Jazz Rhodes

New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy constructed emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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Investigations 25-04 – Douglas Frey (Interlude Arc)

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Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Douglas Frey wore his New York Rangers cap so much because he was a big baseball fan. That wasn’t exactly true, since in reality, he’d never watched a single one of their games and knew nothing about the team itself. Hell, he barely understood how the game was played, to be honest. No, the hat was far more important than as a symbol of sports team loyalty. It was the thing that kept the voices out of his head.

That… may have sounded slightly paranoid to people who hadn’t been through what Doug had. People who hadn’t experienced the Whispers, who didn’t know what they were capable of, wouldn’t understand why the hat was important, why he never went anywhere without it.

It had begun almost five years earlier, on the Crossroads-colonized world known as Vanaheimr, named after the world from Norse mythology. That was where Doug had grown up, he and his entire family, which consisted of his parents, three older brothers, two uncles, an aunt, and three sets of progressively older grandparents (grand, great, and great-great) had lived. His brothers ranged in age from ten years older than Doug, to sixty-three years older, while his oldest relative, Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan, was almost three hundred years old.

Not that he’d looked it. Sulan may have been around for close to three centuries, but he’d looked like a young, fit man in his mid-thirties at most. He had also pretty much been twelve-year-old Doug’s best friend in the world, at the time. The two of them did everything together. Sulan took his great-great-grandson on as many adventures as he could, the two of them exploring the wild jungles of Vanaheimr and the many creatures that dwelled upon it.

It had been during one of those excursions that things had… gone wrong. Doug and Sulan had been exploring what they first thought was a simple cave deep in one of the jungles. Partway through, they had run into actual architecture, evidence of man-made structures. Or at least sapient-being-made structures. It seemed like there was an entire building that had been buried beneath the cave. Neither of them could read any of the writing on the damaged walls, nor did Sulan recognize the images that were carved and painted into the walls as any Stranger that he’d had experience with. It was an entire race of creatures that had never been seen before, as far as Sulan was aware. And given that he was so old, he was aware of a lot.

Naturally, the two of them had been beyond ecstatic to find something like that. Sulan himself had almost been like a little kid as well. They’d explored deeper, only belatedly realizing what that one of the symbols repeatedly displayed on the wall had been a warning, a warning to turn back and to never, ever open the doors that they were blundering through.

Even to the present day, Doug still wasn’t sure exactly when the Whispers had started. They began as his own thoughts, barely different from anything he would normally think. Over time, however, the twelve-year-old boy had begun to realize that the thoughts within his mind weren’t thoughts at all, but a distinct conversation. Something was in his head, whispering to him, talking to him, learning about him. Something… was testing him.

Sulan had come to the same conclusion by that point, and the two of them left the buried ruins. Closing everything up behind them once more, they had returned to the colony, letting the town authorities know what they’d found so that it could be explored properly and safely. Particularly, by people with experience dealing with whatever telepathic creature was inside.

Except there were a couple of problems with that. First, it wasn’t one creature at all, it was many of them. And second, they weren’t in the ruins anymore. Because Doug and Sulan had let them out when they blundered through all those doors.

As far as Doug and the people he’d talked to after the event had been able to work out, the creatures that they now called the Whispers were some kind of extradimensional species that was only partially present within the reality that humans inhabited. They were almost like ghosts, in that they had little to no physical presence. Their true power lay in their ability to gain control of a person’s mind through their whispering. The sound of their voices gradually infected the person, draining their will to resist until they were little more than playthings for the Whispers. A person who had been whispered to enough would follow their instructions.

And now, thanks to Doug and his grandfather, the Whispers had been released from their prison and set upon the colony world once more.

The result had been… more than Doug ever liked to think about. The Whispers had spread out to infect as many people as possible. Brother turned against brother, father against daughter, and friends attacked each other. It was a massacre, a civil war within the colony as some were taken over completely, while others were simply made paranoid and delusional.

In a desperate attempt to stop the Whispers from having everyone kill each other, Sulan and Doug had returned to the ruins. They tried to find the answer to sealing the creatures away again, and in doing so, they’d discovered that some of the symbols on the walls were useful in combatting or identifying them. Two were particularly potent. One allowed anyone touching it to actually see the Whispers as a vague outline that would, at the very least, allow them to be identified and hit by certain attacks. Meanwhile, the other important symbol rendered anyone touching it temporarily deaf to their incessant whispering.

That was why Doug’s hat was so important. Sulan had etched the symbols into the inside of the baseball cap, a simple souvenir from his last visit back to Earth. He’d placed the hat on Douglas’s head, and finally the young boy had been free of those neverending whispers.

Sulan had etched the symbols onto a piece of his own clothing as well, and the two of them had returned to the town. Doug’s great-great-grandfather forced him to wait outside while he went in to… deal with the situation.

Whatever ended up happening in there, Sulan never told Doug the whole story. When all was said and done, over half of the extensive colony had been killed, including a good portion of their family. Of them all, only Doug’s eldest brother and mother had survived.

From that point on, the symbols used to identify the Whispers and render someone immune to them were a part of everyday life at the shattered and devastated colony. Sulan took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, accepting exile from the colony. He still sent Doug letters and other messages, but the two of them didn’t get to interact as much as they had.

Five years later, Doug still rarely ever took off the hat with its magic symbols that had been drawn on the inside of it. Despite the fact that there was no indication that the Whispers had ever been to Earth, or ever would be there, he just… didn’t feel comfortable without it. Plus, if the Whispers ever did show up, he wanted to know about it immediately. After what they had done to his home, to so much of his family… he couldn’t risk something like that again.

And now, the idea that Flick Chambers or anyone might be trying to use some kind of choker to take over Roxa’s mind, after what he had seen the Whispers do… he wouldn’t let that happen. Ever. To anyone. Not if there was anything that he could possibly do about it.

That was why he was here, sitting in a cheap motel in the middle of Wyoming, sharing a room with the rest of his team while they took turns spying on Flick’s house. Well, they had been spying on the house, until Jazz came back from a short patrol to insist that they go back to the motel and gather everyone so that she could tell them what she’d overheard.

“Um, really?” Rudolph spoke up, his usual lax tone turned tense. “You really think that Gaia is part of this? Does that make sense? I mean, I know we thought she might be compromised somehow or something, but just chatting with vampires or whatever?”

“I know what I saw, Rudy,” Jazz retorted. “I know what I heard. It was her voice. They went inside right after that, but it was definitely her. The headmistress was checking on the vampire that’s staying with Flick’s dad, ‘keeping him out of trouble’, she said.”

“What does that mean?” Doug finally spoke up. “Keeping her dad out of what trouble?”

Standing by the desk with his arms folded, Paul announced, “It means we can’t trust her.” Seeing the looks that the others gave him, he shook his head. “Just think about it. Whether she’s been controlled, replaced, compromised, whatever, we don’t know. Which means we don’t know who we can trust right now. If we can’t trust the headmistress, then… well, anyone could be a threat, you know? Anyone we look at could be one of them.”

“One of who?” That was Gordon, his voice a little tense. “We don’t even know who they are. Is this still just an Eden’s Garden thing? Because it seems a little more involved than that.”  

Isaac, lounging back on one of the two beds in the room, spoke up then. “So what do we do about it, bossman?” He flicked a pencil into the air, catching it on the way back down before passing and rolling the thing between his fingers absently. “Can’t trust the headmistress, don’t know who else to go to without going through the headmistress or without her hearing about it. Maybe we should just find some evidence and go straight to the top.”

“Straight to the top?” Jazz demanded, squinting at the boy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Isaac shrugged, looking hesitant before giving a little sigh, like he didn’t really want to be the one that brought it up. “You know, those… what are they called again? The Royal Court.”

“Committee,” Rudolph supplied quietly before looking down. “You mean the Committee.”

Pointing the pencil at him, Isaac nodded. “Right, right, those guys. They’re above Gaia, right? So they’re the ones we should go to if we think she’s, ya know… not all on our side.”

Paul grimaced at that, head shaking a little. “Go to the Committee? I dunno, it doesn’t…” Pausing, he gave a long, low sigh. “I mean, I guess I don’t have any better ideas. We can’t just talk to Gaia about it. Which means we can’t trust any of the teachers. Anyone else could be corrupted too. Or they just plain wouldn’t listen to us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stop Gaia if she’s been… compromised. The only people I can think of who could stop her, bring her back to her senses, rescue the real Gaia or… whatever’s going on, are the Committee. Do you guys–do any of you have any better ideas?” the boy asked, sounding helpless as he glanced around the room at the team, letting the question hang in the air.

No one responded, at least at first. The silence grew between them for a few seconds before Paul nodded. “Okay then. I guess we need to start talking about the best way to contact the–”

“Flick,” Doug abruptly interrupted before their leader could finish, drawing everyone’s attention. “Whatever’s going on, she knows all about it, right? So we talk to Flick.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Isaac blurted, sitting up in the bed. “Haven’t we been over this? We can’t talk to Flick, she’s too dangerous. Especially now that we know the headmistress is working with her.  Anyone in Crossroads might be part of it. We just don’t know, right?”

