Klassin Roe

Interlude 5A – Miles (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note: Miles Cleary was introduced here:  https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/mini-interlude-63-son-of-the-bogeyman/

“I can’t believe we still have no idea where Fossor is, even after months of talking to that Flick girl.” Chas Mena, his brow furrowed in annoyance, muttered. The Latino boy was crouched behind a pile of metal scraps in a junkyard somewhere in northern Virginia. He held one of his falx (essentially a curved sword with a long handle whose sharpest part was the inside of the blade curve rather than the outside, functioning similar to a sickle) loosely in his right hand while looking over his shoulder at the boy crouched behind him. “We’ve seriously got bupkis?” 

Miles Cleary, hybrid son of a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman), grimaced and shook his head. “Yeah, like I said before, we’ve been talking a bit since that first night. She knows my parents were taken by him, but she’s just as lost on where to find him as we are. And believe me, she really wants to find him. He’s got her mom too, after all.” Even as he said it, the dark-haired, olive-skinned boy was leaning up a bit to peek over the edge of their junk mound. “You think they’ll show? Err, these guys, I mean.”

Behind Miles, red-haired Kaleigh muttered, “They better show up, and soon. I’m gonna be pretty pissed off if I don’t get to beat the hell out of a bunch of pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers before the day is over. I was promised pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers to fight.” 

Miles and his team (the six of them had chosen to insist on fully sticking together after joining the new rebellion once Chambers and Headmistress Sinclaire had blown the lid open about the old one) were basically considered third year students. They had, after all, been at the very end of their second year when all that went down. Thus, they were all well-over eighteen and allowed to fight without an adult escort or supervisor on what should be low-risk missions. Though they did all have an emergency exit spell attached to them just in case things went sideways, as well as the ability to summon much stronger aid if it came down to that. 

The other three members of the team (Slavic-looking Royce Jacoby, Caucasian Jason Trips, and dark-skinned Emily Perry) were hidden on the opposite side of the junkyard clearing behind more garbage. Between the two trios was an arena-shaped space where they had it on good authority that a group of Alter slavers was planning on bringing their latest catch for a bit of what they called ‘training’ before the group would be sold off. Specifically, according to the small pink-skinned creature who had spoken to Miles, a certain necromancer whom he had been looking for any information on was looking to buy a large batch of fighting-capable slaves. 

Miles had brought this mission to the attention of the adult (well, older adult) Heretics in the rebellion and had gotten permission to run it. The six of them would save the slaves here before they could be taken and, in the process, hopefully get some real information about how these guys were planning to take their stock to Fossor. Which would be the very best chance he’d ever had of actually finding the fucking bastard who had taken his parents away. 

Miles wasn’t stupid. He knew the odds of his parents actually being alive by this point after being thrown into the necromancer’s fighting arena for so long were slim to the point of nonexistence. But he still had to find out for sure. He had to know what happened to his mother and father. And if they were dead… then the necromancer would fucking pay for that. 

He’d asked if Felicity Chambers and her own group should be involved in this. After all, it was the best chance they had to get solid info about Fossor. But he’d been informed that she was in the middle of something else very important that couldn’t wait. Something about a civil war in Las Vegas or whatever. Both of their missions were apparently very time-sensitive. 

So, Miles would just use this to find out what he could and then share with the Chambers girl if it (hopefully) turned up anything useful. A pessimistic part of him kept pointing out that this was far from the first time they’d had a promising lead like this, only for it to turn into nothing important. But he pushed that part down as firmly as possible, burying it beneath a weight of optimism. They were going to take these slavers and get what they needed to know to find Fossor. Period. 

The sound of a truck arriving at the front gate of the junkyard snapped Miles out of his musing. A quick glance to the other two showed they were just as alert as him, and the three crouched down tighter against their garbage cover. Not that it mattered. They were using a spell that would make it almost impossible to spot them from a distance, camouflaging their forms for anyone who wasn’t part of the spell. They had to stay relatively still for it to work, within the same foot or so of space. But still, it was pretty good as far as ambushing someone went. 

The sound of the vehicle grew closer, and Miles watched intently as the truck pulled up the narrow road, entering the circular arena-like space. It was one of those military transport trucks with the canvas covering the back where the cargo (or people) would be. A large purple-black ogre was running alongside the truck, adding his own distinct hard thumping footfalls. Meanwhile, a seven-foot-tall gray-skinned figure with three eyes, a very thin nose, and what looked like sharp razor-blades sticking out of every inch of his exposed body was hanging off the driver’s side door, suction-cup-like feet planted against the metal to keep him in place. 

After the truck entered the arena, it did a full circuit, pulling all the way around before ending up half-way out of the entrance with the back of the truck pointed inward. It stopped then, and the razor-blade guy hopped down while the ogre stepped up to yank the rear door open. 

This was it. But they couldn’t move yet. Not until they saw exactly what they were dealing with. Eager as Miles was to actually do this already, jumping the gun would just get them all hurt or killed. They had no idea who or what the rest of these slavers were. No, they had to be patient and watch until it was clear that they wouldn’t be hit with any horrible surprises. 

Even as he thought that, however, the boy slipped a hand into his pocket and produced the bluetooth-like device that served as the control for his personal Heretic weapon. It slipped over his ear, and he whispered, “Queen Bee, rise to court.” With that command phrase uttered, he felt the metal gauntlet on his arm hum to life. When this went down, he would be ready. 

With a bellowed command, the ogre stepped back and gestured. His razor-covered partner joined him, along with a blue-skinned humanoid with short tentacles covering the entire lower-half of his face area who had apparently been driving. The three of them watched with obvious impatience while an assortment of tattered-looking, ragged prisoners dressed in torn, dirty clothing and with obvious bruises (along with the remnants of blood) stumbled out of the truck. All had their various arms or other similar limbs cuffed in front of them, and wore what looked like explosive collars on their necks. One stumbled and was grabbed by the ogre before being contemptuously tossed about fifteen feet to land on his face in the dirt. The slavers all roared with laughter, exchanging what sounded like dark jokes with one another before ordering the rest of the slaves to keep moving, lest they end up being hurled even further. 

The sight made Miles’ blood boil. He felt the anger, the rage at that injustice rise up in him. But he pushed it down. No. Not yet. Not yet. They had to be careful. They had to do this right. It wasn’t like they would get another chance at something like this. If they went stampeding in and got these people killed because they had underestimated the threat, he’d never forgive himself. Especially because he wouldn’t be able to convince himself that he’d done it to try to save them and not just because he was eager to get information about Fossor. 

So, he pushed that down and let out a long breath. On either side of him, he could see his two companions looking just as angry as he felt. They too pushed it down and kept watching. Chas and Kaleigh knew as well as he did what the stakes of all this were, as did their friends on the far side of the arena. 

As if to prove that point, once all the slaves were moving, they were joined by two more figures who emerged from the back of the truck. These were massive armored humanoids who looked a fair bit like anthropomorphic rhinos complete with horns. One carried what looked like an oversized minigun, while the other had a giant hammer. They had clearly been guarding the prisoners back there and would easily have ambushed Miles and the others if they’d jumped to attack right then. 

The soon-to-be-sold slaves were all ordered to line up, and then the slavers themselves started debating amongst themselves and forcing their prisoners to move back and forth in the line. After a minute of that, Miles realized they were being arranged from the ones that looked the most capable of holding their own in a fight down to the ones who looked the least capable. Yeah, this group was definitely being set up for arena duty. They were probably planning on running at least a couple practice rounds here. 

If only this was the place that piece of shit Fossor would come pick up his ‘property.’ But no, Miles’ contact had made it very clear that the necromancer never went to someone else’s site or anywhere he hadn’t thoroughly vetted on his own. They would have information about coming to a site of his choice. And that was the info that Miles and his friends were there to get. 

Well, hopefully. This wasn’t exactly the first lead of this variety or similar that they’d tried to run down. There had been a few others over the summer. But they kept getting closer. And with Chambers’ birthday coming up soon, their time frame was getting a lot more pressing. 

At least they still had a few weeks to go. They could totally pull this off, locate Fossor, and drop a whole fucking army worth of Heretics and Alters in his lap to put him down, or whatever they needed to do. The point was, Miles would either save his parents, or… or get closure. 

But first, they had to rescue these slaves and get answers out of the assholes who were about to sell them. And from the look of things, these were all they were dealing with. One ogre, one guy covered in razor blades, two rhino guys, and the blue guy with small tentacles where his mouth should have been. 

Checking to be sure their privacy spell was holding, Miles touched the communication badge. “Royce, what’re we dealing with?” As he said it, he sent a mental command through the queen bee attached to his ear. Immediately, his gauntlet transformed, briefly appearing as the hundreds of tiny cyberform bees that made up its individual parts before half of them turned into a longsword that fit into his hand and the other half became a shield on his left. 

The response came immediately. “You know the ogre. He’s gonna be big, slow, and clumsy, but strong as shit. Don’t let him hit you, keep moving. Try zigzagging because they have issues tracking rapid movement. The rhino guys are called Hyneders. They’re faster than they look, once they start moving in a straight line basically nothing can stop them, and any non-living material they touch, they can turn into the same metal as their horns and then manipulate it with their thoughts. 

“Razor blade guy is a Pinudeu. Shoots and mentally directs those razors, and he can camouflage himself. Tentacle-mouth dude is a Nautilen. Blows a shit-ton of water out of his mouth like a fire hose and can control it. Only the water he creates, though. There’s something special about it. I think he’s also got a bit of regeneration and he can send an electric pulse over his body, so watch out if you’re touching him. Plus, if he sends the electric pulse while blowing water, it carries through the liquid.”

They spent another few seconds discussing tactics while watching what was going on. It was clear that the slavers were having issues settling on exactly how their product should be arranged. They can’t agree on where their people should be standing, arguing over who was the strongest. Everyone had their own opinions, and they were voicing them loudly. That worked for Miles, because it gave his team time to come to a firm decision on how they were going to play this. 

Unfortunately, in the end it didn’t matter at all. Because literally right as he was about to count down for the team to attack, the ground underneath the slavers and their prisoners, throughout the arena area, suddenly began to glow bright blue. The words died on Miles’ lips, as he stared in confusion. Kaleigh was asking what the fuck was going on, and he could hear the same general confusion coming from the slavers themselves. They were clearly just as lost, turning in circles to look around as the ground kept glowing brighter and brighter. Some time earlier, Miles had gained the ability to sense and vaguely understand magic energy. And right now, there was so much magical energy coming off the ground that it almost hurt to look at. As for what it was doing… it was… wait, this energy was actually draining power from the people standing on it, who were making it stronger. The energy was…

Miles stared for another couple seconds, then pivoted. His hands lashed out to grab Kaleigh and Chas by either arm, as he blurted through the com badge, “Get down!” The three of them flung themselves away from that spot, while the sense of power grew overwhelming. It was a harsh buzzing in Miles’ head. A second after they hit the ground, there was an explosion of power behind them as the spell came to its head. 

When the dust cleared, metaphorically and literally speaking, Miles, Kaleigh, and Chas picked themselves up and stepped into the now-empty arena clearing. Everything was gone. The truck had been sheared in half, leaving only the bit that was outside of the arena. All the people had disappeared, slaver and slave alike. 

Across the way, Jason, Royce, and Emily emerged as well. Miles felt a rush of relief that they were okay, even as Jason demanded, “What the hell just happened?! What was that?! Where the fuck did they go?” 

“Draining spell,” Miles replied quietly, looking around. “They didn’t go anywhere. They were… disintegrated. Everything in this circle was disintegrated and turned into energy.” 

“Energy… for what?” Emily asked quietly, sounding nervous. “Should we be here?” 

“It’s okay,” Miles assured her. “There’s no more magic here. It was all… used up and sent away. It killed them, disintegrated them into energy and sent it all somewhere else to feed into another spell.” 

“The fuck other spell did they need to sacrifice like… forty fucking living people for?” Kaleigh demanded. 

“A fuck-off strong spell.” 

The answer didn’t come from any of them. Instead, it came from a guy in a brown trenchcoat who entered the arena by stepping around the remains of the truck. He was tall, maybe just out of his teens, with short spiky hair that was dyed green. 

Seeing the guy, Miles instantly sent the mental command for his bees to shift into the form of a rifle, which he pointed that way. “Who’re you?!” 

As everyone turned on him with their weapons raised, the new guy raised both hands to show they were empty. Not that that meant much. “Easy, easy. I’m on your side… sort of… mostly. Anyway, the name’s Trice. But that’s not important. What is important is that I can help you.” 

Exchanging brief looks with the others, Miles frowned at the guy, this… Trice. “How exactly are you going to help us? And what do you mean, a strong  spell?” 

The guy gestured to the ground at their feet. “I said a fuck-off strong spell. That’s what I meant. Fossor sacrificed those people to feed a really god damn powerful bit of magic. Not sure why, yet. But that’s what that was. We do know it was pointed at Vegas.” 

Miles opened his mouth, then stopped. A spell that was pointed at Vegas… His eyes widened, and he blurted a curse. “Fuck! Flick!” 

“Pretty sure Hannah would object to that,” that Trice guy replied dryly. “But hey, whatever you wanna try. Point is, like I said, I’m here to offer some help.” 

“Like Miles said,” Royce put in, “how exactly are you going to help us? And how do you know that Flick girl and… who’s Hannah?” 

“Oh, it’s a long story,” Trice drawled. “Let’s just say we go way back. As for how I can help, ahhh, well, I work for a man named Denuvus.” 

“Denuvus?” Emily blurted, “He’s not real!” 

“He’s obviously just some guy using the name,” Royce insisted. “You know, for effect.” 

Trice shrugged at that. “All I can tell you is that he’s what you might call a long-time enemy of Fossor. And he’s willing to help you get close to the guy. So, you interested?”

“I dunno, man,” Jason muttered. “Seriously, we don’t even know this guy, let alone who he works for. Why should we trust him?” 

