she paused before dropping it at her feet. Muttering something to the others about being right back, Miranda jogged around the circle to follow the other group further into the woods. If it turned out to be nothing, she’d come right back. No harm, no foul. But if it was what it had looked like… well, she didn’t put up with bullies.

About ten minutes later, the girl found herself crouched behind a tree. She was there, hidden just out of sight, as the group of what turned out to be five other students gathered around a moss-covered boulder about twenty feet away. Four of the students were standing a bit apart from the fifth, a boy whose dark hair was tied back with a green bandana. He was the one who had been trying to get something back from the others as they had led him deeper into the forest.  

He was also actually somewhat bigger than any of the people who were tormenting him. Which might have looked strange among Bystanders, but Miranda had long since found that size didn’t exactly always equal power among people who could gain superpowers and who were trained to fight and kill their entire lives. In a world with enhanced supernatural strength, a five foot nothing girl could easily be strong enough to pin a six foot six overly-muscled bodybuilder to the floor with a pinkie.

“Come on, guys, give it back,” the boy was pleading. “It’s my grandma’s ring, okay? Seriously, just give it back. It’s not funny anymore.” At those words, he gave a little lunge toward the nearest other boy, who was holding something tiny between two fingers. Obviously the ring.

Unfortunately, the boy’s lunge carried him straight through his target, who had turned intangible. Laughing, the second boy gestured while stepping back. “Hey, hey, hey, no need to get all handsy. You really want the ring back, Ankh?” He rolled the thing between his fingers. “You know what you’ve gotta do. We all did it, you really wanna be left out?”

“This is stupid,” the boy (Ankh, apparently) blurted. “It’s a dumb ritual, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

One of the other boys started snickering while calling Ankh a chickenshit, while another sneeringly told him to grow a pair. Meanwhile, the first boy reached down to touch something on the boulder, and a glowing, light green, circular portal appeared beside it.

Miranda had seen things like that before. Over the years since Eden’s Garden had been founded, students and grown-Heretics alike had hidden portal accesses all over the place, ways to the regular world and back again without going through the tree. They were especially popular among older students.

“Javier,” Ankh started, “come on man. I told you, I don’t wanna do it. It’s stupid.”

“Yeah?” Javier retorted. “Well I guess you better start acting a little dumb if you want Grandma’s ring back, huh?” Turning, he made as though to throw the ring through the portal.

“Stop!” Miranda couldn’t take it anymore. Moving from behind the tree, she put herself in plain sight. “Give him the ring back, idiot. Come on, how stupid do you have to be? Where does that portal even go?”

“Aww,” Javier snickered, running the ring between a couple fingers. “Look Ankh, looks like you’ve got a little girlfriend.”

That, of course, led to more teasing and taunting from the other boys about Ankh having a girlfriend that was at least a year younger than he was. Which was quite possibly the most idiotic thing to taunt someone about that Miranda had ever heard.

Smirking at the rise that had gotten out of his friends, Javier eyed the two. “So, you gonna propose to your little princess, Ankh? If you are, I guess you’ll need to… get this back.” With that, he turned slightly before chucking the thing through the portal.

“No!” Ankh shouted. Clearly not thinking, he dove for the portal as well, going after the ring,.

Javier was in the middle of laughing when Miranda hit him hard from the side. Her hands slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back as she snarled, “Jackass.”

Rather than follow that up, however, she went after Ankh. Thinking just as little as he had been, the headstrong girl dove through the portal.

She landed on the other side in what looked like an old, rundown library. Most of the books were gone, shelves were broken and falling apart, and there was a distinct smell of mildew and worse in the air.

“Where are we?” she asked Ankh, who was a few feet away.

He spun around, jerking in surprise. “The fuck–what’re you doing here?!”

“Helping you,” she replied easily. “So where are we?”

Staring at her, the boy worked his mouth. “You… stupid… Damn it, fine, we’re at a place in South Carolina. It’s a–” He sighed. “It’s a stupid game the guys play. You know the enchantments the adults use to lure Stranger pests? The little mindless ones.” When Miranda nodded, he continued. “There’s one of those in here. It lures some dumb little Stranger in, one of the minor ones. Then it shuts off and traps the thing in here. Every once in awhile, the guys send someone in to kill whatever showed up. Like I said, it’s a stupid game.”