“Look,” Jazz put in then. “This is just way over our heads, okay? Maybe Isaac’s right and we should take it to the Committee. I mean, they’re at her house talking about ancient necromancers and–”

“Ancient necromancers?” Gordon interrupted. “What was that again?”

The girl glanced that way. “Oh, right. Yeah, with the whole headmistress thing, I guess I forgot that detail. They mentioned Fossor too. You know, as in the big bad nasty? It was umm…” She paused, thinking about it. “They were steering Flick’s dad away from him.”

“Steering Flick’s dad away from Fossor?” Doug echoed, feeling confused by that. “What–how–what does that nasty fuck have to do with Flick’s dad?”

“For all we know, they’re drinking buddies,” Isaac muttered, folding his arms. “Guys, this doesn’t change anything. We still–”

Before the boy could continue, Rudolph spoke up. “She knew the name.” As everyone looked that way, he continued. “We were doing a group project a couple months ago. Vanessa found this journal by this Lyell Atherby guy, and it mentioned Fossor. Flick, she acted like she recognized the name. When Koren read it out, Flick got all… jumpy and grabbed the book.”

He told them more, about how the journal had explained that Fossor had approached the ancient Heretics, only to be rebuffed by all of them except for Gabriel Ruthers, who actually trusted the necromancer, an act which led to the Black Death.

“Okay, what the hell?” the words blurted their way from Doug’s mouth before he knew what he was saying. Still, he stuck with it, shaking his head. “Now I’m just confused. What does Fossor have to do with this whole thing, and what does that have to do with Eden’s Garden or any of this? And why are a vampire and Headmistress Sinclaire working together to keep Flick’s dad away from him? I–I… we’re missing something. Probably a lot of somethings.”

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “And they’re ‘somethings’ that the Committee can sort out, right? It’s above our level, we know that for sure. So we take it to the Committee. That’s the best we can do. We don’t know what’s going on, but they can figure it out. We just take what we’ve got to the actual adults and let them figure out how to pro–”

Frowning to himself throughout all of that, Doug finally spoke up, interrupting their leader. “Why didn’t you tell us about that before?”

Rudolph, realizing that he was the one being addressed, blinked that way. “What?”

“About Flick’s reaction to hearing about Fossor,” Doug clarified. “It seems kind of relevant, so why didn’t you bring it up before?”

“Well, I just… I…” Rudolph paused, frowning. “I um. I’m not sure. I probably should’ve.”

“Yeah.” There was something tickling at the back of Doug’s mind, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something… important. Finally, he shook his head to clear it. “Maybe it’s time to do what we should’ve done from the beginning.”

“Right,” Paul agreed. “Thanks, Doug. We do what we should’ve done from the start. We take what we know to the Committee, and–”

“No, not the Committee,” Douglas disagreed. “I still think we should talk to Flick. She hasn’t–I mean. Okay, look. I play a lot of video games, right? Video games, movies, books, all of it. And you know what? I don’t feel like being the character that comes in and fucks everything up because he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he’s wrong. I don’t wanna be that guy. If Gaia’s working with Flick and a vampire and all that, maybe they’ve got a reason. How about we don’t just automatically assume that Gaia’s evil because we heard one side of a phone conversation? Can we just step back from that cliff, please?”

Jazz slowly spoke up, sounding thoughtful. “So what do you suggest?”

“Like I said,” he replied pointedly, “we talk to Flick. Alone. Say I’m wrong and this whole thing really is sketchy. Well, if we ask Gaia about it and I’m wrong, we’re fucked. But if we ask Flick about it, confront just Flick, then maybe even if I’m wrong, we still get some answers. One way or the other. You wanna find out what happened to Roxa? That’s how we do it. But if we bring in the Committee, there’s no going back from that. That’s a switch we can’t unflick. Pun intended and I am so sad that Shiori isn’t here for this conversation because she would be so jealous.” 

“You’re insane,” Isaac informed him. “How’re we gonna talk to ‘just Flick’? How are we supposed to get her alone? We have no idea how wired up with spells and spies and whatever else Crossroads is. You don’t know who we can trust over there. If Gaia’s in on it, anyone could be.”

Douglas nodded at him. “Yup, you’re right. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads.”

Isaac gave a satisfied nod then. “Right, thank you. So let’s just take it to the big guys and–”

“No.” Doug shook his head. “That’s not what I was saying. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads, so let’s take the whole thing out of Crossroads. Let’s confront Flick about it somewhere that Gaia isn’t around. Somewhere she couldn’t possibly have anything set up.”

Isaac squinted at him then, and Doug thought there was something… different and strange in the boy’s gaze before it passed. “Okay…” he announced slowly, glancing toward Paul briefly before asking, “and how exactly would you suggest we do that, man? We can’t exactly just snap our fingers and magic up an excuse to take Flick off school grounds and away from everyone else. I mean, unless you’ve got some serious pull that you haven’t been sharing with the rest of the class.” The latter was added in a teasing tone as Isaac winked at him.

“Maybe we can.” The words came not from Doug, but from Rudolph. The boy looked thoughtful.

“Excuse me?” Paul was looking at Rudolph, frowning a little while cracking his knuckles a little methodically. “You seriously have an idea to take Flick off school grounds so we can confront her without Gaia or anyone around?”

“Dude,” Jazz interrupted while the other boy flinched. “Could you sound any more critical? Give him a chance, huh?” To Rudolph, she asked, “Seriously though, what’s up?”

Again, the boy looked hesitant before breathing out and straightening. “I visit my great-great-great grandfather at night sometimes. He’s one of the doctors at the EJC, err, the Eduard Jenner Center.” To Isaac, he added, “It’s basically one of the main Heretic Hospitals.”

Isaac, who had stood from the bed and was watching Paul for a moment, turned his attention back to Rudolph. “Gotcha. So what does that have to do with our little problem? You wanna make Flick get the flu or something?”

As Doug watched, curious about where the other boy was going with this, Rudolph’s head shook. “No, no, nothing like that. But I was there the other night, and one of Grandpa Donald’s old friends was there for some kind of night class that he’s been teaching for the people that are laid up in there. He’s this guy that works in the Bystander world, Josiah Carfried.”

“Wait,” Jazz interrupted. “As in–”

“I think they’re related, yeah,” Rudolph confirmed. “Not sure how. But the point is, he works at some museum or something, and he was talking to Grandpa Donald about how Professor Dare asked him to have the Investigative Track show up and help out.” He flushed a little. “I wasn’t supposed to hear about it, I don’t think. But I kinda did. And then Gramps was saying that he should spice it up a little, so the Josiah guy got this idea about having a prize for whoever helps him the most with whatever he has them do.”

“Okay, this sounds really great and all,” Isaac informed the other boy doubtfully. “But I really think–”

Gordon spoke up then. “What kind of prize, exactly?”

Looking up at them, Rudolph hesitated before answering quietly. “A trip to New York City. Four days out there, away from the island.”

“Flick’s not in Investigation anymore,” Paul pointed out mildly.

Rudolph’s head bobbed. “Yeah, the prize is for the whole team of whoever finds it. Or teams, you know. They’re supposed to break into pairs, from what Josiah was saying.”

“So… what?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “You want us to find a way to make sure, what, Flick’s team and our team both win this trip?”

Straightening, Doug gave a quick nod. “Sure, we can do that. We just need to make sure one of you ends up in a pair with either Sands or Scout. And then make sure that pair wins.” This could work, and it sounded a lot easier than taking stuff to the Committee. And less… final. Doug wasn’t sure how he felt about Flick, but if she was just being manipulated into doing all this herself, if there was a way to do this without turning the girl in… that was the best way, it had to be. Sulan wouldn’t have just thrown the girl under the bus without a second thought. He would have given Flick a chance.

Paul and Isaac were looking at each other. Neither seemed convinced. Their team leader slowly shook his head. “I dunno, guys. How do we make sure they’re on the same team? How do we make sure that team wins?”

Shrugging, Jazz replied, “The team part we can figure out as we go. As for the winning thing… “

“I can help,” Doug quickly spoke up as his eyes widened with realization. “My power. Whoever gets on a team with one of the twins, just send me a text or something. Tell me what you’re trying to do, I’ll ask my power how to win, and then send it back.”

Together, they all looked at each other for a few long seconds. Isaac made a face. “Did we all just forget something? Remember how much ass that Chambers chick can kick? That’s why we didn’t confront her to begin with.”

“This is different,” Doug insisted. “Six of us and one of her. We get her alone, make it look like we’re all separating, and then we confront her all together. Between the six of us, we can at least get answers.”

Give her a chance to explain her side, it’s what Sulan would have done.