Before Miles could respond, Trice spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you call your supervisor? You got a guy who knows you’re out here, right? Call him down, explain what’s up. Then you’ll have an adult with you. That’s safer, right?” 

The guy had a point, so Miles called it in. He explained the situation to the Heretic who had known they were out here, who had said that Flick and the others were too busy to help out with this. Once he got all that out, the man promised he’d be right there. And a few seconds later, he was. A portal appeared, and their supervisor emerged. 

“So, this is bullshit, right?” Chas demanded. “No way we should go with this guy.” 

“What about Flick?” Miles quickly put in. “That spell was targeting her, right? Is she okay? What–did he–” 

Dusting himself off, the adult Heretic shook his head. “No, she’s not. She’s gone, Miles. That spell took her straight into Fossor’s hands. Which… yeah, that basically makes this right here our best shot at getting her back, and at dealing with Fossor once and for all. We’ve gotta hear him out, at least. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you. We’ll stick together. It’ll be okay. 

“Whatever this Denuvus guy wants,” Klassin Roe added, “we can handle it.” 

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Patreon Snippets 5

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The following is the fifth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

Kushiel entered the pristine medical room at a crisp walk, beckoning with her fingers for the child at her heels to keep up. The young girl herself looked to be about five in Earth human years, which would have made her roughly three as far as the Seosten home planet of Elohim was concerned. Her light blonde hair was worn short, almost into a buzz cut, and she wore a simple silver hospital gown, with flashes of a blue Seosten bodysuit visible beneath it as she moved.

The room the two of them entered was taken up almost exclusively by various medical and scanning equipment that lined every wall. In the middle was a single bed, its occupant sitting up and watching them. He was an older man, his long hair gray and his face lined from many millennia of life. Though he was looking their way, he showed no change of expression at their entrance aside from a single blink. Beyond that, his face was empty.

Gazing up at the man, the young girl asked, “This is your husband, Mistress?”

Rather than answer, Kushiel pointed to a single chair that sat in the corner. “Sit, Nihil. Be silent.” She waited until the girl obediently did so before turning to the man. “Puriel,” she announced, stepping that way to take his limp hand. “Puriel, look at me.”

He did so, eyes moving to meet hers and focusing slightly better than they had been. “Kushiel,” he started in a voice that was rough, a testament to how seldom he used it lately. “Are they alive?”

Sighing with obvious annoyance, Kushiel shook her head. “Just like the last time you asked, and the time before that, and every time stretching back to the first, no.” She pulled his hand up to put both of hers around it. “Husband. Love. You have to stop this. It was years ago. The orphanage chose to take you in. They chose to care for your wounds after your transport through the banishment orb. They cared for you when you didn’t know who you were. And yes, you were in no shape to protect them when the Fomorians came. They died, my husband. But you survived. You survived, and now you remember who you are. You have to move on. Your people need you.”

His gaze had gone empty again, as he stared off at nothing. Stared at his memories. Kushiel sighed, dropping his hand as she turned to the nearby counter where various instruments lay. “This is Sariel’s newest spawn.” Her hand waved vaguely to where Nihil sat. “I’ve told you about her. I brought her here because she’s ready for the first experiment.”

Puriel’s eyes focused once more, looking at her. “Experiment,” he repeated the word as though it was entirely foreign to him. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given how much of his mind had been damaged first by the loss (and subsequent return) of his memories about himself through the banishment orb, and then the trauma of every person, adult and child alike, in the orphanage that had taken him in being violently murdered by the Fomorians.

“Yes,” Kushiel snapped a little impatiently. “Experiment. Our daughter, Puriel. We have to fix her. Sariel’s spawn there is a Lie as well.” She smirked. “Even the great Artemis produced a Lie. How shamed must she be?”

“Artemis,” Puriel echoed, head tilting once more. “Sariel.”

“Yes, yes, the one who helped do this to you.” Angrily, Kushiel waved at the man with the laser scalpel she had picked up. “So what justice will it be to make her spawn to whatever experiments it takes to finally find a cure for our daughter? I have… ideas. Ideas I would not put our child through. But that?” She waved to the obediently seated child. “That I will feel no guilt over.”

She turned back to the table then, picking up a vial of red liquid to examine before setting it aside for a glowing green vial instead. Behind her, Puriel spoke again. “Experiment… you will… hurt the girl.”

Sighing long and low, Kushiel kept her attention on the various tools and vials. “To fix our child so that she is not a failure, I will hurt many, yes. You don’t have to concern yourself with it. I have several ideas… such as this.” Holding up what looked like a thin metal rod about three inches long with tiny red glowing spellforms drawn along it, she explained, “Inserting one of these into the spine of two different Seosten should make the first follow the actions of the second while they’re active. Including possessing and then not possessing. If a Lie can’t stop possessing on their own, perhaps they will if they’re remotely controlled by a non-Lie.”

Puriel’s voice came back then. “You can’t hurt the girl.”

Annoyed, Kushiel set the tools down. “For the last time, husband, you must let go of this absurd guilt. Nothing that happened to those–wait.” In mid-sentence, the woman sensed something wrong. She turned, only to find the bed empty. Instead, Puriel was standing next to the chair where the child she had dubbed Nihil was. He had taken the girl’s hand.

“No!” Kushiel blurted, spinning around so fast she knocked over the tray full of vials and tools to crash along the floor. “Get away from–”

It was too late. The girl vanished, reflexively possessing her husband in fear from the loud crash of everything Kushiel had knocked over. With a loud, violent curse, the woman lunged that way to grab her husband by the arms. “What were you doing?! What–Puriel?”

His eyes focused, and the man nodded. “I am here. I… am here. What happened?”

“You just–” Kushiel paused, then sighed once more. “You had one of your fugue states. It… never mind.” Her anger was evident through the way she clenched her fist so tightly, speaking through gritted teeth. “I will just have to find another specimen, since you had to destroy that one.”

She moved to pick up the fallen equipment then, grumbling to herself. Meanwhile, Puriel stared off into the distance, as a small voice spoke in his head.

Where… where am I?

In me, the man thought back. You are a part of me.

But I can’t leave, the child hesitantly informed him. I’m not supposed to touch people. It’s bad. Touching is bad. You… you made me. Why?

Sariel’s child, came the simple response. Her children are Lies. Her…  I remember… children are Lies. I won’t let you be hurt. Not… not this time. Not this one.

I don’t understand, Mister.

Neither do I. But you are safe. I won’t crush you. I won’t… hurt you. I will raise you. I will… show you what I know.

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

“Yo man, chu know I ain’t like saying bad things ‘bout my homeys. It ain’t fly.”

“Mr. Drish,” Klassin Roe addressed the nineteen-year-old, pale and skinny boy across the desk from him. “No one is asking you to say bad things about your friends. I only asked if you still feel as though he is… different than he was last year.”

For a moment, Norbit (not that anyone was allowed to call him by that hated name) rocked back and forth in his seat, considering the words. “Yeah, man, I mean… sure, it ain’t as bad as it was before, but he still ain’t really here, right? He ain’t like– It’s like, he didn’t give a shit about nothing at first. That was bad. Like–lazy or something. Like he gave up. Then all of a sudden it’s like he do care, but he only care ‘bout that Freshman team, right? Like, like, all his effort going that way and the rest of us, we’re just like… not even there for him, you know? I mean, we there, but we ain’t there. Like he don’t really– like he like us, but not like us like them, you know?”

Klassin stared at him for a moment, then turned his head to cough once. “I think I have the general idea, yes. Do you still see him as a good teammate, as a friend?”

“Hey, he’s a solid guy.” Drish shot back, using two fingers to point emphatically. “Deveron’s always got my back. You know, when he’s there. But he ain’t wanna like… he ain’t wanna hang out. He does work. He aces the tests, he’s all over that shit. But he never wants to–ya know, shoot the shit without actually shooting. He never wants to chill.”

Leaning back in his seat, Klassin nodded. “He’s good to have around, he does all the work. But he’s not really much of a friend to you. He doesn’t play games with you, doesn’t hang out.”

“Right, right, yeah.” Drish’s head bobbed up and down as he pointed at the man. “Like that. Like, if you need him, he’s right there. Always count on him in a fight. But like… if you don’t need him, can‘t ever find him. We used to be buds. We was tight last year. So tight, like this.” He crossed his fingers. “Now he just always running off on his own. Doing his own shit, or shit with those Freshmen. I mean, that’s cool and all, he’s working on the next gen and shiz, whatever. But throw a dog a bone, you know?”

Klassin considered the boy thoughtfully for a moment. “He was one of your best friends last year, and now he never hangs out. I understand. People change, and it can be hard sometimes.”

“Psshhh.” Waving his hand unconvincingly, Drish sat back. “Ain’t no big. I gots plenty of homeys to hang with. Don’t really need another one crowding me out. Ain’t gonna cry about it. Nice to have space. Space to stretch, you hear?”

With a nod, Klassin replied, “I do hear, thanks. But tell me one thing. What do you think of Deveron this year?”

“Man…” Starting to dismissively wave that off once more, Drish then hesitated. “It’s like… he’s a great fighter, great Heretic, good at all that shit. But I miss just like…doing nothing, you know? I miss hanging with him. Sitting on the beach just chilling. He never wants to do nothing. Always gots something to stay busy with. It’s exhausting just watching him.” Seeming to realize that he’d opened up too much for his own liking, the boy finally made a dismissive noise. “But whatevs, just chill with some babes. His loss.”

“Indeed,” Klassin agreed with the boy. “But let’s talk about something else. You went home for your birthday last week, right? Why don’t you tell me how that went?”

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

Remember Humility Bennett. Many years earlier, she had been one of the original founding members of Eden’s Garden, before soon becoming one of the Victors of an entire tribe. It went through several names throughout the course of its history, the most recent one being Lost Scar.

She was also the mother of the late Edeva, who had in turn married Lyell Atherby and been mother to Joshua Atherby.

Remember’s great-granddaughter was Joselyn Atherby. Her great-great-granddaughter was Felicity Chambers.

“Victor Bennett?” A soft, hesitant voice interrupted the woman, as a demure young woman appeared in the doorway of her office. “I–I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am. You said you wanted to be informed if there was any news of the missing tribe students.”

Turning from the names that had been scrawled on the wall, Remember focused on her young assistant. “Yes, Aconitum. Did they find Trice?”

“Err…” The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am. It’s about Pace. The… men who were sent to give the warning to the Fellows woman–errr, that is… your… I mean–”

“My great-great-granddaughter, yes,” Remember dismissively finished for her with a wave of her hand. “I am well aware of the nuisance she’s made of herself and the situation surrounding her. Go on.”

Aconitum told her the story, at least as much as they knew, about what had happened back at the Bystander clothing shop. Men were dead, while Abigail, the newly dubbed Stray, and Pace were on the run.

“A werewolf…” Remember murmured under her breath. “No wonder she vanished for so long.” Clearing her throat, she ordered, “Take whoever is needed and find them. Find her. Pace is the priority. I want her brought back here. There may be a lot to learn from the girl if she has been taken into a wild pack.”

Her assistant hesitated before slowly asking, “And your, err… descendent, Victor? Shall we send a request to Crossroads to have her daughter brought in for questioning? They may be amenable to that in exchange for some favors.”

“Yes,” Remember agreed. “Send the request and see what they want in return. Go.”

Waiting until the girl had bowed and left, the old woman turned back to look at the name on the wall once more. Felicity Chambers. No wonder her primitive precognitive power had been pushing her to write the girl’s name. Though Aconitum wasn’t aware of Chambers’ relation to Abigail (or who their mother was), Remember was fully aware of it.

Chambers. The girl had such potential, that much was clear. It was too bad that Remember had failed to follow her first instinct to insist that she be recruited by Garden. Having the potential of that girl under her supervision, before she could be corrupted by Gaia Sinclaire, would have led to great things.

It was a shame, because it was clear that Felicity Chambers had the same great potential as her mother. And just as clear that she had already at least begun to be swayed to the wrong side in this war.

Losing more of her descendants would be a waste. Perhaps there was still time to right the course of things? That may be what her precognition was trying to tell her by making her write the girl’s name so often. A replacement for the loss of Doxer, perhaps? She had been the one to kill the boy, after all. Sinclaire would object, but if she could convince Ruthers that the girl would be better off outside of that woman’s influence…

Hmm. Her descendant… brought back to line as a member of her tribe. It was something to think about. A long shot, of course, and yet… as much as the girl had grown in such a short time, she could be an asset.

It was worth considering, at least. And if she could not be convinced to turn away from the same foolishness that had caused her mother to create such a rift in the Heretical world, then… she would need to be silenced, before she ended up making things worse.

And who better to ensure that happened than her own great-great-grandmother?  

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

It was known as Hidden Hills, a gated off community several minutes drive from the edge of a small town in Idaho. It was set up against a range of hills and reachable only via a partially paved road. To the outside world, it was either a retirement community or a cult, no one was quite sure which.

The truth was quite different. Hidden Hills was actually a collection of barracks and training grounds established by a man who called himself Sheol. A self-styled warlord who had broken and forcibly recruited numerous small bands of previously warring Alter groups, Sheol hammered fear of his displeasure into his troops, tempered against the great rewards they received for obedience. Hidden Hills was only one of his training centers, though possibly the largest. What he intended to do with his rapidly growing army was unknown to any but him.

Unknown, but… in at least one man’s opinion, not worth waiting around to find out. That particular man stood in the middle of the road, facing the gate that led into the community. His unassuming, vaguely husky figure appeared less a threat and more a simple tourist who had managed to get himself turned around on these confusing backroads.

Those who knew him, however, would never believe that the two dozen figures who appeared at the gate with firearms and other weapons raised and trained on the man was an overreaction. Indeed, their questions would more fall along the lines of why those men believed two dozen would be enough. Or perhaps why they wasted time with that when they could have been fleeing.

“Well,” Fossor remarked quietly as his eyes passed over the weapons trained on him. “I suppose this leaves out the possibility of asking to see your real estate listings.”

