Kaleigh Ruffin

Exodus 44-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I finally remembered.

******

Several months ago, in January

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“I was a reporter.”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rebellion wasn’t erased anymore.

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Mini-Interlude 63 – Son Of The Bogeyman

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Two Years Ago.

“What do you mean, he was expelled?! Do you know how much it cost to send that boy to that school?”

Sixteen-year-old Miles Cleary lay on his bed. The lanky, olive-skinned boy with shaggy black hair stared up at the ceiling of his room while he listened to his adopted parents ‘discussing’ his expulsion. Having been taken in by the two around ten years earlier when he was six, Miles still remembered being terrified every time either of them got a little bit upset that they would throw him back into the foster system that he had been a part of ever since his actual parents had up and disappeared when he had been only three.

Now, of course, the boy knew better. He knew his adopted parents, while they may not have been biologically related to him, still loved him nonetheless. They wouldn’t get rid of him just because they were upset. Which was what actually made this whole situation even harder, because he hated disappointing either of them.

He’d lost control, he knew that. Ronney Swank had deserved a good pop in the face for the way he had been bragging about manipulating Tracey Burge, a ninth grader, into a lot more physical of a relationship than she had been ready for, and then dumping the girl as soon as he’d gotten what he wanted. There was no question about it. He’d deserved to be hit. Miles didn’t feel bad about that part.

But somehow, he had done more damage than he had intended to. Even though he’d only hit the boy once, Ronney had been thrown backward into the lockers, which themselves had dented inward. The boy’s nose and jaw had been broken by that single punch, and he had damage to his back and arm from the impact against the lockers. He was going to be in the hospital for a while.

Needless to say, the school had expelled Miles immediately, and there was talk of their family being sued by the Swanks. Which was just… fantastic. Just really fucking fantastic.

With a long, heavy sigh as he stared at the ceiling, the boy muttered mostly under his breath, “The worst part is, I’m pretty sure I’d still hit him if I had the chance to do it all over again.”

“Being willing to stand up for those who are being mistreated should never be considered the ‘worst part’ of anything, Mr. Cleary.”

The sudden, unexpected voice made Miles jerk upright with a yelp. He spun on his backside, staring at the figure who stood in his doorway. There was a tall, beautiful red-haired woman there, who wore a pristine black suit. Her eyes were kind and soft as she regarded him.

“Wh-what–who–?” Scrambling to his feet, Miles quickly brushed himself off. “Who… who are you, a cop? Where’s my mom and dad? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here talking to me without them. Mom?” At the last, he raised his voice to call past the woman. “Dad?”

Holding up one hand, the woman gave a slight shake of her head. “It’s alright, Mr. Cleary. I am not a police officer. My name is Gaia Sinclaire, of Crossroads Academy. And… it is best that we speak privately right now. Because what I have to say involves your birth parents. And an opportunity that is solely yours to choose whether to accept or not.”

Blinking once at that, Miles squinted at the woman in confusion. “My birth parents? What do you know about– Crossroads Academy? Another private school? Oh boy, are you ever barking up the wrong tree. Trust me, miss, you definitely don’t want anything to do with me. Besides, my parents aren’t gonna pay for another private school after– wait, how did you even get in here? My… they wouldn’t let you up here without being right with you. And what do you mean, an opportunity? What’s going on?”

Offering him a small smile, the woman–Gaia Sinclaire, started with, “I assure you, I am most certainly not ‘barking up the wrong tree’. And you may wish to sit down for the rest of this, Mr. Cleary.

“Because it it quite a story.”

*******

One Year Ago

“Aight, Miles, we’re all here.” Standing on the beach of Crossroads Island about as far from the actual school as they could possibly get, Kaleigh Ruffin spread both arms out while staring at him, the green-trimmed uniform shirt slipping a bit to show her pale, freckled arms. “What was the big emergency that we had to come all the way out here for?”

For a moment, Miles regarded the girl, as well as the rest of his team here at Crossroads. They had been a group like this for almost a year by this point, and had been through quite a lot.

There was Kaleigh, of course. The red-haired, feisty little girl had an incredible temper that was matched only by her generous heart. Then there was her quieter African-American roommate in a white-lined security uniform, Emily Perry; Miles’ own roommate, the Heretic-born Slavic-looking blond boy Royce Jacoby in his purple-lined uniform; and finally, Jason Trips and Chas Mena, wearing red and blue accented uniforms respectively. The last two were not related at all (as was easily noted by Chas’s heavily Hispanic features as opposed to Jason’s tanned, yet definitely white ethnicity), though they might as well have been. Within the first day of being made roommates, the two had practically been finishing each other’s sentences.