Paul lifted his chin. “Not a bad idea, really. I mean, maybe a bit of a longshot, but still. Nice job thinking outside the box, guys. But… yeah, I think our best shot is still just letting the adults handle it. So we’ll just try to get hold of–”

“Let’s take a vote.” Jazz’s voice was challenging, her eyes staring at their team leader.

“I’m sorry?” Paul blinked at her.

The girl shrugged. “You always said that if we disagreed, we’d take a vote, right? You’re not a dictator. That’s what you said. So let’s take a vote. Everyone who wants to to go with Rudolph’s plan, raise your hand. If you want to go with the ‘inform the Committee’ plan, keep your hand down.”

She raised her hand, followed by a slightly hesitant-looking Rudolph. A moment later, Gordon’s hand joined theirs. And Doug’s raised hand made four. The only ones who kept their hands down were Isaac and Paul.

Isaac made a disgruntled noise, shoving a hand into his pocket. “Right, I guess we just–”

Doug interrupted the other boy then, calling up the power that allowed him to ask one question per day and get an answer. “How is Josiah Carfried dividing up the people from Professor Dare’s Investigations class to do this contest of his?”

The answer came almost immediately, and he smiled before looking at Rudolph. “Right, got it. Wait, let me think….” He focused for a moment before smiling. “You know what? I think I know what to do. But if we’re gonna pull this off, you’ve gotta go back to that hospital tomorrow night. And we’ll need a spell from the school. I saw it the other day, but I don’t remember it exactly.”

Hand still in his pocket, Isaac squinted at him, his voice strange. “Wait, you just used your power? The one you can only use once per day? You used it on this, right now?”

Nodding absently, Doug replied, “Yeah, felt like the right time for it.” To Rudolph, he added, “You said Josiah’s has been there teaching night classes? You think he’ll be there tomorrow night? And do you can get into that hospital again?”

Slowly, Rudolph nodded. “I… yeah, he should be there. And I can visit. No… uh, no problem.”

“Great.” Jazz was grinning, raising both fists into the air. “We’re going to New York, baby!

“Even if we’ve gotta cheat to do it.”

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Investigations 25-03 – Jasmine Rhodes (Interlude Arc)

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Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Jasmine Rhodes was a student from a normal Heretic family (inasmuch as Heretic families were ever normal). That wasn’t exactly true, since her true family was… well, as far from a ‘normal’ family of Crossroads Heretics as there could possibly be.

Actually, they weren’t even Crossroads Heretics at all. Not really. The family that Jazz had been born into was more of a clan of several interconnected families whose blood connections were so intertwined they were practically incestuous by that point, and were thoroughly impossible to untangle without involving higher-level math. As far as Jazz knew, they had started as about six separate Heretic families around the time of the American Revolution (and the same time as the whole war between Eden’s Garden and Crossroads). Those six Heretics and their families had chosen to walk away from both sides entirely, essentially telling Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to collectively go to hell while they focused on the important thing: protecting humanity. Collectively, the six families referred to themselves as Torchbearers. It was supposed to be a play off of taking the light from Crossroads grand lighthouse (at that point a more primitive structure) and bringing it down into the real world as a torch. Because that was their point: to stay connected to humanity.

Over the years in the meantime, there had been certain concessions made, and traditions born. Most of their people would become natural Heretics by being taken out onto hunts with those who were already Heretics. Once an appropriate Stranger was taken, the initiate would be exposed to their blood and other parts, essentially being buried with the body in order to provoke the change. It didn’t always work, of course, and those who didn’t make the change that time had the choice of either trying again later or choosing to live a more ordinary life.

That was what would happen with most of their people, a choice between an ordinary life (and even then, they could choose to support the Torchbearers without actually fighting) and becoming a Natural Heretic, purposefully connected to some monster that they had killed.

But there was also another option. Over years following the six families initial separation from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, a deal had eventually been made in order to avoid allowing the families to grow too weak. Once every five or six years, the Torchbearers would send one student each to Crossroads and to Eden’s Garden. One student for each organization. That student would go through the education and training, becoming a full-fledged Heretic, of the kind that could absorb powers from what they killed.

The Torchbearers celebrated those full Heretics. They were leaders, the most powerful of the six families. They were known as Lightwalkers (they definitely couldn’t be accused of abandoning their theme, that was for sure), and each Lightwalker essentially helped to lead the rest of the families as generals, with the Natural Heretics as their soldiers in the ongoing war against all of the monsters who hunted and killed humanity.

Suffice to say, the people who were chosen to represent the Torchbearers at Crossroads or Eden’s Garden were the best of the best. They were chosen only after a lengthy and exhaustive testing process, from groups of potentials who trained literally their entire lives up to the point of admission (roughly twelve for those joining Eden’s Garden and seventeen for those joining Crossroads) before finally being selected. Even those who weren’t selected to join one of the schools and eventually become Lightwalkers remained important, as they were the ones who became Natural Heretics and thus the Lightwalkers’ soldiers and hunters.

All of them, chosen or not, were the best that the six families had to offer. Those who were actually selected to become Lightwalkers were the top of everything. They were the smartest, the most powerful, the absolute strongest of the six families. They were literal champions.

And Jasmine was… not one of them.

She had never been intended to be one of them. While Jasmine did grow up within the six families, and was ostensibly a Torchbearer herself, she was never intended to become part of their war. She was not one of the potentials, not to become a Natural Heretic and definitely not to become one of the fabled Lightwalkers.

No, from a young age, Jasmine and her parents had both decided together that she would live a more normal life. She could help out where needed, but her true passion lay in the idea of making movies, of living within the Bystander world. And that had been okay with her parents. She wanted to be as normal as possible, and they accepted that. She wasn’t born to be a legend in their society, she wasn’t meant to be some grand hero who led their people. All she wanted to do was go into Hollywood so she could write and direct movies. That was her grand dream: to be a woman who made epic action movies.

Then the attack had happened. A group of Strangers, monsters, had somehow found a way to ambush the training facility of the potential Lightwalkers. Over a dozen children and teenagers ranging from eleven to the cusp of seventeen had been killed, slaughtered by the beasts they were supposed to train to fight. It had been a total and complete massacre. And when it was over, there were no potentials left, none of the youth who had trained throughout their lives for the honor of being sent either to Crossroads or to Eden’s Garden had survived. Of the children who were left, none were anywhere near the proper age to join Crossroads for at least another five years. None, that was… except for Jasmine.

She wasn’t the first choice. Or the second, or even a distant third. She was literally the only choice they had left, the only teenager who was the proper age, yet hadn’t been in that training facility because she had never intended to become a proper Heretic in the first place.

And yet, after everything that had happened, she couldn’t just turn her back on her people. Hollywood, movies, her dreams… she had to set them aside. There was no other choice. Coming here, coming to Crossroads to maintain that tradition, it was the only thing she could do. Even if most of the leadership of the six families did see her as mostly a write-off, a placeholder of sorts until the next generation. They knew she hadn’t trained the way the others had. They knew that her heart hadn’t been in monster fighting. They knew she didn’t have some soul of a hero or anything like that. She was just doing what she had to do because there was no one else left who could. She hadn’t been selected by some grand and revered process, she wasn’t chosen for any strength of her own. She was just the only one left.

And now, well, now the only real female friend that she’d made in this school was missing. Just like the way all her friends back in the Torchbearers had either gone away or been… been killed by those monsters. She had been left all alone in the room that she had shared with Roxa, the same way that she’d been left alone back home.

This time, however, she didn’t have to put up with it. This time, Roxa could still be found, could still be saved. Jazz would find out the truth of what had really happened to her roommate. And, if possible, bring her back to where she belonged. She couldn’t do anything for everyone who had died in the massacre. But this? This she could do something about.

Maybe that was why she hadn’t slept much over the past couple of days. Because it felt like they were finally doing something about what had happened. There was some kind of energy in the air that made Jazz believe that they were about to find answers, maybe even rescue Roxa herself. One way or another, they would know what was really going on with Felicity Chambers. And they would know just who the bad guys in this whole situation were.

“Let me guess, you’re thinking about me again, aren’t you?”

Turning away from the railing of the second floor walkway that surrounded the motel parking lot, Jazz blinked at Isaac Acosta before rolling her eyes. “Yes, Isaac, I can’t possibly keep you off my mind. You know I’ve always had a thing for clowns who don’t know how to take anything seriously. Please, ravish me now.”

The Hispanic boy gave her a lopsided grin, winking. “Careful what you ask for, babe.”

Snorting, Jasmine folded her arms, leaning against the railing just outside of the motel room. “What’re you doing anyway? I thought you were supposed to be sleeping while Rudolph and Gordon are on watch.”

Shrugging, Isaac replied easily, “You know how it is, couldn’t sleep.” A sly smile touched his face then as he gestured toward her. “And uh, at the moment I’m just enjoying the view.”

Again, Jazz rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I’d say to stop trying such a pathetic line, but don’t. Because someday, somehow, that line will work on someone. And the person it finally works on will be just the right person for you. But that person is not, and will never be me.  