“Leave, necromancer.” The leader of their band, a jackal-headed figure with a wide shotgun-type weapon, demanded. “The grounds here are warded against your magic. You can raise no zombies, summon no ghosts, manipulate no skeletons. You have no power within two miles of these gates.” Even as the man spoke, another couple dozen armed figures joined them, doubling their initial numbers.

If those words (and the reinforcements) were a revelation, or particularly worrisome, Fossor gave no indication of it. He simply gave the man and his companions what might have been mistaken for a kind smile if one didn’t see the empty coldness in his eyes. “Is that right? Well, in that case… I suppose there’s nothing else to be done.” With an idle shrug, he turned to start casually strolling away. With each step, a cloud of dark ashes emerged from the canteen that had appeared in one hand. The ashes flew down to lead the man’s path so that he only stepped on them, creating a black path along the road.

After a few steps, however, he stopped. With those weapons trained on him, the man slowly tilted his head as though considering something. “Unless,” he murmured while raising one finger thoughtfully, “… there were youth in your stronghold back there.”

Slowly turning back that way, Fossor began to continue, only to be interrupted at the sound of a gunshot. That was followed by three more, as a collection of holes appeared in his chest. A final shot put a hole in the center of his forehead.

The gunfire faded at a shout, leaving the gathered troops staring at the necromancer… who appeared none the worse for wear. Indeed, the holes that had appeared in his body vanished almost instantly as his connection to his homeworld shifted the damage to one of the billions of enslaved life forms who dwelled there. His people were connected to him at all times, and any damage done to him was immediately shunted to them. So long as his connection to that world remained active, they would literally have to kill billions of what amounted to hostages before any damage could be done to the necromancer himself.

When the only evidence of the sudden attack that remained were the holes in his white shirt, Fossor raised a hand, touching a finger against the fabric there before uttering a single word. The holes patched themselves, erasing even that sign.

Then, without seeming to acknowledge the assault in any other way, he simply continued speaking. “If there were youth in there, teenagers… well, they might be a bit rebellious. They might… say… sneak out of your complex now and then, to visit town and… express themselves.”

Slowly, casually strolling back the way he had just come, the man went on. “And these… hypothetical rebellious youths could find themselves over the course of… mmm… a couple weeks being talked into receiving tattoos as a sign of the… I don’t know, unity of their little gang. Tattoos of… let’s just say a particular magical spell which, upon their death, causes them to rise once more to attack and brutally murder everyone they see without that tattoo… well, that’s the kind of spell that wouldn’t be affected by your necromancy blockers. Since they brought it in themselves.”

Regarding the increasingly nervous and skittish soldiers, Fossor gave a thoughtful hum. “Of course, the real question would be how to ensure those deaths all happened at a useful time. One can’t simply depend on even the most morose of teenagers to do something useful like a group suicide, after all.” His finger rose illustratively. “But… if, say… the ink in those magical tattoos happened to be of a particular incredibly lethal poison set to activate at a certain time… such as… say…”

Slowly, deliberately, the man raised his arm to look at his watch. As he did so, the sound of screaming and gunfire filled the air. It came not from the troops assembled before the necromancer, but from the stronghold behind them. Smoke rose from several buildings, as the screams of horror and rapidly rising stench of death grew with each passing second.

“Thirty seconds ago,” Fossor finished, giving an apologetic smile. “Oops.”

Some of the men opened fire, to no avail. Most immediately gave up that endeavor and raced back into the stronghold, to put out fires, to put down their risen children, to save their friends. None of those efforts would prove any more fruitful.

As for Fossor, he calmly adjusted his shirt and gave his thumb a slight lick before using that to polish a smudge off of his watch. A cloud of ashes rose from his canteen to create a path to the open gate, and he slowly, casually strolled that way to enter the compound.

Within the hour, there would be nothing left save empty buildings.

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

A portal opened into a field of grass set beside a wooden cabin. Nearby stretched the crystal clear water of a lake, with a couple of kayaks and other boats tied to a dock.

Through that portal stepped a single, pale figure with brown hair and matching eyes. Appearing to be about fifteen by human standards, the girl set foot on the grass before looking around curiously. Her head tilted back, and she spread her arms to both sides while looking at the sky with her mouth open to taste the air.

The Lie daughter of Kushiel and Puriel had never set foot on Earth before. Nor had she been outside on any planet more than a handful of times. This was… in many ways, a new experience.

She had only stood there for a few seconds like that before the sound of approaching footsteps drew her attention. Lowering her gaze from the sky, she was just in time to spot a small figure running not along the ground, but over the roof of the nearby cabin.

“Hiya!” The call came with a wave, before the figure turned into a blur of motion, going all the way across the roof to hope from one tree to another, then to a third like a some kind of turbocharged squirrel. Leaping from the third tree in the span of less than two seconds since her movement had begun, the small figure rocketed across the remaining distance between them before snapping to an almost vibrating stop directly in front of the newly arrived girl.

The so-called Lie tilted her head, taking in the figure in front of her. She was clearly much younger, appearing to be only nine or ten years old at most. Which, given the fact that Seosten aging didn’t slow for several years after that, meant that Lies was actually over a decade older than her.

The younger girl had dark hair, her eyes so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants, and a white hoody that seemed almost too big for her diminutive figure. And she gave Lies barely a second to take her in before launching into a spiel that came so fast and free of any particular pauses that it was almost impossible to follow.

“Hiyayou’rethenewgirlrightyeahthat’srightwhyelsewouldyoubeheremyname’sDecemberwhat’syours?”

“Breathe, December.” The voice came from the cabin behind them, as a six-foot tall blonde woman emerged. She wore a glittering red gown that made it appear as though she had just stepped from the dance floor of a dinner party for some royal wedding. “Remember what we talked about, leave some space between your words.”

She was joined a moment later by a dark skinned woman who appeared to be in her twenties who wore a very ruffled tan trench coat over a white shirt, and an enormous Hispanic man with heavily patched and fraying clothes.

“Hello,” the blonde woman politely greeted Lies. “We were told you would be coming to pay us a visit while your… group settles in, until a new body can be found for your mission. I am January. You’ve met December already. These are July and September.”

“Julie,” the black woman corrected. “It’s Julie.”

The large man gave a nod. “And you can call me Tember.” He showed a toothy smile. “Like timber.”

Confused, the new arrival tilted her head. “Why are you giving me names? We are all Lies, aren’t we? Lies don’t have names.”

“Hey!” The sharp retort came from a different girl. This one, arriving from around the side of the cabin, appeared to be what the humans would call Asian in her late teens. She wore simple army fatigues with her hair cut short. “We don’t use that word around here!” Clearly bristling with anger, she stormed that way before yet another figure caught her arm.

“May’s right,” that one, a thin man with dirty-blond hair who wore a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, announced. “We don’t use the L word. Like I said, she’s May. I’m November.”

“We,” announced a black man in a white suit whose dark hair fell to his shoulders as he stepped into view, “are the Calendar. And we do not allow others to define our worth with their contemptuous slurs.” To the new arrival, he added, “February. Though I have been known to answer simply to Feb.”

“Only because I won a bet that made him answer to it.” The correction came from what appeared to be a teenage girl around fourteen or fifteen, with long red hair. She wore clothes that were the spitting image of the uniform worn by the Heretical Crossroads students, and introduced herself as April.

Before long, they were joined by the remaining four members of the so-called Calendar. There was the incredibly quiet and apparently very introverted March, who stood as tall as Tember and had green hair fashioned into a crewcut; a Caucasian man in his mid-thirties who wore a lab coat over a Hawaiian shirt and went by October or Otto, another man around twenty or so with close-cropped dark hair in dark clothes and a white jacket who was June; and a much older man called August whose gray hair went well with his perfectly tailored suit.

Looking around at the gathered dozen, Lies blinked twice. “You wear different clothes,” she noted. “You call yourselves different names. You refuse to answer to the name Lie. Why?”

It was August who spoke, his voice a smooth timbre. “We are the Calendar. We serve Cahethal, and in exchange, we maintain our individuality as we please.”

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

As December warp-sped her way through her version of the explanation, April took a step forward to cover the younger girl’s mouth. “Sorry, I’d say she’s just excited to meet you, but she’s pretty much always like this.”

“It’s true,” January confirmed. “She is not one to sit still. Which is why she is never assigned to simple, long-term quiet surveillance. The last time we tried that, the humans were treated to the sight of a raccoon repeatedly performing backflips and cartwheels out of a tree before giving them an intricate dance routine set to music from a nearby stereo.”

“I got bored,” was December’s only defense.  

“You possess animals,” Lies put in then, “not people.”

“Animals are easier to dispose of so that we may emerge without drawing attention to missing people,” Otto explained while polishing his glasses on the end of that incredibly loud shirt. “We keep a veritable zoo beneath our feet here.” He tapped the ground demonstrably. “Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to show it to you before your leader calls for your return.”

“Indeed, perhaps we will,” January agreed. “But for now, come. It’s time for lunch.”

The collection of Lies-who-didn’t-call-themselves-Lies began to walk back to the cabin, leaving Kushiel’s daughter to stare after them. They were… odd. Very odd. What kind of Lie refused to answer to that word?

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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Mini-Interlude 56 – Klassin Roe

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“I just… I just want to explain, you know?” The voice of Russell Bailey, formerly monikered as Virus, was quiet even in the small room that amounted to Klassin Roe’s therapy office. The headmistress had offered to make it larger, but Roe had declined. He didn’t need an enormous room to work in. It was best that the students he worked with feel secure, not overwhelmed.

Now, he sat back slowly in his chair while lifting his chin to the boy. “You want to tell your family what really happened to your father.” His voice held no judgment, no condemnation.

The boy flinched a little bit, running a hand up through his newly shortened hair. At one point not long before, it had been long and dyed an obnoxious bright red, but Russell had taken most of it down to a short crew cut, and it had grown out to its natural light brown. He also no longer wore the facial piercings that had been such an extensive part of him at the beginning of the year.

“They think it was just some crazy cult initiation or something,” the boy mumbled, his gaze dropping to the floor. “They’ll never really know. They’ll never understand that it was… it was…” His voice caught a little, mouth working before he gave a little shudder. “That it was my fault.”

“You still think that it was your fault?” Again, Roe did not correct the boy, not in this particular situation. He believed that Russell was wrong, of course. But simply telling him that would accomplish nothing. What the boy really needed right in that moment was someone to talk to, someone to sit and listen to his turmoil without correcting or inserting their own opinion.

Russell gave him an incredulous look for a second anyway, blurting, “Of course it is! I–Just think about it. I hang out with a bunch of psycho gangbangers to look cool. My parents tried to tell me to leave them alone. Everyone tried to tell me to leave them alone. But I thought they were badass, so I made ‘friends’ with them.” His fingers jerked up to form the air quotes while mouth twisted in derision at that word. “I fucked around with those guys cuz they were sooo cool.”

He went silent for a few seconds then, his face contorting a little as his head shook violently. There were tears forming in the boy’s eyes, tears that he angrily blinked away. “Then I become a Heretic. So I go back over Christmas to hang out with my old ‘friends’, and guess what.”

Roe remained quiet. He knew this story, of course. He’d heard it many times. But talking it through, repeating it, helped Russell deal with everything. It seemed to help him cope.

“They’re monsters,” the boy spat, his hard gaze glowering at the desk between them. “They’re a bunch of fucking monsters, most of them. Strangers. And they know what I am as soon as they see me. They know I’m a Heretic, so I get the hell out of there. I’m freaking the hell out, so I run away. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve called you guys. I should’ve called Crossroads. But I just ran to the arcade and screwed off for awhile. I had to think. I was just… I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. So I just hung out. I fucking–” His face twisted once more, and the tears threatened to come back. It was clearly all he could do to keep it somewhat under control.

When he finally continued a few seconds later, his voice was hollow. “I walked back home. I walked home and… and my dad… those assholes. Those fucking motherfuckers, they… they went to my house looking for me while I was hanging out at the arcade. But they found my dad instead. They found my dad and they… they murdered him. They killed my dad and–and–and tore him apart. The cops thought it was some kind of devil worshipping cult initiation because of all the–the blood and how they–how they just…” Trailing off, Russell lowered his head, no longer fighting the tears as they fell freely down his face.

As far as Klassin was aware, only the staff and the boy’s team were aware of exactly what had happened. And even some of his team might not have known the whole story. Most of the school was entirely unaware of the trauma that had caused the formerly-named Virus to change so much after that first semester. It was his choice to tell them or not, just as it had been his choice to continue attending classes so soon after everything that had happened. The headmistress had, of course, urged him to take some time off. She had almost insisted on it. But in the end, Russell had made the point that he needed to feel useful. He needed to keep himself busy, not dwell, and that the longer he spent just sitting around, the worse he actually felt. The creatures responsible for the murder and dismemberment of his father had completely disappeared, which meant that the most Crossroads could do was get his mother and little brother out of there, move them to a new city with a job transfer, and thus hopefully keep them away from any further reprisals from Russell’s former friends. The attack and murder had happened at the very beginning of the holiday break, and Russell had spent the remainder of it coming to terms (as much as he could) with the loss of his father.

“But I can’t tell them any of that,” the boy spat angrily, pushing himself up out of his chair rather than sit any longer. “My mom, Jake, I can’t tell them why Dad’s dead. I can’t—I can’t explain. I can’t tell them about the monsters, because they won’t remember it anyway. I just–” Turning, he lashed out, punching the nearby wall with both of his fists. The wall was reinforced, yet the twin blows still dented it visibly while the boy slumped, head shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Russell.” Standing as well, Klassin moved that way, laying his hands on the boy’s shoulders from behind. “You know how easy it is to repair the walls around here.”

For a moment, the boy just stood there, fists partly indented into the wall while he shuddered. “I told you the story before,” he mumbled. “You already knew it anyway. I just–I want to tell them. I want to tell them so bad, but it won’t do any good. And I can’t—I can’t handle letting them know the truth once, just so they can forget it again right after. I can’t handle that. What if they hate me and then completely forget about it? I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. I just–I can’t.”