Miles himself, in his own red-trimmed uniform, completed the group. And now his five teammates were standing in a semicircle, waiting for the boy to explain why he’d made them come all the way out here. But instead of speaking right away, he took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Even harder than he’d thought it would be, and he’d been trying to plan out how to have this exact conversation for… a long time. Even knowing that he had an out if it didn’t go well, that Gaia wouldn’t let things get out of control didn’t really help that much. Yes, if they reacted badly to what he was going to say, it wouldn’t endanger everyone else who was in his position.

But he would still know that it had gone wrong. And if it did, if Gaia had to step in and undo this conversation so that they wouldn’t remember it, would he ever be able to look at these guys the same way again?

“Dude?” That was Chas, the boy frowning at him as he reached out to poke Miles. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “you look like you’re about to tell us that you’re a time-traveler from the future, sent back to stop the world from ending and–wait, you’re not, right? Because the further that sentence went on in my head, the more I realized that it’s not exactly completely impossible in this place. And if you are a time-traveler, please tell me indestructible robots are not involved.”

Smiling despite himself, Miles promised, “I am not a time-traveler, and as far as I know, there’s no apocalyptic future or indestructible Austrian robots.”

“Too bad,” Royce lamented with a low sigh as the blonde boy shook his head. “Arnie was hot in those first couple of movies. Those biceps, mreow.”

Despite himself, Miles forced himself to speak up before they could all get too offtrack. The truth was, he would very much have rathered just have an innocent, goofy conversation about nothing important. They were all good at that.

But his team deserved to know the truth about him, about his past. They deserved a chance. And he’d been putting this all off for too long as it was.

So, before they could all get distracted once more, he announced, “I know who my parents are.”

That got their attention. Blinking at him, Emily was actually the first to speak (which just showed how surprised her much more boisterous roommate was). “What… you mean your real parents? You found out who they are?”

Grimacing at the reminder of his months-long lie, Miles weakly admitted, “Actually, I’ve… sort of known who they were, who my father was, since before school started. Since Headmistress Sinclaire came to recruit me, actually.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Kaleigh was shaking her head. “What do you mean, Gaia came to recruit you? The headmistress herself? What’d you do to merit such an important recruiter? What, was your dad some secret Heretic hero or something?”

“Yeah, man, why would you say you didn’t know who they were?” Jason asked, frowning in confusion. “What’s the big deal? And what does that have to do with making us come all the way out here? You didn’t make us come out here just so you could tell us that you’re embarrassed about your real parents being dicks or something, did you?”

“No, no, I–” Miles sighed then, folding his arms tight against his chest while trying to remind himself to just push on. Tell them the truth. He had to tell them the truth. “Okay, look, I’m gonna tell you guys. But you have to promise to just stand here and listen, alright? You have to let me get through it. You remember our secret from a couple weeks ago, at the–”

“The thing that we all swore we weren’t going to talk about?” Royce suddenly cut in. He was frowning at the boy. “Remember, we said we’d never bring it up, never talk about it, never discuss what we did.”

“Yeah, well…” Wincing, Miles took a second to look over each of their curious gazes before announcing, “We have to talk about it after all. Sorry, we just do.”

Chas pointed a finger at him. “Look man, she was pregnant. I don’t care what’s going on, I ain’t killing a pregnant woman, you understand? I didn’t think this was gonna be a thing with you or what it has to do with your real parents or whatever, but they shoulda done a little more research before they sent us out to kill a Stranger that happened to be pregnant.”

“I’m not upset that we didn’t kill the pregnant woman!” Miles denied quickly. “Damn it, I just don’t know how to–”

Kaleigh was making a face as she put in, “Was that weird? I mean, whatever… offspring or whatever she has are gonna be evil when they grow up anyway, right? I mean… I mean…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely with a confused look.

“Then let ‘em grow up and be evil so that someone can kill them,” Chas retorted. “Like I said, I ain’t killing no pregnant woman, and I ain’t killing no kids. That’s like… Eden’s Garden stuff.”

“But if the offspring kills someone else in the meantime,” Jason questioned, “does that make it our fault? I mean, we could’ve stopped it before anything bad happened.”

“I’d say killing a kid is pretty bad,” Royce pointed out. “And that’s getting really deep into the ‘would you kill Hitler in his crib’ stuff, except we don’t know…. I mean, we do know that they’re evil because they’re monsters. But–I mean…” He, like Kaleigh, trailed off with a confused look.