The boy gave her a wide smile. “Oh, you never know. Maybe I’ll wear you down someday.”

“Just as soon as whales fly,” she retorted before amending, “And by that, I mean completely ordinary whales, not Strangers. Normal, average whales that live in the ocean, flying under their own power without any magic or outside assistance and god the world is weird.”

Before Isaac could give any response to that, the door of the motel room behind him quietly opened, and Douglas slipped out, clearly trying to be as silent and quick as possible so that he didn’t wake up Paul, who was still fast asleep inside.

“Time to go?” Jazz asked, raising an eyebrow toward the boy once he had closed the door.

He nodded, waving his cell phone briefly to show her the clock on it before whispering quietly, “Five minutes to midnight, we gotta go relieve Rudolph and Gordon.”

“Right.” Jazz gestured to Isaac. “Guess we’ve got actual work to do now. But you keep working on those pick-up lines of yours.” Pausing, she added with a little smile. “I saw one of those big clown statues in the playground area you might stand a chance with.”

The boy’s response was a wink. “Oh, don’t you worry about me, Jazzy. Someday I’ll get you. I don’t give up that easily.”

Snorting, Jasmine turned to start for the stairs at the end of the walkway. “C’mon, Doug. Let’s go before he starts practicing more lines. I don’t think I could stand all the lame.”  

Together, she and Doug went down the stairs and headed out of the lot on their way to relieve the other two, leaving Isaac to… whatever he was going to end up doing. Hopefully getting some actual sleep before it would eventually be time for him and Paul to relieve them.  

On the way, Doug glanced to her curiously. “You think we’ll ever tell Marina about this?”

Jazz blanched at the reminder of their team mentor. The sophomore girl seemed to have bought completely into the line about where Roxa was, and she’d shut the rest of them down whenever they brought it up. Eventually it had gotten to the point that they just stopped talking about it with her. Not that she was a bad mentor, she just thought that talking about Roxa all the time was getting in the way of their training. Marina believed the official word, and thought that they should too. So, obviously, they hadn’t told her anything about this plan. She, like Professor Carfried and all the rest of the teachers, believed that the team was spending the weekend at Paul’s father’s place in Montana. For the moment, anyway.

Shaking off those thoughts, Jazz gave a short nod. “I hope so. Because if we tell her about it, it’s because we’re rubbing how right we were about everything in her face. And that’ll probably mean that Roxa’s back with us and everything can go back to the way it…”

As she trailed off into silence, Doug looked at her, frowning a little bit. “What’s wrong?”  

She bit her lip, hesitating before giving a soft sigh. “I was just thinking about how I kinda like having Rudolph around. The guy’s been growing on me, even if he does keep believing the best when it comes Chambers. But if Roxa comes back, what’s gonna happen to him? Will he stay or go back to his other team? I mean, it’ll be uneven numbers either way.”

Doug shrugged at that. “I dunno,” he admitted. “Maybe they’ll give him a choice. You any good at baking? Maybe we can give him some bribery cookies to stick around.”

Grimacing at the thought, Jasmine shook her head. “Let’s uhh, outsource for our bakery bribes.”

Before long, they reached the van. Rudolph and Gordon had already been watching for them, stepping out as they approached.

“You guys see anything?” Jazz asked the boys in a whisper before glancing that way. She could barely see the house from where the van was parked. They wanted to be far enough away that if there was a vampire in there, she wouldn’t sense them.

Rudolph shook his head. “Nothing specific. There’s people in there, but we haven’t been able to get a close enough look to… you know, pick anything out.”

“In other words,” Gordon added for him, “whoever’s in there with Flick’s father, we haven’t seen if she’s a Stranger or not.”

“Pretty sure she’s been out though,” Rudolph put in while gesturing that way. “Seen someone moving around the backyard. Just glimpses, and by the time we find a way to get over there, they’re gone. We’d get closer, but… you know.”

Jazz nodded. “Yeah. The second you’re close enough to tell if she’s a Stranger, she’ll be able to tell that you’re Heretics. And then we’re all in trouble.”

“Right.” Gordon folded his arms over his chest. “Better to take the time and watch for the best opening. She’ll make a mistake at some point. She’ll come out into plain sight. Or Chambers’s dad’ll leave during the day so we can get into the house.”

That was the main break they were waiting for. It was either get a good look at the supposed vampire when she came out at night, or wait for the man himself to give them an opening to get into the house while he was gone during the day. But if that opening came, they’d all agreed that whoever was on watch duty would call the others. If they were going to get into a house that a vampire might be sleeping in, it would have to be together.  

Jazz gestured back the way they’d come. “You guys go ahead, we’ll take over. You did leave enough soda and junk, right?”

Rudolph nodded. “Still most of a twelve pack in there, and all those chips. I think we’ve still got a couple sandwiches in the cooler too.”

“If not, we’ll make a run to the store,” Jazz replied before waving them off. “Now scoot. Gonna do a quick walk through, since I can get closer than you boys.”

The other two took off, leaving Jazz and Doug. She gestured to the other boy. “You wanna walk with me, or wait here?”

He seemed to consider it for a moment, weighing the options. “If something happens, probably better to have someone hanging back to watch,” the boy pointed out eventually. “Don’t go anywhere that I wouldn’t be able to see if you turn visible again, okay?”

Jazz nodded before focusing on her power. After a second, she faded from sight. And from that point, it was simply a matter of… walking very slowly.

Yeah, that was the downside of this power. To use it effectively, she either had to stand still, or move incredibly slowly to the point of barely moving at all. It took a simple ten minute walk and turned it into about about half an hour instead. But she didn’t dare move any faster, just in case the vampire happened to be watching.

At least it also dampened things like sound and smell, so the vamp’s other enhanced senses shouldn’t pick her up.

Like the other times that she’d made her way past the house like this in the past day or so, the place was mostly dark, except for one light on upstairs and the flicker of what looked like a television. Once in awhile, they would see a light go on downstairs, likely in the kitchen. But mostly it was just like this, quiet and mostly dark.

This time, however, she had just passed the edge of the front yard when the sound of the backdoor opening caught Jasmine’s attention. There was movement in the shadows, and then she heard a female voice say, “Sorry, didn’t want to wake up Lincoln.”

Lincoln. Right, Lincoln Chambers. Flick’s dad. Frowning, Jazz listened while straining to see through the darkness that engulfed the backyard. Whoever was back there didn’t need to use any kind of light to see, that was for sure.

“Yeah,” the girl’s voice continued after a few seconds where she was apparently listening to someone, likely on a phone, “believe me, I know. Flick’s worried about it too. But as far as I can tell, we’re steering him away from Fossor.”

Fossor? Jasmine knew that name. But what did that monster have to do with Flick or her father? Maybe the others would know, or at least have ideas.

Before she could think anymore about that, the backdoor opened once more. “That the big lady?” another voice asked. Wait, how many girls were in Flick’s house, anyway?

“Yeah,” the first voice replied before adding, “Didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“Nah, I’m up anyway. I’ll lay down in a bit. She got anything interesting to say? And where’s the light switch out here?”

“Hold on.” A pause, then, “I’m putting you on speaker. Say hi to Twister.”

“Hello, Twister,” a third voice spoke, clearly coming from the phone as it was set into speaker mode. “I trust you’re keeping Felicity’s father out of trouble?”

A light went on then, illuminating a side porch where two girls were standing. As Jazz stared that way, one thing became perfectly clear: the older of the two girls, the one who had been talking first, was definitely a vampire. The second she saw her, Jazz’s Stranger-sense started going nuts.

But even having that confirmed was almost nothing. It barely registered in the back of her mind. Because far more important was the voice on that phone, the one talking so casually to the vampire.

Headmistress Sinclaire.

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Investigations 25-02 – Paul Calburn (Interlude Arc)

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Late Friday Evening, January 26th, 2018 (Three days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Paul Calburn embodied the very concept of the cliche gentleman cowboy. That wasn’t exactly true, since the one and only time he’d actually ridden a horse, the thing had bucked him. That was back when Paul had been eight years old. He’d ended up with a broken arm and a deep-seated fear of horses that he still hadn’t shaken. He knew how irrational it was, especially now. He was training to fight much, much worse threats. But logic didn’t matter. Anytime the idea of actually sitting on a horse came up again, he had a flashback to his own small body flying through the air, followed by the terrible pain as he’d landed on his arm. Logic be damned, he just didn’t like horses.

But what he liked even less than horses were bullies and manipulators, people who took advantage of others to get what they wanted. People who abused their power like that were the worst scum. And as far as he could tell, that included the girl who called herself Flick Chambers, if that was even her real name. From what he’d seen, everything else about her was a lie.

She had supposedly been a completely normal Bystander with no combat training and no connection to the Heretic world. Yet, within a few months of starting, she was already one of the most advanced combatants in their school. Hell, if the rumors were right (and they seemed to be), she’d killed an Amarok on her team’s first hunt. An Amarok, and Chambers managed to kill it after she’d been a part of the school for… what, barely a month? That was completely absurd.