Silence filled the room for a few long seconds then, before Klassin finally spoke up, his voice soft. “The Runners haven’t stopped looking for the Strangers who murdered your father. And they won’t stop looking. They will find them, especially with all the information you’ve given.”

“For all the good it does,” Russell muttered darkly. He turned from the wall, facing Klassin with a forlorn, empty look. “It doesn’t bring my dad back. It doesn’t–” He stopped then, biting his lip while his head shook as he changed to, “You know why I really wanted to keep coming here instead of taking time off like the headmistress wanted?”

Klassin had his guesses, but he simply inclined his chin curiously and let the boy speak. That was what Russell needed right then. He needed to talk. That was why he had brought up the entire situation again, despite the fact that they had already been through it several times.

“Because I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Russell’s voice was firm, his hands tightening into fists. “I can’t bring my dad back. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being such a stupid fucking–” Cutting himself off, he gave a violent headshake once more, forcibly pulling himself back from the precipice of that emotional crater. “I can’t undo anything I did. But I can be a good Heretic. I can help other people.”

Smiling just a little bit, Klassin gave a slight nod. “That is an admirable goal, Russell. One that I think your father would approve of. And so would your family, if they understood the situation.”

For his part, the boy simply swallowed hard while looking down, folding his arms against his chest uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, can we talk about something else? I don’t wanna talk about that anymore.”

“Of course.” Nodding once more, Klassin asked, “What would you like to talk about?”

At first, Russell was quiet. He shifted, clearly unsure of whether he should really ask what he wanted to. “The umm, the car you were working on before.”

“The Sixty-Nine Mustang Boss 429?” Raising an eyebrow with a tiny smile despite himself, Klassin nodded. “Of course. It’s been a nice little project car for awhile.” Magic, of course, would have made the work pass much faster than the months that this had actually taken. But Klassin preferred doing this kind of thing the long, slow way. He enjoyed working on the cars with his own two hands, no powers or spells involved.

“Do… do you think I could–I mean I don’t know if you need—or want–or…” It was clearly hard for Russell to find the words, his face flushed.

Saving him from floundering even more, Klassin reached out to squeeze the boy’s arm. “Why don’t we get out of this place before we both develop claustrophobia, huh? Come on down and take a look at the car with me. If you’re up for it, maybe you could help me get some of the rebuild done.”

Gaze lifting at that, Russell managed a tiny smile. “You… you’re sure?”

Grabbing his leather jacket from the nearby hook, Klassin nodded while gesturing to the door. “Absolutely. Figure between the two of us, we should be able to get the old girl purring again in just a couple weeks.”

As the two of them started out of the office, the boy hesitantly volunteered, “My dad had a muscle car before he had to sell it a couple years ago. I helped him fix it up so he could sell it. That’s how he paid for our trip to Hawaii. I— I was pissed at him for selling it. I wanted it. I–I didn’t… I treated him like shit.”

“Hey.” Klassin stopped in the doorway, looking to the boy. “You helped your dad rebuild a car. I guarantee you, that’s what he remembered. Everyone knows that their kids are going to lash out and say stupid things. Especially teenagers. But I promise you, that’s not what he focused on. That’s not what he remembered. The time you guys spent working on it, that’s what your dad thought about. That’s what mattered to him.”

Russell’s voice cracked a little bit. “You… you think so?”

“I know so,” Klassin assured him before teasing, “Now come on, if I’m gonna exploit our time together to get free work out of you, we better be quick and quiet about it.”

“It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, sir,” Russell retorted. “I’m pretty sure she knew how we were going to spend our time today before we did.”

Chuckling despite himself as he stepped out of the office, Klassin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You know what, you’re probably right. That headmistress is one smart cookie. But you know what I think?”

“What?” Curious, Russell stepped through and watched as the man closed the door to his office.

Klassin winked. “If we do get in trouble… we’ll just bribe her with the car.”

******

“So, how did it go today?”

Later that evening, Klassin was stepping out of his office and flicking the light off on his way when the voice spoke up from nearby. Smiling despite himself, he looked that way.

“Hey, Risa,” he greeted the woman, stepping that way. “You mean with Russell?”

Risa Kohaku nodded, stepping in to embrace him. The two exchanged an initially brief kiss that lingered slightly more than Klassin had intended before they both stopped to catch their breath. “Wow,” the security chief murmured under her breath with a tiny smile. “Looks like someone really needed that.”

“Long day,” Klassin agreed. He stepped back, still holding the woman’s hands. “I got Russell working on the car with me. It was even his idea, pretty much. I just…” He sighed. “I wish we had better news for him. Your contacts in the Runners, they don’t have any more news?”

Risa winced, shaking her head a little. “No, they’re still looking but… honestly, I’m not sure how much more they’ll actually find. The Strangers who murdered his father are… they knew enough to get the hell out of town afterward.”

“At least it means they’ll probably leave the rest of his family alone,” Klassin noted. “They’ll know that we’ll be watching for them.” Heaving a long, heavy sigh, he shook his head before asking, “Anyway, I thought we could go out for dinner tonight. You know that little place in Italy with the great seafood? What was the name of that village?”

“Atrani?” Risa supplied. “Sure, we haven’t been there for awhile. But umm….”

Lifting an eyebrow as the woman trailed off, Klassin poked her forehead. “This isn’t really you, is it?”

“It’s me,” she retorted a bit defensively. “Duplicates are totally me. But uh, yeah, it’s a duplicate projection. Sorry. I couldn’t get away yet, but I still wanted to meet you. I missed you.”

“And your duplicates can’t leave the island without you,” Klassin finished for her. Some types could, he knew. But Risa’s were limited to the same universe (or pocket universe, in this case).

“I promise,” the woman assured him, “it won’t take much longer. I just have to listen to Rucker’s report. Twenty minutes, tops. I’ll meet you by the Pathmaker?”

She offered him another kiss, and Klassin took it, giving her a little smile despite himself. “Sure. But you tell him that he’s gotta give you a couple hours without any interruptions unless it’s the end of the world. I want to have you to myself at least for a little while.”

Her smile, embarrassed as much as it was proud, lit up the little corridor. “I promise,” she agreed. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Just you and me.”

The duplicate disappeared then, leaving Klassin standing in the hall by himself. The man smiled slowly, anticipating not only the upcoming meal, but everything else that the evening promised to bring.

Whistling softly, and just a little off-key, he shrugged into his jacket and started down the hall. As busy as things were, as much work as they still had to do (especially when it came to finding Chambers and the rest of the missing students), it was still possible to find bits of joy here and there. It was important to have those moments.

His phone rang a moment later, and the man glanced to it. Unknown number. Shrugging, since that didn’t mean much in his work, he answered it. “This is Roe.”

“Klassin Roe?” an unfamiliar voice on the other end replied. “The man who used to be Jonathan Ruthers?”

Pausing, Roe frowned. “I don’t go by that name–who is this?”

“It’s okay,” the voice replied, “I just got your name from… let’s call her an old, old friend of yours. She said that you could help me with something.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name… is Denuvus.”

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A Learning Experience 17-07

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I honestly had no idea how much time passed before Professor Mason finally made his way out of the therapist’s office and left. It could’ve been thirty seconds or five minutes. All I knew was that I spent the entire time in a near-blinding rage, and it was all I could do not to throw myself out of the wall and confront the man directly. Such a thing obviously would’ve ended badly on every conceivable level, yet I could still barely stop myself. My logic and my emotions were pretty much pummeling each other.

Eventually, however, the man did leave. Which left only Klassin Roe in his office when I emerged from the wall. I didn’t even bother going onto the outside of the office and then knocking on the door or any such production. Instead, I literally popped right out of the wall inside the room without any warning.

Klassin was standing on the other side of the office, looking out a window with his back to me. As I emerged, before I made any sound or even moved an inch, the man spoke quietly. “Hello, Flick.”

For all the anger and other emotions that had been rampaging their way through me since the moment I realized what he and Professor Mason were talking about, I finally stopped for a second and thought about what had just happened. I thought about not just what I’d heard, but why I’d heard it. And I came to a sudden realization, my eyes widening. “… You knew. You knew I was there, that I’d hear all of it.”

Rather than responding right away, Klassin remained silent. His gaze was still focused on the window. When he finally replied a few long seconds later, his voice was quiet and calm, not at all like the accusatory and inciting tone he’d been taking with the other man a couple minutes earlier. “Yes, I did.”

My mouth opened and shut before I managed to get another sound out. “You—I–you wanted me to hear all that. You started that whole conversation just so I could hear it. Why? And how?! I’m half an hour early, how could you possibly know that I’d show up in time to hear you guys talking about it?”

Finally, the man turned away from the window to face me. As he did so, I saw something in his eyes. Emotion that he was quickly blinking away while replying. “For the latter part of that, when you passed that painting of Lord Kelvin in the hall out there, my spell let me know you were coming.” His faint smile then seemed more sad than proud. “Just a little trick I learned from a.. from an old friend.”

That time, I didn’t have to think about it. The answer spilled from my lips immediately. “My mom.”

His eyes flicked downward briefly before the man gave a very slight nod. Then he looked back up to me. “Yes. Your mother and I had a complicated relationship. But I… I came to care about her a lot.”

The rage that I felt, the anger and frustration and… all of it kept trying to spill out of me. I clenched my hands tightly, staring at him from across the office. “Why set it up like that? Why trick that—Professor Mason into talking about all that stuff instead of just telling me yourself if you wanted me to know?”

“Several reasons,” Klassin answered quietly. He looked at me for a moment before stepping away from the window, moving across the room to pick up a glass of what looked like whiskey from his desk. “First, I didn’t think you’d believe me if I just told you. Better for you to hear it from his own mouth.”

Folding my arms tightly across my stomach to grab onto my own elbows, I stared at him. “A-and?”

He glanced away briefly at that, his eyes finding the floor before he looked up again. His voice was soft, yet firm as he explained. “And I didn’t want to back you into a corner. I wanted you to know, but I didn’t want you to have to talk to me about it if you didn’t want to. I wanted to get the information to you without forcing you to open up to me. This way, you could hear about it and then never say a word if you didn’t know that I knew you were there. I wanted it to be your choice. You deserved that much.”

My throat was dry, my hands wouldn’t stop twitching, and I felt even more shivers running through me. “From his own mouth,” I echoed before shaking my head quickly. “And the rest of it? Why? Why would you want me to hear all of that in the first place? Why would you want me to know about him?”

“Because you deserved to know,” the man replied, his gaze meeting mine. “You deserved to know what happened back then. You deserve the truth, Flick. Especially since Liam’s been…” He trailed off.

Swallowing hard, I gazed back at him evenly. “He’s been what? What has Professor Mason done?”

“He’s been talking about moving his girls off your team,” the therapist answered after a pause. “He’s afraid of everything that’s been happening, to you and to Avalon and he’s been making noise about moving them to a different team where they’ll be safer, switching them with a couple other students.”

My eyes went wide at that, and I blurted without thinking, “Son of a bitch! He can’t—that’s not—I don’t–” If my emotions had been a mess before, they were worse now. “We’re training to be Heretics!” I blurted. “And he’s been one this whole time, for decades, at least! Did he just fucking now realize it’s dangerous? And what the fuck, he thinks it’s too dangerous for Sands and Scout to be on the team, but he’s just absolutely fine with shoving a couple other students onto it instead? What about them?!”

“Sands and Scout are his kids.” His soft voice was a calm oasis in the wake of my turbulent emotions. “He’s not thinking straight when it comes to them. It’s not that he thinks it’s okay for others to be in danger. Hell, he doesn’t even want you to be in danger, or Avalon. But when it comes to his daughters, especially after what happened to Larissa, he’s not rational. All he can think about is protecting them.”

Shifting my weight back and forth, I held myself tightly while trying to think straight. “I—what about…” I trailed off, looking down at the floor as I struggled my way through all of my wild thoughts.

After a few seconds of silence, Klassin spoke up, voice even. “I don’t know all of what’s going on with you, Flick, but I do know most of it. And you need to be able to talk about it with someone, if you want to. You deserved to know that I know that stuff, that I can talk about it if you want. Because everything happening to you, everything you’re dealing with, you should have a safe place to vent about it.”

Unable to stand still any longer, I started to pace back and forth. I had more nervous and emotional energy than I could contain, and so many questions, demands, and rants that I didn’t even know where to start. Eventually, however, one thing stuck out above the others. “He called you Johnny. Why?”

There was silence for a brief moment before he answered, his voice holding a note of obvious emotion that he was mostly suppressing. “Because that used to be my name. I was Jonathan. Jonathan Ruthers.”

Well that made me whip my head around, stopping short from my pacing as I stared at the man. “Ruthers?” I blurted, my voice louder than I intended. “You said your name was Ruthers, as in–”

“As in the former headmaster, yes.” Klassin met my stare. “He was my father. Or, I suppose, is. He’ll always be my father, even if I’ve tried to divorce myself from him as much as I can. He is my blood.”

He took another swallow from the glass, his eyes staring off into the distance before he spoke again. “That’s why I changed my name, why I have nothing to do with him. Because I don’t agree with anything he’s done. After I found out what he did to your mother, what he did to Joselyn, I… well, I basically disowned him, Flick. As much as a son can disown a father. I walked away, I told him I never wanted to see him again, and I changed my name. Hell, I tried to change everything about myself.”

“You changed your name,” I echoed, feeling even more turbulent emotions running through me in spite of myself. It was all I could do to force myself to think straight by then. “You didn’t agree with him.”

“I despise him,” Klassin replied flatly. “Not always. I—when your mother and I met, I was my father’s son. I was a piece of shit. I was spoiled and—and wrong. And your mother didn’t stand for it. Hell, that’s what first got Jos on my father’s bad side. She laid me out in the cafeteria in front of everyone.”