It was a look that Miles knew well. He’d seen it on all of his team’s faces since the moment that they had all decided, together, to spare the pregnant Stranger that had been one of the last targets of their most recent hunt. They had let her escape, standing at the edge of the building to watch her flee. Any single one of them could have put a stop to it, could have killed her. They’d had plenty of time, and her back had been to them. For those twenty seconds or so as the woman fled over the lot and through the field, they could have ended it and killed her.

They didn’t. And that had been what had convinced Miles to tell his team the truth. Except it was proving harder to get the words out than he had anticipated, and the rest of the team was already deep in conversation about the woman they had released. Apparently despite their initial promise to never talk about it, they had all been thinking about it a lot. And he had opened up the floodgates.

Still, he had to get through this. There wasn’t going to be a better time, because if he lost his nerve again, he might never regain it. But every time he opened his mouth to say what he needed to say, someone else would speak and the whole group would jump to another tangent. That continued for another minute or so until the pressure boiling up inside of Miles grew to be too much and… popped.

“My dad is the Bogeyman!”

Well, that got their attention. The other five members of his team all went completely silent, staring at him in confusion. Finally, it was Royce who managed, “I… what?”

Tilting his head back to stare at the sky, Miles let out a long breath through pursed in a half-whistle before returning his gaze to his team… his friends. “Okay, here’s the short version. When my mom, my real mom, was a kid, she thought there was a monster in her room at night. You know, under the bed, in the closet, hiding in the corner, the usual. She was a kid, like, maybe nine or ten? So she’d call in her dad and he’d do the rounds, but never find anything.”

“Considering where we are and what we do,” Jason put in then, “why do I doubt that there wasn’t anything to find?”

Grimacing, Miles gave a slight nod. “While that was going on, Mom met this kid around her age in the back field behind their house. They were pretty isolated, without very many neighbors. She had to take the bus to get to school. So she didn’t meet a lot of kids her age near the house. His name was Caleb, and he said that his family was some kind of weird religious isolationist sect that lived way back in the woods.

“So, Mom and this kid started playing together every day after school. Meanwhile, at night, she would be convinced there was a monster in the room and her dad had to check it all the time. But, again, he never found anything. That went on for a few months.”

Seeing that he had his teammates’ rapt attention, Miles bit his lip and hesitated slightly before pushing on. “One night, Mom woke up. It was about two in the morning or so, and there was this figure standing over the bed. He was a big guy. Even bigger than her dad. Mom screamed, but the big guy put his hand down against her mouth. It was so big, it almost covered her entire head.

“It took a minute, but Mom recognized him finally. He was this farmhand guy that her family gave some work to a few months earlier. His name was Grant, and all Mom knew was that he had suddenly stopped working at the house. She didn’t know at the time that it was because he had been looking at her the way he shouldn’t look at a kid, and her dad had caught him and fired him on the spot.”

Emily was the one who found her voice first. “He should’ve killed the piece of shit.”

Miles nodded. “No kidding. But now the guy was there, he had his hand over her mouth and he started to tell her… Well, point is, he started to tell her the bad things he wanted to do. And then… well, he screamed.”

Kaleigh blinked. “He screamed?”

“Yuuuup,” Miles confirmed. “Mostly because there was this furry little half-human, half-monkey figure wrapped around his leg with his teeth digging into the guy’s thigh while the claws on his left paw were buried in the his crotch.

“So they stumbled around a bit, and this guy kept trying to kick the monkey thing off his leg. Then Mom screamed too and jumped on the guy’s back. They thrashed around a bunch, and then hit the big mirror that was up against the wall. There was blood everywhere, and the guy finally got free and took off. A second later, the monkey thing went after him and Mom was alone again.”

“Where the hell were her parents in all this?” Chas demanded.

“Tied up, it turned out,” Miles replied before adding, “Mom had to call 911 because she couldn’t get the ropes off by herself. It was this whole big thing, and the cops didn’t believe her about the little monkey thing.

“Anyway, a few nights later, she got that same feeling about something being under her bed. Only this time, she didn’t call for her dad. She leaned down and looked for herself.”

Royce lifted his chin, his voice confident. “It was that kid. Caleb. He was the monkey thing.”

Miles nodded. “Yeah. Turned out he was a Stranger. Specifically, he was something called a Kejjerfiet. Or, as a lot of people know them…”

“Bogeymen,” Kaleigh finished for him.

“Exactly,” Miles confirmed. “Except the bogeymen, or at least the Kejjerfiet version of them, aren’t there to eat or hurt the kids.”

“Excuse me?” Jason was staring at him, as were the others.