Then there was everything else. On the third day of school, Professor Pericles had been killed. And who were two of the first people on the scene first thing in the morning according to others who had been there? Flick and Avalon. The next day, who were the two students locked in a room with a bunch of Peridles that came out of it without a scratch despite one of those students supposedly never being in a fight before in her life? Flick and Avalon.

It went on and on like that. Flick kept disappearing and showing up with powers that no one saw her get. She didn’t get them on any kind of official hunt, that was for sure. She just… had them.

Then there was Thanksgiving. It was next to impossible to put together any kind of coherent timeline or description of what had happened. But somehow, Flick had ended up at Koren Fellows’ house and… surprise, surprise, there was an attack by some kind of nasty Stranger. An attack that ended with Koren’s mom needing help. But did they bring her to Crossroads? No. Flick was there and she just happened to have a contact in Eden’s Garden, a contact that took Koren’s mom there instead of to Crossroads. And guess who, completely coincidentally, stopped being so antagonistic toward Flick and her friends right around that same time? Koren.

Koren acted like a…  word that he wasn’t going to even let himself think, because he didn’t want to be that kind of person. She acted awful toward Flick and Flick’s friends. Flick ended up at her house, Koren’s mother was horrifically injured, and then was taken to Eden’s Garden… and suddenly Koren’s attitude changed? What better leverage was there than someone’s mother?

And it was around that same time that Roxa had disappeared, with the utterly ridiculous explanation that she had gone for a family emergency. A family that she didn’t have, since she’d made it quite clear to them all that she was an orphan.

That, in itself, obviously didn’t tie her to Flick. But the there was Doug’s power. The power that told them that the answer to finding out where Roxa was lay in Flick. Flick was the answer. She knew where Roxa was, what had happened to her.

What, exactly was more likely, that Roxa had somehow gained an entire family just before having an emergency that required she visit them for months on end…  and that somehow Flick knew about it…. or that Roxa had found out the truth about Flick being from Eden’s Garden and she or someone connected to her had done something to the girl?

Maybe they hurt her. Maybe they abducted her. Maybe they brainwashed her, or just convinced her to go to Eden’s Garden somehow. Threats, payments, promises, Paul wasn’t going to pretend to know Roxa well enough to say for certain. But the point remained that Doug’s power said that Flick knew what happened to Roxa. And, in the time since that whole thing had happened, Flick had begun to act more and more paranoid and suspicious of everyone.

She had the people on her team using those magic coins that Paul and the others had found in her dorm room, the coins that masked their conversations. How had she learned that spell?

Flick knew magic she shouldn’t know, she was a better fighter than she should be, she kept disappearing and gaining abilities with no explanation, she had contacts in Eden’s Garden that were strong enough to let her tell them to make someone into a Heretic (and purposefully had that person sent there instead of to Crossroads where her own daughter attended)… and on and on. How much more obvious did it need to be that she wasn’t a normal student?

And that wasn’t even getting into the whole visit from the boy who had somehow mind-controlled their head of security before visiting Flick and Avalon’s room. Sure, he’d then proceeded to use that mind-whammy power of his to convince most of the students in the immediate area to attack them, but as far as Paul could tell, that had only happened after Gaia showed up. At the time, he’d assumed it was just what it looked like. But now… ever since Doug’s power kept repeatedly pointing at Flick as being the source of Roxa’s disappearance, he doubted it. Again, the whole ‘attack Flick’ thing hadn’t happened until Gaia was there. Who knew what else they talked about before then? And it would’ve been a quick way of making Flick look innocent after they were caught in her room by the headmistress.

Sigh. None of that sounded exactly right. Paul couldn’t entirely shake the thought that they were missing something important. He kept doubting things. Yet Doug’s power was insistent. Every time they asked it who was responsible for Roxa’s disappearance, how to find her, who knew where she was, and so on and so forth, it pointed at Flick Chambers.

Sometimes, Paul thought he should just walk up and demand answers from the girl. Other times he thought he should just ask her. Either way, the direct method was tempting. Yet there was also no way to come back from it. If they confronted Flick openly and she was a threat, there would be no do-overs. That was the only thing that stopped him. So many times, he had looked at the blonde girl and thought that just asking her about it would be the best way to do things.

But if she was bad, if she was some kind of Garden secret agent or something and thought her cover was blown… she would be more than a threat to him, she might just have Roxa killed to cover their tracks. And after what had happened to Rex, the little brother who had drowned while nine-year-old Paul was supposed to be watching him… he couldn’t face something like that. He was their team leader. He was responsible for Roxa. He couldn’t make a mistake and trust Flick when it might mean that Roxa would pay the consequences if he was wrong.

Maybe that was why he was so obsessed with finding Roxa. Roxa. Rex. His little brother died because Paul was too busy playing his game instead of watching him. He knew his mother had never forgiven him for it, and likely never would. She’d never looked at him the same way again, even after his parents separated and Paul went to live with his father.   

He’d failed Rex. He wouldn’t fail Roxa.

“Now, see dude, when you said you had a plan, I thought you meant something involving teleportation or whatever,” Isaac announced from the backseat of the old red van.

“We did teleport,” Paul reminded the boy from his spot in the driver’s seat. “From Crossroads all the way to my dad’s new place in Montana.”

“Sure,” Isaac replied. “And then we proceeded to sit in a normal old van and drive down the freeway for the past five freaking hours. My cramps are getting cramps.”

Beside him in the front passenger seat, Jazz pointed out, “What were we supposed to do, say, ‘hey, Professor Carfried, could you teleport us to Wyoming? Yeah, we know none of us live there, but we really want to visit all the absolutely nothing that’s there’. We’re just lucky the place Paul’s dad moved to is as close as it is. Five hours isn’t that bad, and I’m the one who has to put up with the boy smell.”

Rudolph, sitting next to Isaac, spoke without opening his eyes. The boy had been dozing in his seat since the moment the drive had started. “And lucky that his dad doesn’t mind him going on roadtrips when he’s supposed to be visiting for the weekend with his team.”

Coughing a little despite himself, Paul tightened his grip on the wheel before nodding. “Dad pretty much lets me do what I want, long as I don’t make no trouble. Not the first road trip I’ve taken. Kinda like the solitude.” Pausing briefly, he asked, “Everyone else okay back there?”

Doug, in the middle seat in front of Rudolph and Isaac, spoke without looking up from his game. “Dandy.” His fingers were flying over the buttons, and his brow was knit with concentration, eyes mostly hidden by the ever-present New York Rangers cap that was pulled down low.

Beside the other boy, Gordon gave a slight nod. His own eyes were focused out the window, watching the Wyoming scenery as they drove by. He spoke quietly. “How far is it now?”

Before Paul could answer, Jazz lifted a hand to point at a sign they were passing. “There it is. Laramie Falls, Wyoming, exit in five miles. You got that question ready, Doug?”

The boy in question nodded before muttering, “I’ll wait until we’re actually in town.”

It didn’t take long from that point. Within a few minutes, they had exited the freeway and were slowly driving through the town itself. Doug finally shut off his game, straightening up. Aloud, he asked, “How do we get from here to the house in this town that is listed as being Flick Chambers’ home?”

No one in the van answered. But then, Doug wasn’t asking them, he was using his power. Once a day, he could ask a question and either receive an answer or directions toward an answer.

A moment later, he opened his eyes. “Got it. Turn right up here, then left at the next corner.”

Over the next couple of minutes, the boy directed them through the town. Just before they reached Flick’s street, Paul pulled into a corner gas station and parked in the back. The six of them stepped out, the boys stretching their legs a bit while Jazz went inside to get some drinks. Then, once they were sufficiently refreshed, the team started out of the lot on foot. They walked down the street, keeping their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. Now would be one of the worst possible times to somehow run into someone who knew who they were. Explaining what they were doing in Flick’s (supposed) hometown would taken awful lot of doing.

Before stepping onto Flick’s street itself, Paul made everyone stop. It was late enough that almost no one was out anyway. But still. They all clustered together, touching Jazz before the girl summoned her invisibility power. It wasn’t perfect, showing a shimmering shape in the air whenever they moved. But as long as the group moved slowly, it was better than nothing. Plus, according to Jazz, the power also somewhat dampened other senses like hearing and smell.

The house in question was mostly dark, with only a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. As they slowly (and almost invisibly) approached, there was no sign of movement aside from some flickering that looked like it was coming from a television. Aside from that, all was still.

“You know,” Isaac whispered barely loud enough to be heard, “I kinda expected something to happen right now. Like a bunch of Garden thugs to jump out or… or… I dunno, something.”

He was being quiet, but Paul still shushed him without taking his eyes off the house. They stood there, across the street while staring at the place for another ten minutes before he ushered the group to move on. Together, they continued down and around the corner, gathering in a gravel-filled alley before Jazz finally relaxed the invisibility so they could see each other again.