Gazing off into the distance, he actually smiled a little bit at the memory. “I deserved it. I was—well, let’s just say I thought I could do whatever I wanted, just because of who my father was. But your mom, she uh, she didn’t put up with it. She put me on the floor and from that moment on, my father hated her. Even before the um, even before the rest of it, he had it out for Joselyn. Not that she cared. Pissing off the headmaster was just… par for the course. If your mom thought something was wrong, she made sure everyone knew it. She didn’t care who didn’t like hearing it, or how powerful they were.”

For a few seconds, the man was silent then as he gazed off in the distance, obviously lost in his own memories. Finally, he shook himself and straightened while putting the glass down. “Gaia’s the one that got Joselyn to calm down and think strategically. Your mother was… she’s incredibly passionate, and Gaia helped make sure that she didn’t give my father enough ammunition to expel her. Or worse.”

There was so much I wanted to ask, so many thoughts and questions swirling around in my mind. Finally, I settled on starting with a simple, yet important one. “What changed? You said that you and my mom fought at first, that you were a—well, that you were a spoiled dick. What made you change?”

Again, there was a long silence as the man clearly lost himself in his memories. His smile flickered and I saw more emotion in his eyes than I knew a single person could have in such a short time. When he spoke, I wasn’t sure he even knew he was talking. He was just putting voice to his thoughts. “When we were seniors, I knew Joselyn was up to something. I mean, I didn’t know all of it. I just figured she was spying on us for Eden’s Garden, that kind of thing. So, one night when she snuck away from the place a bunch of us were assigned to stay at for internship, I… followed her with a camera. I figured I could prove she was a traitor and get her kicked out. And that time, not even Gaia would be able to save her.”

Gesturing to one of the nearby armchairs, Klassin waited as the thing slid across the floor to him before he sat down and continued. “So, I followed her, trying to stay out of her sight. I knew what powers she had, so I could avoid her extra senses. She went to this motel. It was supposed to be closed, but there were people there. I saw her go in, so I went up onto one of the nearby roofs and watched with my camera. I thought she was meeting with her Eden’s Garden contact. But um, I was wrong. About a lot.

“As it turned out, your mom was there to meet with some Alters. There were families living there, families that didn’t have anywhere else to go, who were being hunted by—well, us. That’s the whole reason our group was assigned to that city, to find the nest of Strangers and flush them out to be… killed. But your mom was making sure that we didn’t find them. Every time we got close, she’d warn them to move somewhere else. She was protecting them, protecting the… families that were in there.”

Somehow, I managed to speak through the thick, hard lump in my throat. “I bet you loved seeing that.”

He accepted that with a nod and a pained look. “Yeah. I… I thought I hit the mother lode. I figured your mom wouldn’t just be expelled, but probably even imprisoned. Yeah, I thought it was great. So I started taking pictures. I probably would’ve taken them to my dad. Your mom would’ve been… well, everything would’ve been different. Either he’d take her in and the rebellion never would’ve started, or maybe it would’ve started early, before she graduated. But the point is, things would’ve changed a lot.”

Leaning back in the chair, he gazed at the ceiling, voice soft. “Fortunately, something else happened. There was an attack, a raid on the motel. Not from Heretics, from… you know what Nocens are?”

My head nodded. “Sure, evil Alters. It’s from um, the Latin word for wicked or… whatever, isn’t it?”

“Something like that,” he confirmed. “There used to be a few different words for them. All means the same thing. Nocens, Nequam, and lots of others. Mainly they use Nocens now. Anyway, this group of Nocens attacked the motel. And, since I was there, I got caught up in the middle of it. Not that I knew they were any different from the Alters who were already there. I figured they were all attacking me.”

He chuckled softly at his past self before continuing. “I didn’t last very long, not the way they took me by surprise. I ended up hurt pretty bad, unconscious in the basement of the building I’d been watching from. I probably would’ve died down there, except… except that a couple of the Alters found me after everything was done. They beat the Nocen that attacked, with your mothers help. Then a couple of them found me after she left. They found me, they knew what I was, but they took me in anyway. When I woke up, I was… in one of their rooms, and this… this woman, an Alter, was fixing me up.”

His silence stretched on after that for awhile, the man obviously thinking back to what had happened and the people he had met. “They took care of me,” he said quietly. “They mended me, got rid of the poison that would’ve killed me, helped give my body time to heal itself. I cursed them so much. I threatened them, screamed at them, but they held me down. They stopped me from not just hurting them, but from hurting myself. They made sure I healed, even though I would’ve killed all of them.

“I was almost better, almost healed when some of the Nocen came back. This time your mom wasn’t there. They um—they were there for me. Somehow, they found out that there was a Crossroads Heretic in the place, so they came to get me. They wanted… well, they wanted to make an example out of me. But the… the family that took me in… Truvan, Iona, and little Exa, they wouldn’t give me up. None of them would. None of the Alters, the ones I would’ve killed, they refused to give me up. I um, I wanted to fight. I tried to fight, tried to get up so I could deal with the Nocen. But Iona knew I’d fail, that I’d lose. I wasn’t ready for that yet. So she—she gave me something that knocked me out. She knocked me out and the last thing I knew, she and Truvan were hiding me.”

There was a crack in his voice as he went on, and I could see the anguish in his eyes. “When I woke up, they were dead. All of them. Not just the family that hid me, every last one of the Alters that your mom had been protecting. The Nocen killed all of them. Because of me. Because they protected me.”

He looked up to me, his eyes wet, yet fierce. “I knew from that moment that we were wrong, that Crossroads was wrong. So I did what I could to help Joselyn. I wanted to quit, I wanted everyone to know I was on her side, that I changed. But… but your mom thought it would be better if I worked as a spy, on the other side. So I did. I played the part enough that my father had no idea. And I tried to do everything I could to undermine him.

“But in the end, it wasn’t enough. He took your… your brother and sister. He took them and I couldn’t do anything about it. So your mom—she… she came in, and… and I did what I could. But when I found out that they were going to remove her, that they were going to destroy the rebellion by erasing her from everyone’s memory and violate people’s minds like that, I… I couldn’t pretend anymore. I told my father what I thought of him. I told him how much I hated him, and I… quit. I quit being his son, I took off, changed my name, changed… everything.

“I owe your mom more than I can ever repay her. I couldn’t save her twins, I couldn’t save her from prison, or from being erased from everyone’s memory. I couldn’t do anything. But I can be there for her daughter. Anything you want to say, anything you want to talk about, I can be there for you. Or not. It’s your choice. I’m not going to force you into anything, Flick. If you never want to talk to me again, if you want a different therapist, I can have someone else come in for your sessions. You deserve that kind of choice.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. I stood there, arms folded as I stared at the floor. Then I slowly took a step over to the other chair and sat down. “Could you…” Hesitating, I looked up. “Could you tell me a little more about my mother, what she was like? Could you just… talk about my mom some more?”

There was a slight, sad yet happy smile from the man. “Of course,” he answered quietly.

“I’d love to talk about your mother.”

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A Learning Experience 17-06

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“You guys do know that this isn’t really fair, right?” I half-joked while holding my staff in front of myself as I looked first to Avalon in front of me, then over my shoulder toward where Deveron had positioned himself. Both held wooden staffs and wore nearly identical smirks. “Both of you at once?”

It was Friday, the next morning. Or rather, a few hours later. I’d finished my training with Gaia and slept for an hour and a half (clearly showing how exhausted I’d been), waking in time for this training.

Deveron just shook his head when I looked at him. “You think the people you’ll be fighting care about fair, Flick?” Spinning the staff expertly in his hands, he added, “You’re lucky we’re all using the same weapon. Eventually, you’re gonna have to figure out how to fight both of us with different weapons and adjust your style. And once you get used to that, we’ll see about adding in more people. Like Shiori.”

“He’s right,” Avalon spoke up before I could respond, and I turned back that way to find her tossing her own staff from hand to hand. “You want to get better, you have to keep making your training harder.”

“In that case,” I replied, “how many people are you training against at this point to keep improving?”

Her response was an almost feral smile. “How many people are in our class?” Sobering then, she clarified, “I train with the older students whenever I have a chance. And,” her gaze flicked to Deveron. “Now that we have a mentor who isn’t a completely meaningless waste of space, he helps too.”

Deveron snorted at that, bowing his head in acceptance. “I deserve that. And probably even more. But I’d deserve a lot worse if I didn’t push your training, Flick. You need to get better, so let’s get to it.”

Holding up a hand, I quickly put in, “Wait, I wanted to ask. Have you guys ever used that, um, the animal projection thing?” It took a moment to remember what Gaia had called it. “The um, theriangelos spell?” I’d already told them about how it had gone, and how it had been all I could do to focus on seeing through my fox’s eyes without getting a headache. Gaia had said that it would take time and practice to do it properly, and that eventually I’d be able to easily switch my attention back and forth.

Avalon shook her head, spinning her staff behind her back and to the front again. “No,” she replied simply. “I haven’t done any extra magic. Eden’s Garden starts learning it this year, so I’m not ahead of you on that. Actually,” the girl added with a tiny smirk, “I guess that means you’re ahead of me.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “I’m sure Gaia’d teach you if you ask her.” At that point, I was positive that Gaia would do almost anything if Avalon asked her to. “She really cares about you a lot.”

I actually managed to catch sight of the other girl blushing slightly before she got it under control, clearing her throat as she focused past me toward Deveron. “What about you?” she asked, pointedly.

“Yeah, I’ve done it,” he replied. Eyeing the enchanted coin that was lying nearby to ensure our privacy, he added, “Jos thought it’d be a good way to communicate when we couldn’t be with each other.”

Intrigued by that, I asked, “So what was your animal thing? What is the ‘spirit animal’ of Deveron Adams?” Smiling a bit, I added, “And just to warn you, if you say ‘sloth’, I might just die laughing.”

Snorting clearly in spite of himself at that, Deveron shook his head. “No, it’s not a sloth. It’s–” He paused then, obviously bracing himself for something before actually answering. “It’s a weasel.”

I blinked once, then again. A gradual smile rose on my face as I fought to control the burst of laughter that tried to come out. It escaped in the form of a snicker. “Weasel. A weasel? That—you know, not that long ago, I would’ve said that a weasel was completely appropriate for you. Almost as much as a sloth.”

“Laugh it up,” he retorted, through his own self-depreciating smile. “Go on, get it out of your system.”

Behind me, Avalon started to hum softly. It was a familiar song, one that was right on the tip of my tongue for a second before my eyes widened. “Pop goes the weasel!” I blurted. Then I really started to laugh. “Oh my god. Oh god. Mom. Mom’s a monkey! Mom’s animal is a monkey!” Half-doubling over from my own snickering, I recited, “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel!”

Poor Deveron shook his head slowly, groaning as his hand waved. “Yeah, yeah, it’s hilarious. Trust me, your mom thought it was the best thing ever. It was–” He sobered a little, and I saw the emotion in his eyes as he straightened and swallowed. “It probably sounds stupid, but the song was… important to us.”

My own head shook at that, and I put a hand up to touch the man’s arm. “It doesn’t sound stupid,” I assured him, though my voice cracked just a little as I spoke. “I’ve got stuff with… with Mom, memories that other people would probably think were silly or dumb. But they’re not. They’re… her.”

For a moment, he met my gaze steadily and silently before nodding. “They’re her,” Deveron agreed quietly, yet firmly. “And those are the memories that we have to hold onto, until we get her back.”

I nodded at that without breaking his gaze, echoing his words just as firmly. “Until we get her back.”

Even as my own hand stayed on Deveron’s arm, I felt Avalon touch my shoulder. It was a light brushing of her fingers, but it felt like so much more just because she was the one reaching out. Her voice was soft. “If you want to save your mother when the time comes,” she reminded me, “we need to practice.”

Slowly, I lowered my hand away from Deveron and nodded. “Right, practice.” Stepping back, I flipped the staff around and looked first to my roommate, then to my sort-of stepfather. “Let’s do this then.”

******

“Well, I suppose since this is our very last class of the semester and you’ve already finished your tests, we should do something interesting with the time that we still have left, hmm?”

The man talking was Professor Stephen Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. He was the guy who taught us all about the lands, areas, and even entire planets that Bystanders either didn’t know about or had forgotten. He’d promised that we’d get to Atlantis next semester after people wouldn’t stop asking.

Professor Vandel was a short man, even shorter than me and almost as short as Sands and Scout. I would’ve been surprised if he topped out at much more than five foot two or so. He looked like he was in his mid-late thirties, with red hair that he wore in a ponytail and a neatly trimmed goatee. Every time I’d seen him this semester, the man was wearing a long-sleeved black and white checkered shirt with a bolo tie and crisp blue jeans that looked brand new. I wasn’t sure he even owned any different clothes. And most striking of all, he wore an actual monocle over his right eye. Yeah, an honest to God monocle.

“Yes,” he replied to himself while I and the rest of the class watched. “Something interesting indeed.” Straightening, he moved from the whiteboard where he’d been erasing some of the details about the test we’d just finished. “Most of you have asked, at one point or another, where we are.” Spreading his hands, he elaborated. “That is, where exactly this island is located. Would you like to talk about that?”

After a chorus of agreement and nods, Professor Vandel smiled before launching into his story. “Good. Well then, let’s start by talking about our founder, Hieronymus Bosch. He was, as you all know by now, not only a genius inventor and one of the most powerful and gifted magic-users in the history of our world, but also a painter. Of course, it’s that last skill that Bystanders know him for, but we shouldn’t forget it either. Because it’s his painting skill that brought to where we are today, to this very island.”

“Wait, what?” Malcolm spoke up from across the room, brow knit in confusion as he shook his head. “The hell does painting have to do with this island? What’d he do, sell a bunch of them to pay for it?”

Professor Vandel shook his head with a slight smile. “No, Malcolm, he didn’t sell paintings to pay for this place. This place, this island that we live and learn on? It is a painting, one of his very best works.”

That made everyone start talking, questions blurting out from every corner of the room while Vandel held his hand up and waited for people to quiet down. Once he could get a word in edgewise, the man continued. “Let’s just go with one question at a time. How about you first?” He nodded toward Koren.