“It’s true,” Miles quickly insisted. “Kejjerfiet actually see themselves as sort of… bodyguards to human children. I’m not sure why, but they do. The homes that they stay in are basically places where they believe that bad things are going to happen without them. I think it has something to do with sensing evil intentions in an area or whatever.”

“No, no, no, no.” Jason’s head was shaking. “No, we can’t listen to this. This is fucked up, Miles. You can’t be serious. We can’t stand here and listen to him trying to say this shit!”

Kaleigh snapped, “We already let the pregnant woman go, Jace. I think we’re way beyond just accepting exactly what they tell us. We’re too far in this to say he’s the crazy one. So just… listen to him, I guess.”

Giving the girl a grateful nod, Miles continued. “The point is, they hide out in a room until the evil thing shows itself, then they kill it. Or at least stop it. Usually without the kid remembering that anything happened. Except in this case…”

“Blood,” Emily realized. “She was turned into a Natural.”

Once again, Miles nodded. “Yeah, so Caleb told her the truth. He told her all about Strangers and humans, and about how his parents had been killed. He’d been wandering, trying to find a place to go when he came across her family‘s house, and he sensed the evil inside. So he had set himself up. Because it’s what his parents would’ve wanted him to do, even though he was too little to really do what he should’ve been able to.

“Point is, he tried. And now he was there to help teach Mom how to use her powers. He showed her how to change forms into that furry, clawed thing, how to blend into even the smallest amount of shadow to turn almost invisible, how to teleport small distances through shadows, and more. They basically taught each other.

“Oh. Oh my God,” Kaleigh blurted. “When you said that your dad was the Bogeyman, you were really—”

“Really serious, yeah,” Miles interrupted with a quick nod. “They grew up together. They spent a bunch of time learning from and teaching each other. And when they were old enough, they fell in love. Eventually, they had me.”

Everyone seemed enraptured by the story. As he trailed off, Royce quickly blurted, “Well shit, then what happened?”

Miles shook his head. “That’s the thing, I don’t know. See, a lot of that I got from Gaia when she came to recruit me. And the specifics about that night I got from my Edge vision. But after a certain point, Gaia didn’t know what happened. She never found out. My parents just disappeared and I ended up in foster care.”

Jason was shaking his head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, great story, but it can’t be true. First of all, Strangers are monsters, not daddies. Second of all, they don’t protect little kids. They eat them. Third of all, even if you were half Stranger, you couldn’t be a Heretic. It just doesn’t work like that.”

“Gaia changed it. I don’t know how,” Miles informed them, “but she did. She changed the Edge so that it would let people like me become Heretics. Because she wants people like you to understand that they’re not all evil. We are not all evil.”

His team was staring at him, open-mouthed. None of them could find their voices for several long, torturous seconds. Miles was terrified that he had guessed wrong, that they would react badly. He wouldn’t have blamed them, really. Not after the things they had been told about Strangers.

Royce eventually raised both hands. “This is insane. I’m sorry, it just–it’s insane! You want us to believe that, what, you’re part monster, only monsters aren’t always monsters? Sometimes they’re good? That’s just–just… fucked up, dude.”

Emily interrupted. “Like Kaleigh said, we let the pregnant woman go.”

“But that’s different!” Royce insisted. “I mean, she was… the kid was–it’s just… it’s different. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He sounded far more like he was pleading than actually stating a fact.

Miles met his gaze for a moment before slowly moving his eyes over all of them. “You tell me,” he replied. “Is it different? Am I a monster because my dad wasn’t human? Or was the monster the person, the human being, that my dad saved my mom from? Is that piece of shit better just because he’s human, than the person who saved an innocent child from the evil shit he would’ve done to her? If there can be evil humans, humans who do… who do that to innocent children, then who’s to say there can’t be good Strangers? I mean, if humans were all judged by the worst of our species, maybe there’d be a whole species out there dedicated to wiping us out too.”

For a few long seconds, he didn’t know how they would end up taking that. The rest of his team just looked at each other, their expressions impossible to read. He saw some doubt, some confusion, even some anger. And more. There were so many emotions there that he couldn’t hope to keep track of or identify them all.

Finally, it was Jason who spoke up. “Dude, you… you sort of lied to us for most of a year. But I uhh… I guess I understand why.”

“But what do we do now?” That was Chas, shaking his head quickly. “I mean… you want us to believe that–I mean, maybe your dad was–Damn it, I don’t know. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, we let that woman go and everything got so goddamn confusing. Now there’s this? I mean, you already said that Gaia knows what’s going on, but shouldn’t we tell… I dunno, somebody?”