Rudolph was the first to speak, his voice quiet and steady. “Looks pretty normal, doesn’t it?”

Paul nodded slowly. “Yeah, not that that means anything.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Right, just like we figured. That motel we found online is just a couple blocks away. Since I’m the only one that’s eighteen, I’ll check in. Most of us get some sleep, and we watch the house in pairs over the next couple days until something happens. Everyone good with that?”

There were an assortment of nods, and Paul gestured. “Right, let’s go. I wanna get back so we can keep an eye on the place before we end up missing something. I’ll take the first shift, with…”

******

A little over an hour later, Paul started awake abruptly. He was in the driver’s seat of the van once more, which was parked just around the corner from Flick’s home, pulled forward just enough to see the house in the distance.

“Bleh,” Paul muttered, smacking his lips a few times to get rid of the sleep taste. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.” Glancing to his partner for the moment, he asked, “Everything still quiet over there?”

The response came not from the person seated beside him in the passenger seat, but from the back. And it spoke in his own voice.

“Everything still quiet over there?”

Jerking around in his seat, Paul stared at the figure who sat behind them. The figure was… him. It could’ve been his twin brother. Seeing his stare, the doppelganger smiled before speaking, again mimicking his previous words. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.”

Paul’s mouth opened, and then he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck. His head turned, snapping that way in time to see his partner withdraw a syringe even as all of the strength left Paul’s body. He slumped over, collapsing halfway out of the seat.  

“Here we go,” his teammate announced quietly while reaching out to yank Paul up by the arm. They steadied him in the seat, patting his cheek. “If it makes you feel any better, you didn’t miss anything in the house. Though, you know, I did wonder if that drink was ever gonna knock you out.”

He was paralyzed. Paul couldn’t move anything aside from his eyes and his mouth, both sluggishly. “Th…wh…what… what…”

“Oh, right,” his teammate… his supposed friend snapped their fingers. “You’ve probably got questions about the guy in the back.” Glancing that way, they smiled slightly. “That’s Fetch. Wait–” They looked to the figure in question. “Was Fetch your name or your species, because I was never quite clear on that.”

“Yes,” the answer came from the back in Paul’s voice.

After pausing briefly, the person beside him nodded. “Right then. Anyway, Fetch. I think it’s some kind of Irish Stranger or something. Anyway, you don’t want a history lesson right now. You just wanna know why it looks like you, right? Well, long story short, he’s a doppelganger.  Cuz here’s the thing, Paul… turns out, my uh, let’s call them my benefactors, they think they need some more help. Some backup, you know. So, they sent in Fetch here. He’s one of those Strangers that doesn’t set off the Heretic-sense. Pretty useful. And he’s kind of a mercenary.” There was a pause then before Paul’s teammate chuckled. “Hell, I guess I’m a mercenary too, huh? I mean, they are paying me a shiiiiiitload for all this. Which, I mean, I almost would’ve done it for free cuz how often do you get to do shit like this? But you know, the money helps.”

Paul was struggling, fighting a losing battle to make himself move, to shout for help, to warn… someone. He was trying to interrupt, but it was hard to talk, hard to do anything but sit there. Even his emotions seemed dulled and slow, because the sense of betrayal that he felt didn’t seem to be the kind of raging fire that it should. Everything was dampened.

“Anyway,” the person beside him continued. “Point is, Fetch here needs someone to take over. You got elected because you’re on my team so I could set it up, and because–well, quite frankly it has been a pain in the ass to keep this team focused. You have no idea how many times you people decided to just go and talk to Flick to straighten this whole thing out. I mean, memory-erasure spells or not, having the same conversation over and over and over again until you get the result you want just gets dull, you know? Now, maybe with my pal Fetch here calling the shots in your place, we can actually stay focused on getting the rest of this team to gather all the evidence we need about Flick being a baaaaaad little girl. Then we’ll take that to the Committee and, well, that’ll be that. Oh, and because Gaia’s so tied into this whole thing, she’ll probably go down too. Won’t that be fun?”

It was so hard to talk, it was so hard to think. Paul forced his mouth open, struggling to say even a couple words. “Flick… not… bad…”

“Flick’s not bad?” the figure echoed. “Yeah, I guess if you like snoopy blondes with firm little–oh, you meant evil. Well, no, she–oh, just for the record, were you talking about the real Flick, or the one we overheard the other day? Cuz uh, the one that came in her room and just conveniently spilled all that information just when we happened to be there? Yeah, that was my friend over here too. Just making sure they spoofed the security system correctly and all that. You know, while dropping just enough info to keep the rest of you guys interested and right on Flick’s tail. I mean, not as literally on her tail as I’d like to be, but…well,  you can’t have everything.” A pause then, before there was a thoughtful, “Actually, do you think they might let me have her when this is over?”

That was enough for Paul to almost push himself up a bit. His fists actually clenched. “Piece… of… shit…”

His teammate pushed him back down. “Oh, look at me, rambling forever. It’s just–it’s been a long time since I got to be myself, you know? I was just… faking it for so goddamn long, ever since they found me and told me all about this plan and… yeah. Seriously, it’s just nice to talk to someone. And see the look on your face. That’s–that’s gotta be one of the best parts of this whole thing. It’s almost as good as the look on Pericles’s face when he realized I was just distracting him before, well…” He drew a finger over his throat.

“Y… you… you…” Paul’s eyes were wide as he desperately fought against whatever he had been injected with. “… killed…”

“Me? Dude!” the figure beside him blurted. “You know how cool that would’ve been? Imagine how many powers I would’ve gotten from that.” A sigh then. “But no, they wouldn’t let me do it myself. I was just the distraction. But believe me, the person who did do it…. Well, let’s just say you’d be really surprised.”

“Wh… why…?” Paul’s voice was a weak croak, the words barely audible.

“Why do this? All of it?” His teammate paused before shrugging. “Well, I already told you about the money. Believe me, it is a lot of money. You have no idea. But beyond that, I’d say because it’s fun. I mean, check this out. You know those um, what were those little freaks called, the umm…” Their fingers snapped a few times as they fought to remember. “The Jekern, right, the big warthog things that’re like those Russian nesting dolls. You get one of those and you cut off its legs and you put these metal caps on the stumps so it can’t go anywhere, right? Then, all you gotta do is wait for it to get big enough that there’s a bunch of them inside. And once it is, there’s this technique you gotta do with the blade, you gotta angle it just right and when you shove it in, you can kill three, four of them all at once. Shrick, straight through all the brains, just like that. So all that’s left is the smallest one. Then you take that little baby, you cut off its legs, lock it up in the cage and feed it until it gets big enough to have more inside it. I mean seriously, dude, why don’t we just do that in the school? I must’ve killed eight or nine of the piggy freaks by now.

“And there’s other ones you can do that shit with too, you know? You just figure out how to cripple ‘em, lock the bastards up and let them spit out little ones. But you know, in that case you gotta kill the little ones, not the big ones. Don’t wanna get rid of your breeder, that’s just dumb and wasteful. And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s wasteful. Learned that lesson with my sister. I mean, one little slice and it was over, you know? I didn’t get to enjoy it or anything. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret not showing just a little more restraint. But you know, first times and all that. I think I can be forgiven for shooting off a little quick in that case. I’m much better at keeping my cool now.”

“I’m done.” Paul’s voice spoke up once more from the backseat, his doppleganger, Fetch.

“Done?” the traitor echoed before grinning. “Great.” To Paul, they added, “See, Fetch can just copy your physical appearance and all that if need be. But his real trick is a lot better than that. See, if he spends a few minutes close to the person he’s copying, he can sort of… lock onto their spirit. Or whatever you wanna call it. The point is, it means when you die, he gets to copy all your memories, your skills, your powers, everything useful. He can only hold onto that stuff for a short time before it fades. Someone like you is probably weak enough that he can copy it all for a couple months. But you know, that outta be long enough for our purposes.”

When he died. When he died. Summoning all of his anger, his rage, his desperation, Paul jerked forward in his seat… only to receive a knife in the middle of his chest.

It was a literal one, to match the metaphorical one that his supposed friend had stabbed him with already.

Dropping their hand from the handle, the figure beside him watched as Paul collapsed back into the seat. It was… it was cold… colder than Paul thought it would be. He was struggling, hand grasping for the door handle, mouth struggling to move, fighting to flee, to fight, to escape, to scream.

Fighting to live.

“Man,” the traitor announced calmly. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that, you sanctimonious prick.”  

Paul’s hand fell from the doorknob. Rex, he thought desperately. Roxa. Roxa, I was trying–I was trying–

The last thing that he heard, the last thing he would ever hear, was the derisive snort of his supposed friend.

“Man, would you just die already?”

Isaac Acosta gave a wide smile. “I wanna see how many of your powers I’ll get.”

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Investigations 25-01 – Gordon Kuhn (Interlude Arc)

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Please note, the following is the beginning of a 6-chapter Interlude Arc focusing on Roxa’s old team as they investigate Flick and that whole situation. We will be taking a brief break from our main character to see what’s going on over here. Flick will be back after this arc. 