She was staring at the man, eyes just as wide as I was sure mine were. “What the hell do you mean, ‘the island is a painting’? What does that even mean? We can’t be in a painting, it’s a painting. That’s just—just–” The other girl floundered a bit, hands waving dramatically before blurting, “Crazy. It’s crazy.”

Chuckling a little bit at that, Professor Vandel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I suppose it should sound unhinged. But then, most of what we talk about in every class of this school doesn’t seem exactly sane, does it?” He started to pace a bit then. “Let me explain. Maybe more details will help. The island wasn’t simply ‘created’ by a painting, no. That would be fairly ludicrous. As powerful as he was, Bosch was not a god. After all, there are living things here on this island, and in the surrounding water.

“You see, this island already existed on Earth. It was in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and a bit southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That was the island where Bosch and those early first Crossroads Heretics chose to construct the Heretical Edge and the school that would train their students. In those days, being on an island in the middle of nowhere was safe enough. Ships could be drawn away from the island. There were enchantments that ensured Bystanders would leave us alone.”

Halting his pacing about halfway up the row of seats that I was in, Vandel turned slightly to look over the class before he continued. “But Bosch knew that Strangers would never stop trying to invade our sanctuary, and that eventually the amount of energy required to maintain our protection against their invasion would be too much. He knew that there had to be a solution that would ensure this school and the Heretical Edge itself would be kept safe. For months, he searched for the best way to do that, to protect his legacy. And in the end, he found it in one of his longest, greatest past-times: his painting.

“Through extensive magic and more power than I believe any of us has ever witnessed, our great founder painted this island, and enchanted it so that the island itself and its surroundings were taken into that painting. He created a pocket dimension, a separate yet connected world where the real island was drawn, leaving Earth entirely and yet remaining somewhat connected to it through the painting.”

“So wait a second.” Douglas Frey spoke up with a raised hand. “You’re saying that this place is some… pocket dimension that Bosch created, that exists in one of his paintings? What if something destroyed that painting? Would we all just…” Pausing, he drew his finger across his throat pointedly.

Professor Vandel shook his head, speaking up over the commotion that caused. “First of all, let me assure you that the painting is perfectly safe. It’s one of the most well-protected objects in the world. The Bystander President of the United States has less protection than that painting. Nothing is going to happen to it. And if anything did, we wouldn’t be killed. Believe me, Bosch would not have left such a clear and obvious vulnerability. The painting maintains the connection between this pocket dimension and Earth. At most, the island and all of us on it would simply be ejected back into the normal Pacific Ocean where it used to be and we would go from there. But that won’t happen, because, as I said, the painting is not in any danger.

“So, let’s talk a little bit about what exactly made Bosch choose this place to begin with.”

******

It was still about half an hour before I was supposed to meet with Klassin Roe for our next session. But I was heading in early, because I was hoping that we could get done soon enough for me to have time to make a trip out with my sharks before it was time to eat dinner and then go to our last track training of the semester. Among other things, I wanted to get Klassin’s advice for what I should do about Kohaku’s invitation to join the Security track.

As I approached the man’s office, however, the sound of voices revealed that he wasn’t alone. Stopping short outside of the door, I hesitated a moment before starting to turn away. If he wasn’t available, he wasn’t available. I’d come back when we were actually supposed to meet.

Then one of the voices spoke up loud enough for me to make out the full sentence. “It wasn’t my fault, it was Joselyn.”

That made me halt in mid-step. Turning back, my eyes widened. I knew the voice. It was Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father. Why was he talking about my mother?

After a moment of indecision, I took a breath and stepped closer to the door. Rather than just standing there, however, I put my hand against the wall and felt the wood there. Swallowing at the thought of being caught, I pushed myself into the wall, using the wood-walking power to merge with it. Then I continued to listen.

“It’s easy to blame other people for your mistakes,” Roe was saying. “But Joselyn didn’t make you do what you did, and she definitely didn’t force you to cover it all up afterward.”

“I did what I thought was right,” Professor Mason insisted through gritted teeth, his voice low and yet almost desperate in tone. “Joselyn was acting insane, and you know it. I had to protect the school.”

Klassin’s voice was just as quiet, but also harsh. “And how did that work out for everyone, Liam? Because as far as I can tell, all you did was make everything worse. Did you ever tell Larissa what you did?”

There was the sound of a shove before Professor Mason snapped, “Don’t talk about Larissa, Johnny.”

Johnny? I was confused. His name was Klassin Roe, so where was the name ‘Johnny’ coming from?

Roe spoke up after a moment of silence that I was sure both men spent glaring at each other. “Larissa isn’t here. But if she was, and if she knew what you did, she’d be disgusted by you. That is, unless you helped wipe her memory too. Isn’t that how you deal with your problems?”

That time, I heard what sounded like a table being kicked backwards and some rustling as the men clearly struggled with each other, followed by a hard thud that was clearly one of them hitting the wall. Roe continued, his voice harried and even more harsh. “It’s the truth, Liam, and you know it. You betrayed your friends, the people who trusted you.”

“I had to!” Mason spat back, his own voice broken by emotion. “Joselyn was—she was wrong. She was crazy. Making deals with Strangers? She was going to destroy everything, and get a lot of good people killed because she was naive. They all were!”

I heard the table squeak again as it was moved back before Roe’s voice all-but snarled, “It wouldn’t have been that way if it wasn’t for you to begin with, Liam. Joselyn trusted you, she tried to talk to you about the whole thing. They all trusted you. They thought you were on their side, and what did you do? What did you do? You ran to Ruthers. You blurted the whole thing to him.”

“Fuck you, Johnny,” Mason snapped. “I told you, I did what I had to do to protect everyone from Joselyn. They were going to get hurt, or worse, destroy the school.”

“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?” Roe retorted. “No. You snitched and suddenly the quiet little underground railroad to protect Alters turned into a full-fledged rebellion. You didn’t protect anyone, Liam. You turned the whole thing into an open war. And then you helped erase it from everyone’s memory. Including the woman that you later married. Did you ever happen to mention that to her, or was it too inconvenient?”

I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with something like a two-by-four. On the hike in the jungle, Deveron had said that the whole secret underground resistance had blown up into full-scale war because he and Joselyn had trusted the wrong person. Now I knew who it was.

Sands’ and Scout’s dad. He was the traitor. He was the one who made the whole war happen.

Mother… fucker.

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Interlude 16 – Tribald Kine

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There was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago that focused on Seller and Abigail. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 🙂

February 4th, 1919

“But Professor, is he still… you know… is he still him?” Seventeen-year-old Tribald Kine stared down at Gaia Sinclaire. Somehow, that seemed wrong. His whole life, the rust-haired boy been tall for his age. Now, there wasn’t a person in the school that he didn’t practically tower over. But something about Professor Sinclaire made it seem like he should naturally be looking up to see her. Her aura, her… stature was enormous in a way his tall, yet rail-thin frame shouldn’t have been able to look down to see.

“And why would he not be, Tribald?” the woman asked gently, her tone more curious than reproachful. “Did you become an entirely different person when you killed the Visikin and gained its poison quills?”

Wincing, Tribald shook his head quickly. “Well, no. But Deveron, he’s… different now. That thing he killed, it didn’t just give him a power, it changed how he looks. He doesn’t look like himself anymore.”

The woman reached up to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Permanent physical alterations are rare, but not unheard of. I assure you, your roommate is still the same person as he always was. Killing the Incubus may have physically changed him, but there has been no actual change to his mind, or his personality.”

Tribald was quiet for a few seconds. He thought of the gawky, hook-nosed boy that he’d spent the past half-year sharing a room with. Then he looked through the window into the room where the tall, classically handsome new version of Deveron Adams stood talking to Headmaster Ruthers. The differences were night and day. Hell, the new version of his roommate looked slightly Asian. Another connection to the Japanese Incubus he’d managed to kill after a long and incredibly drawn-out fight.

If he squinted enough, he could see his roommate in this boy, but with all the flaws gone. He was taller, stood straighter, his body was more openly muscled. He looked like a perfect version of himself.

And then Tribald slumped enough that he was almost eye-level with the teacher. “Sorry, Professor,” he mumbled quietly as his face turned red with embarrassment. “I guess I’m really acting stupid, huh?”

The woman’s voice was as gentle as always. “No, Tribald. Acting stupid would be refusing to accept the answers you’re given, not simply asking the questions. Your friend has changed a lot on the outside. It’s easy to assume that he would have changed on the inside as well. And perhaps he will, in time. The kind of physical alteration the Incubus’s power has given him may make him more confident, among any other changes. But they will not be supernatural in nature. And in the end, he will still be himself.”

Still flushing a little, Tribald thought about that for a moment before starting hesitantly. “So… I guess the best way to make sure he doesn’t get carried away with his new look is to… just… be normal?”

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “Be there for him. Be his friend, just as you have been this whole year. He still enjoys everything he always has. His hobbies, his likes and dislikes, those are the same as they ever were. You were friends before the Incubus, and this should change nothing, unless you allow it to.”

Letting out a long breath, Tribald gave a quick nod. “I—thanks, Professor. You’re really, um–” He glanced down again, shifting nervously as he brought up something that he’d wondered for awhile. “You’re really good at this kind of thing. Were you really a Baroness before you became a teacher?”

He saw her face go still for a moment and thought that he’d made a terrible mistake. But as an apology formed on his lips, the woman spoke quietly. “Yes, and no. I was Baroness of the lost state of Desoto. Yet even in that role and before it, I would say that I was still a teacher. Taking this position in this school only made official what I saw as my most important duty for much of my life. Especially now.”

Tribald hadn’t been alive when Desoto had been lost in the Fomorian invasion, but it hadn’t been that long before his birth. He’d grown up hearing the stories about how Gaia Sinclaire had violated the secrecy rules and had her Heretics reveal themselves to Bystanders in order to evacuate them before the entire state was annihilated. Most of the people he’d heard talk about it hated the woman for that. They called her a coward, claiming that the Heretics should have stood to fight the invasion, and that revealing themselves to normal humans (even if those people would forget afterward anyway) was tantamount to treason. Between that and the destruction of the entire state, most had thought that Gaia would never hold any position of power in Crossroads society again, and would likely die in infamy.

Except that hadn’t happened. Within a few years of the incident, Headmaster Ruthers had brought the woman on as a teacher at his school. The man took a hit on his popularity, but he was apparently too stubborn to care. His focus, as always, was on protecting humanity at all costs. Which meant he was one of the few who actually agreed with Gaia’s choice to temporarily reveal Heretics to the Bystanders in order to save them. And he was just pig-headed enough to tell her detractors to jump off a bridge.

Whatever her reason for being here, Tribald was just glad she was. And that Headmaster Ruthers had given her a chance when no one else would. The man may have been hard to talk to sometimes, and extremely stubborn about his way being the right way. But at least he’d recognized that Gaia Sinclaire would be good for the school.

And who knew? Maybe in time, her influence would temper even the crotchety Headmaster.

******

October 15th, 1929

Walking along the edge of the school grounds, Tribald watched the placid ocean in the distance. The water looked so peaceful from up where he was, it was easy to get lost in thought while staring at it.

He couldn’t loiter here for long. He may not have been a student anymore, but he still had responsibilities. Hell, as part of the security team, he probably had less free time than he had as an actual student. In fifteen minutes, he needed to be back in the office so that Thompson could go on break.

As he was about to turn away from the sight of the ocean, a soft hand covered his mouth while another caught his arm. He jerked, and was about to retaliate when a familiar voice whispered, “Bang, bang.”

“Hggmm?” Eyes widening, Tribald pulled his head free and turned, his own voice a whisper, “Joselyn?” he hissed. “What are you—how are you here? What—I didn’t hear the alarm, did you just-”

The beautiful blonde grinned, stepping back as she released him. She’d had to make herself float about a foot off the ground in order to reach his mouth to cover it. Now, she sank back down and stretched while waving a hand at him. “There’s no alarm, Trib. Don’t worry, no one else knows I’m within a thousand miles of this place. And no one’s going to know. Right?” She added with a raised eyebrow.

“Not from me,” he confirmed, still whispering hoarsely even as he looked around with a deep sense of paranoia. “But how? How can you be on the grounds right now without anyone knowing? Jos, you’re like–” Lowering his voice even further until it was barely audible, he hissed, “You’re a criminal now. You being on the grounds should be sending off every alert we have. They should be dogpiling you.”

“Ooh, dogpiling,” the blonde woman gave that incorrigible grin once more before nudging him. “Should I be flattered? How’s the security crop this year, any good sheiks? Besides you, I mean.”

She laughed at his expression. “Okay, okay. The truth is, I can’t tell you how I got here. A girl’s gotta have her secrets, Trib. And what you don’t know, they can’t get out of you if anything goes wrong.” At the last bit, she sobered noticeably, laying a hand on his shoulder. “And I don’t want anything to go wrong. That’s why you should know as little as possible. Plausible deniability. You’re safer that way.”

Tribald finally focused on her rather than letting his eyes dart around so much. Instead, he squinted at his former classmate. “Safer? I don’t want to be safe, I want to help you with… you know what. I should be out there with you, not playing security for this place.” He waved a hand around vaguely.

“No, Tribald.” Joselyn shook her head. “I already told you, being with me is a bad idea.” Her voice softened then. “Deveron trusts you more than anything, so I trust you more than anything. You’re our friend, but the others don’t know that. They can’t know that. No one can. They have to think that you’re loyal to Crossroads, that you hate us. That’s how you can help, by being our ace in the hole. If anything goes wrong, we’ll need people like you on the inside more than we need you fighting right beside us.”

It took him a moment, but finally the man swallowed hard and nodded. “Whatever I can do to help. You know that. You, me, and Deveron, we go way back. Back to the beginning. So yeah, I’m with you. You need me to play security in this place for another fifty years, I’ll do it. Anything you need, Jos.”

“Great,” Joselyn replied with an impish wink and smile. “Because I need you to quit your job.”

His mouth opened and shut at that, and he gaped for a moment before managing a weak, “Err, what?”