“Stupid–that’s the dumbest–that’s… that’s…” Miranda started to rant, too stunned to even think straight. “What if it attracts something worse than–what if–that’s–that’s–”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ankh demanded. “Why do you think I didn’t wanna do this? But I’ve gotta find Grandma’s ring. So help m– wait. Did you hear something?”

The two of them looked up, scanning the room before Miranda pointed. “There.”

It sat in the middle of the corridor, directly ahead of them. At first glance, the thing looked like a particularly mangy German Shepherd. But there were particularly differences. First, it had four eyes instead of two. Its tongue was forked like a snake, and it had two tails.

Most disturbingly, there were two human-like arms with attached hands sticking out of the thing’s chest, partially-hidden by its front dog legs.

“What–” Miranda started, before the boy cursed.

“Damn it! Get the fuck back. Go, go back to the portal.” He waved her away while pulling a heavy-looking machette-like blade from his belt.

“What is–” Miranda was already turning to move back, taking his advice. Unfortunately, the path back to the portal was blocked by another of the creatures. “Uhhh….” A particular shake of her arm made her own weapon appear: a round metal shield that was black with bright green emeralds decorating it.

“Fuck!” Seeing the one there, Ankh snarled. “It’s already started duplicating.

“Duplicating?” Miranda echoed. “What’re you–” Then the single dog-thing in front of the portal was abruptly joined by three others. At the same time, the one on the other side of them became four as well, resulting in eight dog-things.

A second later, the eight became thirty, spread out over both sides of them.

“Only attracts pests, huh?” Miranda had to say.

“Like I said,” the boy retorted, “it’s a stupid, stupid game. They’re gonna keep duplicating until we find the source, the leader.”  

By that point, the man-armed dog-things were already growling. They had duplicated again, leaving dogs spread back as far as Miranda could see through the room.

“Uhhh, you take that side, I’ll cover this side?” she asked a bit weakly.

The boy nodded once. “Right. Good luck. And for the record, those guys are idiots. I totally wouldn’t mind dating someone like you.”

Miranda would have responded, but the first dog-thing was already lunging.

*******

“And somehow,” Vigile Hisao announced some time later as he stood in front of the chair that Miranda was planted in somewhere in one of the Garden interrogation rooms. “You didn’t just survive that attack. You also managed to protect Ankh after he was knocked unconscious. And you killed the leader of the Ksani in the process.”

“The dog-things?” Miranda shifted nervously in her seat. “I guess so, Vigile Hisao. I… um, I just got lucky.”

“Sure you did,” the man replied. “But it was a combination of luck and skill, and I’ll take that any day.”

“Sir?” Miranda blinked up at that. “What–I thought you were supposed to tell me how I was being punished. You know, for going through that portal.”

Vigile Hisao gave a short nod. “You’re right. And your punishment is… three years.”

“I’m sorry?” Miranda looked at him, confused. “Three… three years of what?”

“Of being my apprentice,” he replied. “I need a new one, and the school year’s about to start. You’re seventeen now, which means you need a fresh mentor. Unless you’ve got one in mind?”

“But I–I didn’t… I was… I thought…” Miranda stammered.

Hisao’s eyes softened. “I don’t throw away potential, kid. And you’ve got a lot of it. So unless you want to submit a complaint to the Victors and ask to be taken away from my custody…”

“No, no, no.” Miranda quickly blurted, straightening. “I mean, I just, I didn’t expect…”

The man smiled just a little, gesturing. “I do want one thing in exchange. Lemme see it, what you got.”

Knowing what he meant, the girl paused to focus on the power that she had inherited from the original Ksani. A moment later, another her stood beside the chair, blinking as she came into existence.

“That,” Vigile Hisao announced with a broad smile, “is going to be incredibly useful for you. And, well, it’ll make punishing you with extra chores a little tricky. But I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

“For now, let’s go for a walk… apprentice.”  

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