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 (Five days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Gordon Kuhn had no sense of humor. That wasn’t exactly true, since there were things that he found amusing. But he had goals, goals that could only be accomplished if he took his training seriously, and didn’t squander the opportunity.

That, and he also didn’t particularly relish the idea of spending a bunch of time laughing alongside the very same people who would cheerfully murder him if they knew what he really was.

Because while Gordon’s mother was a Heretic just as everyone thought, his father was something altogether different. His father wasn’t human.

Most of the people at Cossroads, if they knew what Gordon really was, what his father was, would want him dead. There were only a couple of people that he could trust with his secret. And one of those people, the person who had recruited Gordon into the school to begin with while knowing what he was, had been murdered a couple of days into the school year. Professor Pericles, one of the very few people that Gordon knew without a doubt he could trust, had been murdered.

So was it really any wonder that he didn’t tend to have much of a sense of humor?

“Gordo!” That was Isaac, his roommate. The two were so dissimilar, with Isaac’s refusal to take anything seriously at all, that Gordon was at least half convinced that their entire life as roommates together was being a broadcast as some kind of Odd Couple reality show for the easily amused.

“You ready, man?” Isaac asked from his place at the door into their room. “The others are already waiting for us, but if you need a minute to make yourself pretty…” he trailed off, grinning widely.

Yeah, Gordon thought, and just how fast would you try to kill me the second you found out what my father is, Mr. Comedian? Out loud, he simply announced, “Ready,” while heading for the door.

The rest of the team was waiting for them on the roof of the boy’s dorm when they climbed the ladder to get up there. Douglas, Jasmine, Paul, and Rudolph all looked up as the two boys came over the edge of the roof to join them.

“It’s about time you guys made it,” Jasmine announced. “You know we couldn’t wait much longer. Doug’s power was pretty damn specific.”

Douglas had used his power to get an answer or at least directions toward an answer once per day in order to find the right time for them to do this.

Isaac was bobbing his head. “Sure man, but you know how Professor Kuhn over here it is. We had to get every last bit of that project for Nimbles done before he’d even consider coming out.”

“We’re still five minutes early,” Gordon pointed out flatly. “There was no sense in abandoning our work to come up here before it was time. Now the project’s done, and we don’t have to worry about it later.”

Plus, it had given him a little more time to think about what he was going to do if their theory about Felicity Chambers paid off today. And more specifically, how he was going to get her away from the rest of his team in order to ask her the things that he really needed to ask her.

Paul, ever the peacemaker, raised a hand. “All right, well we’re all here now, so let’s get busy.” He looked toward Rudolph, who stood at the edge of the roof. “You seen where Flick and Avalon went?”

The other boy gestured idly, his voice making it clear that he was trying not to yawn.  He had never been very invested in this, and had made his own doubts clear. Yet he didn’t go against what any of them said, and never refused to help. “They went down to the beach about ten minutes ago. Shiori was with them.”

Jasmine smirked knowingly at that, “Well, at least someone around here is getting some action today.” Seeing the others looking at her, she shrugged.”What? She may or may not be an evil bitch, but you gotta admit, she’s got game.”

“Okay, dude,” Isaac muttered. “Really trying to focus right now, and that’s not helping.”  Visibly shaking it off, he focused on Jasmine. “You first, since it’s safest for you. Make sure it’s clear?”

She nodded, holding both arms out cockily as she stood in front of him. “Well, beam me over, Scotty.”

Obligingly, Isaac reached out to put a hand on her arm, before looking over toward the roof of the girl’s dorm, across the way. A moment later, Jasmine disappeared from where she was standing, and reappeared almost immediately on the other roof.

That was one of the powers that Isaac had inherited during one of their fights over the past few months. At any point, he could transport himself, and/or anyone he was physically touching to any place within his line of sight. Unfortunately, he couldn’t transport through solid objects, even if he could see through them, like glass or bars. Plus, he could only do a maximum of one person other than himself at the same time. Which meant they had to do this slowly.

After taking a moment to look around and make sure the roof of the dorm was clear, Jasmine raised a hand to wave over at the rest of them.

“Right then,” Paul announced while looking to Douglas. “You’re next. Remember, keep your head down. We don’t need this to go to shit this early.”

Clearly unable to help himself, or unwilling to try, Isaac blurted, “So it’s okay if it goes to shit later?”

To his credit, while Gordon would have given the boy an annoyed look, Paul didn’t miss a beat. “Sure, as long as you’re the only one who gets screwed by it.”

Douglas took his place and was transported over to the roof with Jasmine. He was followed by Rudolph, then Gordon took his turn, with Isaac transporting himself and Paul over last.

Finally, they were all on the roof of the girls dorm, with the boys crouched down to avoid being seen as much as possible. Jasmine was keeping an eye out over the edge of the roof to make sure they weren’t interrupted by anyone climbing up.

“Okay then,” Paul whispered. “We’re kind of exposed here, so do your thing, Gordon.”

Without a word, Gordon stepped over and took a knee around the middle of the roof. Holding his hand out with his index finger and thumb apart in the shape of an almost-closed circle, he peered down through the space between the fingers at the roof. After a moment of focus, the image of the roof itself, as seen between his thumb and index finger, changed to show the inside of the room directly below. It was the kitchenette of an apartment for one of the older students.

It was a power that he had gained from the same creature that Isaac had taken his teleportation from. In the Stranger itself, both powers worked together, allowing it to see through solid objects and then teleport itself beyond. But in Gordon’s case, the x-ray vision only worked between his fingers like that (making it obvious when he was using it), and only within a short distance.

Moving his hand around to scan the entire apartment below, Gordon finally nodded. “It’s clear.”

“Great,” Paul announced before looking to Jasmine. “Guess that means you’re up, Jazz.”

The girl took her place next to Gordon then. Kneeling down, she touched her hand against the roof and slowly ran it along the surface. Everywhere her hand touched, the roof turned squiggly and almost see-through, like a very thick liquid. The room below was almost visible.

Jasmine had inherited the third and final portion of the power of the Stranger that Gordon and Isaac had also gotten part of. In her case, she could turn things intangible with a touch. The full power of the Strangers that the three of them had killed allowed it to see through solid objects, render those solid objects intangible (at a distance in its case), and then teleport through.

Once she’d altered enough of the roof, Jasmine gestured. “So who’s first, you big burly men?”

As it turned out, Paul was first that time. Stepping to the shimmering, liquid-like portion of roof, their team leader took a breath before dropping in. Through the space between his fingers, Gordon watched as the other boy cautiously looked around before gesturing for them to follow.

“Next,” Gordon passed the message along, watching as Isaac, Douglas, and then Rudolph went through. He went just before Jasmine, the altered roof material feeling a bit like moving through gelatin before he dropped the rest of the way to land on the floor of the apartment’s kitchenette.

Once they’d all made it into the room, Gordon checked the apartment below the one they were in. An instant later, he dropped his hand, head shaking. His voice was flat. “It’s occupied.”

Wincing, Paul looked around for a moment before pointing to the wall connecting the apartment they were in to the one next door. “Okay, try that one. Maybe we’ll get a little more lucky.”

They did. Between Gordon and Jasmine’s powers, they continued on their semi-roundabout path. First they had to go to the apartment next door, then down one, then over three more apartments before finding one below that was unoccupied. After that, the team had to work their way over until they were directly above their actual target: Flick and Avalon’s dorm room.

From there, once they had made sure that the coast was clear (which they spent at least twice as long on as they had for any other room), Gordon and the others eventually dropped down inside the belly of the beast.

“You know,” Douglas whispered once they were all in the room and his gaze had moved over to where Jasmine was. “You could’ve just like, waited outside the room for us to let you in. I mean, you’re allowed inside the girl’s dorm. You didn’t have to go through all that.”

“And let you boys have all the fun?” Jasmine scoffed with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be selfish.”

Isaac opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get anything out, Paul interrupted with a stage-whisper. “Okay, guys, let’s get busy. Doug’s power might’ve said that now is the best time to search this place, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got all day before they come back.” He looked toward Gordon then, gesturing to the door. “Keep a lookout, just in case?”

Gordon nodded once and stepped that way. Setting his fingers up, he put himself in a position where he could see through into the hallway and toward the main entrance. Hopefully, it would give them enough of a warning if Flick and Avalon returned before they were done searching.

He stood there, listening to his teammates carefully and thoroughly search the entire room behind him while he kept watch. Before they got too involved, however, Gordon spoke up. “Remember to put everything back exactly the way it was,” he pointed out. “You never know what they might notice being out of place. And don’t touch that box.” Without looking, he pointed toward the object in question in the corner of the room. “That’s where Flick keeps the mice.” He knew that much from his thorough examination of the room before they’d dropped inside.