Chuckling, the woman squeezed his arm. “Okay, not just quit. We need to get someone into the Bow Street Runners, Trib. It’s too dangerous not to have any eyes on that group, if we’re going to pull any of this off. You’ve already got the scores to make it, and being part of the security team here will help.”

“The Runners?” Tribald echoed in disbelief. “You really think they’d take someone like me?”

She shot him a hard look at that. “Stop it. You’re brilliant, Trib. If you don’t belong with the Runners, no one does. You’re a great security guard, but you’ll be an even better detective. And I’m not just saying that. If I didn’t think you could do some real good there, I wouldn’t ask you. And I am asking. If you don’t want to do it, just say so. We’ll find someone else. But like I said, it’s not just about having someone in that group. I think you can really help people as one of the Runners. If you want to do it.”

In spite of himself, Tribald swallowed nervously. “Apply to the Runners, I mean… they’re a—that’s really–” He took a breath, buoyed by her encouragement. “Yeah. I’ll do it. I’ll apply to the Runners.”

The relief on Joselyn’s face was obvious, despite her attempt to try to make him think it would be okay if he refused. “Thank you.” Floating up off the ground once more, she kissed his cheek before giving him a brief hug. “Now I really need to go before one of your coworkers comes looking for you. Besides,” she added while looking pointedly over her shoulder. “I think my friend’s getting impatient.”

He blinked blankly, looking up past her. “What fri-” He stopped short, eyes widening at the sight of the black man standing half-hidden in the shadows. The figure wasn’t tall in comparison to him, topping out at only a couple inches over six feet. But just like with Gaia, something about the silent man made Tribald feel tiny in comparison. Except this was even more apparent. The power and strength that radiated out from the dark-skinned man somehow made him feel like he was a child again, standing in the shadow of his father. He felt at once protected and also intimidated by this invincible sentinel.

“Is–” His voice cracked in spite of himself before he pushed on. “Is that… is that Gabriel Pro–”

“Shh.” Joselyn touched her finger to her lips, eyes sparkling with mischief and amusement. “Don’t say it. Next time I’ll try to have time to let you guys talk. I’m sure he’ll want to hear all your stories.”

He’ll want to hear my stories?” Tribald echoed in disbelief. But Joselyn was already retreating back to the shadows to join her companion. Before she disappeared entirely, he quickly added, “Do you think we can pull this off? You really believe we can actually win this thing?”

By that point, Joselyn herself was almost entirely enveloped by the shadows. Her face was mostly hidden as she looked back to him, though he could see the white of her smile. “Don’t you understand? It’s not about whether we win or lose at some eventual end-point. It’s about everything we do. Every time we save someone they would have killed, we win. Every time we make one of them think, even for a second, that what they’re doing is wrong, we win. Every person we convince, every life we save, every family we help, that’s when we win. Every father, mother, and child who does not have their right to exist taken away just because of how they were born, we win.

“So don’t look at me and ask if we’re going to win. Look at every single person who will die if we don’t try, and ask yourself if they deserve to lose.”

******

September 7th, 2017

As Joselyn’s daughter left the room where he’d been questioning her about Zedekiah’s death, Tribald sat back for a moment. She looked… so much like her mother. The resemblance and family connection was obvious from the very first second that he’d seen her. The sight of the blonde girl sitting there when he’d come into the room had surprised him so much that he’d almost blurted Joselyn’s name before catching himself.

The girl had noticed. He knew that much. She’d noticed enough to ask about it, about why she had almost been refused entry to the school. Something about the way he’d looked at her had convinced the girl that he had answers. And he did, even if that damned spell prevented him from actually giving them to her. Given the choice, he’d take the girl aside and tell her everything. All of it. He owed her mother that much and far more.

He’d wanted to damn the consequences and break Joselyn out of prison the entire time that she’d been locked up in there. He had been willing to risk everything if it meant getting his friend out of her cell. But Joselyn had stopped him, had convinced him to look to the future. She made him promise to keep his position and use it to both look for and protect her children. Especially if they came to Crossroads.

So he had done what he could without tipping his hand. He tried to protect the boy, Wyatt by that point, from Ruthers’ manipulations and spies throughout his schooling. It wasn’t much, but he made sure that the kid always had a job to fall back on and that he received enough training to protect himself. He made sure that books detailing various security enchantments found their way into the boy’s hands, acting as a secret, hands-off tutor.

It was harder to keep an eye on Abigail without being noticed by his contemporaries, but he did what he could while out in the regular world. As far as he could tell, she had grown up happy enough with her Bystander family. He’d even made certain that she met one of his distant relatives, the grandson of one of his cousins. Abigail and Kenneth had hit it off, and now their child was coming to the same school as Joselyn’s daughter.

Shaking off those thoughts, Tribald pushed himself away from the chair and stood. In the same motion, he called on one of the teleportation powers he’d gained over the years.

Then he was standing in front of the trophy case, the same one he’d directed Flick toward. Turning, the man’s eyes immediately found someone else waiting there.

“I figured you’d come down here,” Klassin Roe, the school therapist, remarked. “She looks like her mother, doesn’t she?”

Tribald nodded once, a lump catching in his throat at the thought. “She does.” He nodded to the picture behind the glass. “She also deserves to know the truth.”

Klassin glanced that way as well, his voice quiet. “You’re taking the spell down?”

Putting his hand up against the glass, Tribald gave another nod, his eyes focusing on the photograph of their graduating class. It was one of the only existing photographs of Joselyn that he’d managed to protect from the spell. He’d left it in the case here so that nothing would happen to it, leaving a protective enchantment that stopped most people from noticing it. Then, between himself and Klassin, they managed to keep the enchantment up.

“She’s a good kid,” Tribald murmured while keeping his hand against the glass in front of the picture. “Joselyn would be proud of her.”

Klassin gave a soft chuckle. “Of course she would, the kid’s already finding ways to buck the system and it’s been like three days.”

Both of their heads turned slightly then at the sound of approaching footsteps. Flick and her roommate. Apparently his partner was done with her interrogation too.

Before the two girls came into view, Tribald silently dismissed the enchantment on the picture, allowing it to be seen so that they could find it. Then he met Klassin’s gaze briefly before both men teleported out of sight at the last second.

Maybe the spell prevented him from outright telling the girl the truth. But he could damn well make sure she found enough clues to put it together. It was the least he could do after everything that had happened. Like so many others, whether they admitted it or not, he was the man he was because of Joselyn Atherby.

And that went double for his companion. Not only would the school therapist not be the kind of man that he was without Joselyn’s influence, he would literally be a different person.

After all, without Joselyn, Klassin Roe never would have rebelled against his father and changed his name from Jonathan Ruthers.

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The Next Step 8-02

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“You seem a little distracted, Flick.”

The words made me want to laugh out loud, though I was afraid it would sound more hysterical than amused. Distracted? Gee, Mister Therapist sir, I can’t imagine why I’d be distracted. I’m just sitting inside a literal magical school full of monster hunters and hunters-in-training, trying to figure out who keeps trying to kill my roommate, who succeeded at killing one of the most powerful teachers here, why my team mentor went from Captain America overachiever to someone so lazy he’d make Garfield look active and also happens to have been a student here almost a hundred years ago, who was involved in banishing my mother from this world and why she was banished to begin with, who my newfound older half-siblings are and if they know about me, how to save my mother from the evil son of a bitch necromancer she sacrificed herself to in order to save me, how to save myself from the same evil son of a bitch when he comes looking for me again, what to do about an evil younger half-brother, and now why my teammate’s adopted sister is doing the full ‘all work and no play’ over the name of the vampire that I currently have babysitting my father just in case the evil necromancer or my psychotic little brother pay another visit. So no, I have no idea why you’d think I’m distracted, no idea at all.

The sad part was, I was probably still forgetting something in that mental spiel.

“Sorry, sir,” I spoke aloud with a shrug while forcing myself to look at the man from where I was sitting in that armchair. He’d said from the beginning of our first session that I could sit anywhere I wanted, but the chair felt better than the couch for this situation, “I guess I’m just worried about Shiori.” That much was true enough, and I hardly had to explain why I would be.

“Are you?” the man asked, putting an immediate lie to my assumption. He said nothing else, prompted nothing. He didn’t move on, he didn’t actually press for that much clarification. He definitely didn’t ask inane questions like how Shiori’s actions made me feel. He simply spoke those two words and waited.

I took a moment, looking away while gathering my thoughts. I hadn’t blurted out anything about the name on the paper to Columbus. Instead, I’d just tucked the paper back into the notebook, made sure it was secure, and handed it to him. Part of me had wanted to keep it, but I was afraid of what Shiori would do if she found it missing and had some kind of panic attack. Considering the state I’d seen in her in last, I definitely didn’t want to give her any reason to freak out again before I could talk to her.

As for why I didn’t tell Columbus… well, I thought it would be safer if I talked to her first. Columbus was her brother, but she, for whatever reason, hadn’t said anything to him about it yet. Considering the secrets I was keeping, I kind of wanted to respect that enough to not blab about it right off the bat.

I had absolutely no idea why she would have Asenath’s name, or even if it was the same Asenath. I couldn’t figure out why they’d know each other. But considering how stressed the girl had been and how… crazy my life had become, I wasn’t going to rule it out. It was a pretty unique name, as far as I knew. The odds that there was no relation whatsoever between my Asenath and hers were pretty slim.

Obviously, I couldn’t say any of that. Instead, I nodded. “Columbus is her brother. I mean, adopted, but… they’re pretty much the same thing at this point. He’s my teammate, she’s his sister. He’s worried about her. She hasn’t been sleeping, she’s always tired, she’s stressed and… jumpy. Really jumpy. Columbus thinks that all this monster talk is getting to her. You guys run into that problem a lot, don’t you? Students who freak out about the monsters, and the whole… idea that they’re everywhere.”

Klassin gave a slight nod. “We do. Obviously we try to tailor our choices of bystander-kin recruits to people we believe can handle the stress, but that’s not a one hundred percent thing. When we do run into problems, every case is handled individually. Usually the person can be helped through it, and they grow into being a perfectly upstanding Heretic. Sometimes, we have to put them into less combat intensive environments. Not every Heretic is a front-line fighter, after all. Some go their whole lives without seeing an actual wild Stranger outside of controlled conditions once they leave this school.”

“What about Shiori?” I asked with a frown. “She’s been, umm, doing really well in Professor Katarin’s class.” That was an understatement. The man consistently praised how well the Asian girl seemed to be taking to combat, and aside from Avalon, she was clearly the best overall combatant in the class, and possibly even in our grade. Yet every time Katarin mentioned how well she was doing, Shiori didn’t look happy about it. Instead, she tended to either ignore it or look even more stressed than usual. Once, Columbus asked if she had any tips, and she had literally burst into tears before leaving the room.

“Yup,” Klassin confirmed. “She could end up being a phenomenal hunter. And from what I hear,” he added then, pointed to me with one hand, “you aren’t exactly far behind. How many zombies was it?”

I flushed a little. “Not as many as you’ve heard. Besides, I would’ve been dead without the others. And Nevada. If she didn’t show up, they’d still be scrubbing bits of us out of the Little Zombie’s Room.”

“If you had to do it again,” the man started before holding up a hand. “Ignoring the rules and everything else, for some reason you have to do the same thing again and end up in the same situation, what do you think you’d do different? How would you prepare to face something like that again?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it before coughing. “I was gonna make a crack about bringing a minigun, but we actually have one of those.” Shrugging then, I added, “I guess I’d want to have some kind of distraction ready, something that could keep the zombies off us long enough for Sands to set up a good defense from one side right away. Then all four of us could have focused on dealing with the zombies on one side together before focusing on the other side. Maybe Sands could even make up some kind of corridor thing out of multiple walls. That way instead of the zombies just all pounding against the wall until it collapsed, they’d funnel down one opening in a single file line so we could deal with them that way. If I’d had time to think about it, or if… if I hadn’t freaked out so much…”

“Hindsight can be a curse, or a gift,” Klassin replied. “If you use it to lament what you didn’t do, it’s a curse. But if you use it to prepare for the future, then it’s probably one of the most potent gifts you can possibly have. It’s definitely one of our biggest assets. We live so long and have such powerful healing abilities that we can learn from our mistakes in ways that Bystanders rarely have the chance to.”

“Yeah…” I started slowly before letting out a long breath. “Well, if these past couple of months have been any indication, I’m gonna have a lot of chances to exercise that gift.”

******

About an hour later, I was standing out on the grass, trying to think through what I needed to do next. My first instinct was to find Shiori and try to talk to her, yet there was something else I could do first.

With that in mind, I tugged the phone from my pocket, considering it briefly before glancing up. It was late enough that the sun would definitely be down over there, so Asenath should be awake.

Wait. Wait just a damn minute. My mouth opened and then shut again as I looked back to the sky. Night time. It had been morning when I left the island for my birthday, and relatively the same time of day when I arrived in Wyoming, within an hour or two. But Wyoming was pretty much as far away from either ocean as you could possibly get. And as far as I knew, Crossroads Island (or whatever they called it) wasn’t anywhere near the mainland anyway. We were clear out in the middle of the ocean, as far from everything as possible. So why, exactly, was the island still operating on United States time? And it wasn’t just a matter of them making the clocks follow a certain schedule. How the hell was the sun where it was? If I left in the morning here, I should have arrived in Wyoming at like… mid-afternoon or something. I wasn’t exactly sure since I didn’t know where in the ocean we were supposed to be (or even which ocean it was). But I knew for sure that there should have been more than a one or two hour difference. Yet as far as I could tell, the island and the mainland were pretty much in sync.

Just… how? And why hadn’t it occurred to me to wonder about that before? Because seriously, that seemed like a pretty obvious thing to have not even thought about. Was it part of the magic that protected this place? I already knew for a fact that Heretics played fast and loose with memory spells.

Yet another thing I needed to look for answers to. Shaking my head, I hit the button on the phone and raised it to my ear. It rang about seven times before I heard Asenath’s voice on the other end. “Yeah.”