“Tell them what?” Emily put in. “You know what most of the others would do if they found out about him. I can’t do that. We can’t do that.”

The group exchanged brief looks once more, before nodding. “We won’t tell anyone,” Kaleigh announced for the group as a whole. “I dunno about this whole… everything you’re saying, but we owe you that much at least. You’re… you’re one of us.”

“She’s right,” Royce agreed. “I don’t know how I feel about it either, but… you’re not a monster, man. So maybe…” He hesitated, clearly torn for a few seconds before settling on, “Maybe we just stay quiet about the whole thing, at least until we find out more.”

“Find out more?” Miles asked, frowning a little.

“Sure,” Chas confirmed. “You said you didn’t know what happened to your parents, right? So let’s find out. Let’s try to find out what happened to them. And while we’re at it… maybe we’ll find out more about these… not-evil Strangers. You say it’s true, I… I dunno. But after that pregnant woman and what you said… maybe we could at least investigate it. We could find out more.

“Because quite frankly, if you’re right, then this school is the most fucked up place on the planet.”

*****

Present Day

 

The reptilian man lunged toward Miles with a deep-throated snarl, showing deadly teeth while raking at him with a handful of wicked claws. Claws which, if they had connected, would have left the boy paralyzed just long enough to experience every agonizing moment of being eaten alive.

Fortunately, Miles had no intention of allowing that to happen. Flashing a brief, toothy smile of his own, the boy waited a half second for the reptile to fully commit himself, before abruptly sidestepping as his right arm snapped out. As he did so, the metallic gauntlet on that arm seemed to disintegrate, breaking apart into hundreds of separate, tiny parts. In that brief instant, the broken-up parts of the gauntlet were identifiable as tiny robotic bees, their mechanical wings flapping furiously to create a high-pitched buzzing sound. In that same second, however, the separated bees rejoined once more. This time, however, instead of forming a gauntlet, they became a long, curved sword. The same honeycomb-like hexagon patterns that had been built into the gauntlet were present within the blade itself, which was soon stained by the dark green blood of the reptile-man as he beheaded himself with his own lunge.

That was Miles’ weapon: a cyberform that was actually an entire swarm of tiny robot bees, which could shape themselves into various weapons and tools for him to use. They were controlled through the ‘queen bee’, which was attached to his ear similarly to a Bluetooth device that essentially read his mind and sent his commands to the rest of the swarm.

Staggering a little with a gasp of pleasure as his kill-aura sprang to life, the eighteen-year-old boy barely managed to catch the sound of footsteps rushing up behind him. They were coming too quickly for him to turn, the figure already almost right on top of him.

Thankfully, he didn’t need to. A simple thought made the armor that covered his left arm and back break apart into a swarm of tiny flying insects as well. Rather than immediately forming together into something else, however, this swarm all turned their (literal) collective attention to the incoming threat. Each fired a tiny, yet painful jolt of energy. Taken apart, it would have been almost nothing. The ‘sting’ from one of the bees was enough to be painful for a child, yet easily ignored by anyone of any actual strength.

But together, the combined sting shot from the entire group caught Miles’ would-be attacker straight in the chest and knocked them to the ground, twitching and moaning as their body’s muscles alternately spasmed and froze. It kept them busy long enough for the boy to turn and see another of those lizard-men. This one had been holding a spear, which he grabbed for a second before Miles put his own sword through the figure’s chest, ceasing both his attacker’s random twitchy spasms, and his attempt to swing that spear up.

Once more, that aura sprang up, but Miles didn’t actually care about the distant pleasurable feeling. He was too busy cursing repeatedly.

“What?” Royce, jogging up to him from across the warehouse where they had been fighting, blurted. “What happened? Wh–aww shit, they’re dead too? Damn it. Tell me we got something out of them, man. Two months just tracking down this one lead about what happened to your parents, tell me it wasn’t all for nothing.”

“It wasn’t for nothing,” Miles confirmed, while his sword and the swarm of individual bees all reformed back into their default form of his armor. “But it wasn’t enough. I got a name. That’s it, just one name.”

“A name?” Kaleigh asked as she and the others, all worn from the fight they had just been through, asked. “What do you mean? What name?”

“The name of the monster that has my parents. Or had them, I dunno.” Miles frowned thoughtfully. “It wasn’t clear. The point is, he’s the next step to finding them. There was something about a… a fight club or an arena or something, I’m not sure.”

“A arena for Alters and Heretics?” Chas demanded. “Who the hell is this guy, Michael Vick?”  

“Worse,” Miles replied softly, giving a long, low sigh. “He’s a necromancer.

“A necromancer named Fossor.”

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