“Dude.” Isaac’s hand was on his arm. “Seriously, don’t be such a worrywart, Gordo. We’ve got this. We’ll find proof that Avalon and Flick are some kind of Eden’s Garden spies, take it to the Headmistress, and she’ll make them tell us what really happened to Roxa. Easy peasy.”

Closing his eyes, Gordon took a deep breath before grunting through gritted teeth. “Stop cursing everything, stop distracting me, stop calling me Gordo, stop touching me, and keep looking.”

He’d made his aversion to being touched quite clear from the beginning. It was already hard enough to make sure he didn’t lose control and accidentally use the power that he’d inherited from his father without being able to explain where it came from. Part of Gordon felt like he should make an excuse about having killed something while he was on a family trip to explain it away. But he was afraid that would just lead to having to answer more than he wanted to. Better to keep his hybrid abilities secret, for now.

Still, it meant that every time one of his teammates touched him unexpectedly, it just reminded Gordon again that as much as he might (usually) like them (well enough), he couldn’t actually trust any of them. Not if they ever found out what he was. If they ever touched him while he wasn’t paying attention and keeping his skin the right temperature, their fingers would instantly freeze, likely to the point of shattering. And that… well, that would probably raise a few questions that he couldn’t answer very easily.

Fifteen minutes later, Isaac cursed while turning in a circle in the middle of the room. “Okay, there’s nothing here. No letters from her handlers back at Eden’s Garden, no vials of poison, no extra cell phones, no maps of secret entrances, nothing.”

“First of all, she does have more than one cell phone,” Jasmine informed him. “Believe me, I’ve seen her using two different ones. And we did find something. These.” Extending her hand, she showed a cloth bag that was meant to hold marbles. This one was full of quarters.  

Douglas raised an eyebrow at that from where he was sitting at Flick’s desk, in front of her computer. “Money for the laundromat?” he guessed with a shrug.

“Money for the–” Jasmine echoed incredulously before shaking her head. “Boys. I’m surrounded by boys.” Gordon had a feeling that she was substituting ‘morons’ in her head. “They’re enchanted coins. I’ve seen them use this stuff before, right before they have a completely boring and inconsequential conversation. Which means…” she trailed off, looking around hopefully.

“The coins must be hiding what they’re really saying,” Gordon calmly finished for her.

“Put ‘em back where they were,” Paul instructed. “If they’re that important, she’ll notice if they’re out of place. Wait, take one of them. It’s a bagful, she probably won’t notice one missing. We’ll see if we can find a way to counter the spell on it so we can hear what they’re really talking about.” To Douglas, he added, “You find a way into that thing yet?”

The other boy nodded then, fingers moving on the keyboard. “Got it. I’ve been looking at her e-mail. Nothing too exciting. Normal, boring messages. It’s so boring and ordinary, in fact, that there’s gotta be code here. No one really talks about stuff this boring over e-mail.”

A figure entered Gordon’s vision through his x-ray power then, just coming through the main door. He turned, interrupting in a flat, calm voice. “Chambers is coming.”

“Crap,” Paul announced succinctly before gesturing. “Come on, come on, contingency plan. That side, go, go go. Put the computer back the way it was. Move, move.” His stage whisper was almost frantic as he waved his hands, ushering everyone into one of the room’s corners.

Once they were there, Jasmine whispered, “Being the only girl on the team, I hate to give you boys this kind of ammunition, but… everyone touch me.”

They did, the whole team crowding in to put their hands on the dark-skinned girl’s offered arms and shoulders. As they did so, the doorknob on the other side of the room started to turn. Jasmine quickly knit her brow in concentration, before she and the rest of the team instantly faded from sight.

That was the other major power that Jasmine had gained. As long as she was either standing still or moving incredibly slowly, she could make herself and anyone (or anything) directly touching her completely invisible. If they stayed very still and didn’t make any noise, Flick wouldn’t know they were there.

When Flick came through the open door, she was on the phone, already speaking. “Yeah, one second.” She crossed over to her desk, reaching under it to flip on the privacy screen. The black shield that popped up around the girl’s side of the room should have left her with complete secrecy. Except for the fact that Gordon, Jasmine, and the rest of the team were inside the effect of the screen. So they could still hear Flick just fine as the girl flopped onto her bed while talking.

“We just have to get that choker on Roxa. If we do that, she can come back here and no one’ll know anything’s different. … Yeah, we can figure out the rest later, after we deal with the Roxa problem.  … I dunno, do werewolves and vampires really have that whole rivalry thing? … Oh gee, Miss Asenath, you tell me. Why would I think you know anything about that? … Right, I’ll alert the media.”

There was a little more conversation after that, enough to let them know that this ‘Asenath’ was staying with Flick’s father. It sounded like some kind of bodyguard position. Eventually, however, Flick checked the time and informed the person on the phone that she had to go.

Gordon didn’t know about anyone else, but he barely breathed until several moments after the blonde girl had left the room and it was clear that she wasn’t coming right back.

Finally, however, he exhaled and stepped away from the others as Jasmine released her invisibility. They came back into view, everyone looking at each other.

“Choker?” Douglas demanded. “They have to get a choker onto Roxa before they can bring her back here? What, for some kind of mind control shit?”

“Obviously,” Jasmine confirmed, folding her arms “What else could it be? You–”

“She said Asenath.” That was Isaac, who uncharacteristically looked incredibly serious, even dour as he repeated himself. “She said Asenath.”

Blinking, Paul nodded slowly, looking at Gordon and then back to Isaac. “Uh, yeah. Why, you know the name?”

“My Edge vision,” Isaac replied. “Back when we went through the lighthouse, it was… it was the first real thing I saw with all this Heretic stuff. The first real fight, I mean. One of my ancestors, I think he was my great, great granduncle or something, he was on this hunt, and they were ambushed by a vampire that killed him and his entire group. Her name was Asenath.”

The rest of the team looked at each other. Paul shook his head. “Asenath’s a pretty rare name. I mean, it’s not proof or anything, but…” he trailed off, frowning. “Close enough. Wait–wait, that’s it.”

“What?” Jasmine prompted. “What’s it?”

Holding up his hand to forestall more questions for a moment, Paul was silent while obviously thinking. Then he straightened. “Do we have an address in here somewhere?”

“Sure.” Isaac held up a box. “From her dad, supposedly. I think it was more clothes or something. Anyway, there’s a return address.”

“But it’s gotta be fake, right?” Douglas put in. “I mean, if she’s really from Eden’s Garden, why would she have a house somewhere in–what was it?”

“Wyoming,” Isaac supplied. “Laramie Falls, Wyoming.”

“Wyoming,” Douglas finished. “Right, why would she have a house somewhere in Wyoming?”

It was Gordon’s turn to speak up. “As a cover. If they check her backstory, she needs a house and at least one parent. Too suspicious otherwise.”

Paul was nodding. “Yeah. But this is our chance. It sounds like this Asenath is living there, probably some kind of servant bodyguard for the guy posing as her dad. Or maybe he is her dad. I dunno. The point is, all we have to do is get there and get a look at this Asenath. If she’s a vampire, we’ll know. And if Flick has a vampire living in her house, that’s proof that she’s actually working with Eden’s Garden, right? We prove there’s a vampire living there.”

“Before they use that choker to brainwash Roxa, or whatever they’re doing?” Douglas demanded.

Nodding firmly, Paul replied, “Yeah, before they go that far. We have to prove she’s a threat first. Otherwise… they won’t believe us. We get the proof that she’s got a vampire living in her house and we take that to Headmistress Sinclaire.”

“If we can trust her,” Jasmine muttered disbelievingly before adding, “And how do we get to Wyoming?”

Paul smiled slightly. “You leave that part to me. I’ve got an idea. But uh, that’s gonna take a couple days. So first, let’s get out of here.” He looked to Douglas. “You got that part?”

The boy nodded, tugging his pen out. A moment later, he’d used it to summon a simple ladder, leading back up to the room they had come down from.

After Gordon took a moment to check that the space above them was still clear, the others set about leaving the room. They’d retrace their steps, back to the roof and then to the other dorm.

From there, they’d continue finding a way to prove their theory about Flick and Eden’s Garden. And meanwhile, Gordon would continue to try to think of a way to get Flick alone, away from anyone else. Because if she was from Eden’s Garden, there was a very important question he had to ask her.

Where does Eden’s Garden keep their enslaved Hrimthurs? Because one of them is my father, and I will burn both of these goddamn schools to the ground if that’s what it takes to free him.

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Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.

At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”

As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.

A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.

Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”

Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”

Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.

Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.

A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”

“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”

Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.

For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.

“You already are one.”

******

It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.

“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”

“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”

“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”

As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.

It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.

Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.

“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”

Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.

There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.

“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”

Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”

Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was  because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.

Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”

Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”

That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”

Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”

The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”

“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”

The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”

“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”

Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.

Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”

Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”

Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.

Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”

“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”

Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.

In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.

“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.

“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”

“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”

“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”

“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”

Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”

A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”

“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.

“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”

For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”

“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”

Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”

Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.

“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”

Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.

Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.

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