We knew from the start that we’d have to be careful about any conversations we had. I didn’t know how closely my outward calls and e-mails were being monitored, but I wasn’t going to risk saying too much.

“Hey, Sarah,” I started. We’d decided that the incredibly common Sarah was a better name for anyone to overhear than Asenath or Senny. “I had a question. This is probably gonna sound pretty weird, but do you happen to know anyone named Shiori Porter? It’s just that I swear I heard her say your name. Might be a coincidence, but I thought I’d check. You know, small world and all that.”

“Shiori Porter?” Asenath replied, sounding thoughtful. “No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Do you have a picture or anything? That might help. Did she say anything about how she might know me?”

“Nope,” I tried to keep my voice sounding as casual as possible. No reason to let anyone who heard this conversation think it was anything but idle curiosity that made me call. “It’s probably a whole lot of nothing.” That was a code we’d come up with that meant this was probably very important. “But I’ll see if I can get a picture and send it to you. Maybe you guys met at summer camp one year or something.”

I could hear the amusement in Senny’s voice. “I bet that’s it. I swear I’ve met so many people at those things. That’s probably how she knows me. So get a picture and I’ll let you know if she looks familiar.”

I promised to do that, and we chatted about a few inconsequential things just to throw of anyone that might listen to the conversation. I could tell there was something else that the vampire wanted to talk about, but she apparently wasn’t willing to risk being overheard. Obviously, we were going to have to find some other way to communicate. Maybe I could get back home and we could work out an actual code the same way Miranda and I had. Or maybe there was some actually secure method of communication. That would be nice. I really needed a bird that could carry letters for me or something.

Eventually, I disconnected and made a face. I’d really been hoping that Asenath would immediately know who Shiori was. Even if she couldn’t have given me too much information, anything at all would have been nice. As it stood, I was right back where I’d started. All I knew was that Shiori was freaking out and that she was obviously obsessed with someone named Asenath. Anything else was guesswork.

Well. I may not have been able to get a lot of answers to the questions that kept piling up, but this one I could deal with right now. No lying, now subterfuge, no guesswork. I was going to deal with this now.

******

It was easier said than done, of course. Actually finding Shiori turned out to be harder than I’d thought it would be. Especially since I didn’t want to tell Columbus why I wanted to talk to her so much. Part of me felt guilty about that. After all, he wasn’t just my teammate and friend, he was also her brother. But Shiori deserved the benefit of the doubt. There had to be a reason she hadn’t confided in her brother about whatever was bothering her, to the point of not even saying Asenath’s name despite how much she was obsessing over it. If she’d mentioned it, he would have said something as soon as I told the team about Asenath saving my dad. So there was no way she’d ever said the name in his presence.

In the end, I walked all the way around the school ground at least twice. I checked the dorms, the library, the rec room, the hallways, a few different classrooms, and more. It was getting pretty close to the time that I’d need to meet up with the twins to head for track training by the time I finally found Shiori. She was on the beach, which I’d checked once before, but the second time I went that way, I finally spotted the other girl a hundred yards down the beach, throwing rocks against the waves.

H’okay. Here went nothing. Bracing myself, I looked over my shoulder to make sure we were alone, then walked that way. Mentally rehearsing and throwing away possible things that I could say, I walked all the way down the beach without ever coming up with anything good. I should’ve practiced earlier.

She saw me coming, glanced my way, then turned back to the water to throw another rock. I saw her ears pink a little. “Columbus isn’t here,” she stated flatly as soon as I was within easy earshot.

A sarcastic quip jumped to mind, but I shut it aside. There were probably worse times to make jokes, but this was definitely pretty far up the list. “I didn’t come to find Columbus. I was looking for you.”

A guarded look crossed the girl’s face, and I didn’t miss the way she turned slightly to put me more in her view, without actually opening herself up at all. “Why?” Her voice was as suspicious as her gaze.

“Asenath,” I said quietly. “I saw it on your notebook. The paper fell out.”

My words were like a physical blow to the girl. I saw her cringe, the guilt obvious in her eyes. For a second, she looked completely lost, like a scared little girl who didn’t know what to do. “I… don’t…”

Swallowing hard, I looked over my shoulder again before turning back to her. This was it. There was absolutely no turning back after this point. If I was wrong… well, then things could get real bad, real fast. But I had to trust Shiori. I had to reach out to her. She was just… having such a hard time. If that had anything to do with Asenath, and there was anything I could do to help… well, I had to try. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

When I spoke, my voice was as quiet as I could make it while letting her still hear me. “She’s a vampire. Asenath is a vampire.”

The words had barely left my mouth before Shiori was on me. Her foot kicked my legs out from under me, and I hit the sand on my back a second before the other girl landed top of me. Her voice was a loud cry right next to my ear. “I am not a vampire!” She blurted, sounding hysterical as she repeated herself. “I’m not a vampire!” Her hands grabbed at my face and arm, clearly desperate. She wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t sure she even realized that she was attacking me. She was just… panicked.

“Shiori!” I struggled, but even in a blind panic, the other girl was easily able to stop me from extricating myself. “Listen to me! Lis–”

Okay, enough was enough. I headbutted her. Which I immediately regretted as soon as the moment of blinding pain shot through my own temple. But at least the impact stunned the girl enough to make her stop for a minute.

Before it could wear off, I managed to speak again. “I don’t think you’re a vampire. Why would you think I think that? I said Asenath is a vampire, not you.”

“Oh god, you’re going to tell.” She rolled off me, tucked her legs to her body, and sat there shaking heavily. “I’m sorry.” She murmured as tears coursed down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I hesitated, then scooted up behind the girl, shaking my head. “Hey, hey, look, I’m not… I’m not telling anyone. That’s why I’m here by myself. I didn’t even bring Columbus, Shiori. But… I need to talk to you. I swear, everything we say is private. You’re scared that I’m going tell them something bad about you? Well let me give you your own ammunition to use against me. I need you to trust me, Shiori. But I know you have no reason to. So… look, you want to know how I know that Asenath is a vampire? Because she’s my friend. She’s a vampire and she’s my friend. And if you told any of the teachers here that, I’d be in a hell of a lot of trouble. So calm down. I’m not turning you in for… for whatever you think I’m turning you in. We’re on the same side.”

Shiori looked thoroughly shocked and even more confused. “Wha… what about… what?”

Moving around in front of the girl, I met her frightened gaze. “Asenath is a vampire,” I repeated, “And she’s my friend. She saved my father’s life. I don’t know why you were recording her name in your notebook, what you think she did to you, or anything else. But I know her name was driving you crazy, and you can’t live like that. So I had to tell you. I had to try. But… why would you think that I thought you were a vampire? What does Asenath being a vampire have to do with you?”

For a long minute, there was no response at all aside from those fearful eyes staring at me. I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. Finally, however, Shiori spoke in a very quiet and slow voice. So quiet, in fact, that I had to lean closer to hear her.

“I… I think… she’s my… sister.”

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The Next Step 8-01

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“Miss Chambers!” The loud voice of Professor Carfried filled the auditorium-like Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom a few days later. “Without consulting your book or any of your peers, can you tell me what the three primary categories of the energy used to create Heretical Magic are?”

The energy used to create Heretical Magic. I knew this one. Considering how much extra time I had for studying in the middle of the night while most people were sleeping, it would have been pretty bad if I didn’t. “Yes, sir, it’s uhh, Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” I recited the names without looking away.

The young teacher, who was still filling in for Professor Tangle (seriously, how badly had she been injured in that giant shark attack?), gave me a broad smile. “Indeed! Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” Turning his attention away from me and toward Rudolph across the room, he asked, “Mr. Parsons!”

Jolting in his seat, the pale, slightly chubby boy’s eyes widened. “Uhh, yes, sir?” A slightly guilty look crossed his face, and it was obvious that whatever he’d been doing, paying attention wasn’t part of it.

“Honestly, Mr. Parsons,” Professor Carfried shook his head. “I could walk into any Bystander classroom in the world, ask who wants to learn some real magic, and do you think they’d be bored?”

Flushing visibly, the boy sank a little in his seat before shaking his head. “No, sir. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“The three categories of magic,” Professor Carfried pressed on after nodding his acceptance of the apology. “Shapeless, Directed, and Forged. I want you to tell me which one we’re learning this year.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Rudolph seemed obviously uncomfortable, but slowly answered. “Um, the magic you’re teaching us right now is Forged. The second years learn Directed magic, and the third years learn Shapeless magic. Seniors, umm, they pretty much know it all by then and just sort of use every kind.”

“Yes, because seniors are essentially active Heretics by that point, and are far more involved in field work than classroom study,” Professor Carfried agreed before turning his attention to someone else again. Koren this time. “Miss Fellows. What exactly are the differences between the three categories?”

The brunette was obviously ready for the question. She promptly replied, “Forged magic is the easiest kind. They’re the spells where you say the exact same specific, established word everyone else does, make the same established gesture everyone else does, and end up with the same established effect.”

Carfried gave a short, pleased nod. “Precisely! Forged Magic, in this case, is like a dog. You teach the dog a trick, and from then on, if it hears the command, it does the trick. Speak the command, add the power, the magic performs the enchantment. Very good. Now, what about the other two categories?” When Koren started to answer, he shook his head. “Actually, let’s hear from… Mr. Levin.” His gaze moved to Zeke. “Since we’ve heard about Forged magic, can you tell us what Directed magic is?”

The boy gave a thin, humorless smile. Which wasn’t anything new. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen the guy act amused or even happy about anything all semester. “Yes, Professor. Directed magic is not quite as open as Shapeless magic, yet it is still more free than Forged. Essentially, a Directed Spell is simply a category of effect. For example, the spell you taught us that turns rocks into flash-bang grenades is Forged magic. The exact same effect every time you cast it. But if you were to alter that effect, such as… for example, making the rock recite the Gettysburg Address while throwing around strobe lights, that would be a Directed spell. You are taking a Forged spell and altering it for your own purposes.”

“A good answer, Mr. Levin, thank you.” Professor Carfried looked around the room one more time, clearly choosing carefully before his eyes settled on Shiori. “Miss Porter, what is the final category?”

Poor Shiori, who looked even paler than the last time I’d seen her, wasn’t looking at the man. Her gaze was fixed elsewhere, and I could see her lips moving a little as if she was mouthing words to herself.

When it was obvious that no answer was coming, Professor Carfried raised his voice. “Miss Porter!”

The response was instantaneous. Shiori bolted to her feet. Her hands caught hold of the table that her team was seated behind, and she gave it a hard shove that sent the table crashing onto its side loudly. Her voice was raised into a near shriek. “Shut up! Just shut up and leave me alone, leave me alone!”

Only then did Shiori seem to realize where she was and what was going on. Her eyes flicked around the room, and I saw the dawning comprehension and horror on her face. “I—I–I mean…” Tears sprang up.

Mutters had broken out all over the room, and Columbus was already on his feet, but Professor Carfried held a hand up, his voice commanding. “Silence, or detention.” The muttering stopped, and he stepped over to where Shiori was. His voice softened. “Miss Porter, can you look at me, please?”

Clearly reluctantly, Shiori slowly lifted her gaze to the man. I could see her trembling openly. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and clearly emotional. “I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Professor Carfried’s voice was calm and soothing. “We’re asking a lot of all of you, and if it wasn’t too much sometimes, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me when I say that I have been exactly where you are. You aren’t the first student to yell at a teacher because you were stressed out and you won’t be the last. So take a couple of breaths. Are you all right now?”

Breathing in and then out, Shiori gave a slight, unconvincing nod. She didn’t speak or move otherwise.

“All right, let’s have a little chat in the hall.” Carfried set a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you are not in that much trouble. As I said, we understand. But I’d still like to talk to you in the hallway.”

The two of them stepped out of the room, while Shiori’s male teammates Stephen and Gavin moved to pick up the table she had knocked over, replacing it back where it had been. They’d just maneuvered the thing into place when Zeke, seated across the way, twirled his finger by his head. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Hey!” Columbus was back on his feet and halfway around the table in what had to be record time. His hand pointed toward the Heretic-born boy. “You’re gonna want to shut up, right fucking now, Zeke.”

Clearly unimpressed, the other boy shrugged dismissively. “Hey, if she can’t handle the stress, maybe she should just go back home. Maybe get an easier job. I bet she’d fit right in at a laundromat.”

Sean leapt up, hooking an arm around Columbus. “He’s not worth it, man.” He kept his voice low and controlled, easily stopping the other boy from lunging across the room at the jerk. “He’s just an ass.”

“At least I can do the job we were brought here to do,” Zeke retorted derisively. “I don’t freak out like some people.”

Next to me, Sands was already starting to stand up, and I could see Avalon opening her mouth.Before either of them could say anything, however, the boy was interrupted by a sharp, scree-noise as Sovereign, Aylen’s metallic bird, flew across the room to land on the table in front of Zeke. As the boy jerked backward, the bird made a loud, angry noise, puffing itself up to look larger while several metallic ‘feathers’ pointed outward, their sharp ends looking an awful lot like daggers.

“Get this piece of shit away from me, damn it!” Zeke demanded, bolting to his feet.

Aylen was frowning at him. “Then stop pissing him off.”

“Fuck you,” Zeke retorted, his eyes locked on the mechanical bird. “I’m just telling the truth. Some people can’t handle the stuff going on here. Your wuss of a teammate obviously doesn’t belong here.”

That brought the rest of Shiori’s team to their feet, their anger obvious. But the person who actually spoke up was still a surprise.

“Oh my god, would you shut the fuck up?” Koren. It was Koren talking. “They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill monsters. Real monsters, the kind that eat people. If that doesn’t mess you up at least a little bit, if that doesn’t make you wanna freak out, then you’re the one with the problem. Not her.”

The fact that it was Koren of all people saying it seemed to surprise everyone into silence for a few seconds, and I thought about the reaction she’d had when we were examining the murder at that gas station (Ammon’s work, I reminded myself. That much had been clear after I spoke to Asenath about what had actually made her start tracking the little psychopath). She’d been pretty messed up by the sight of what happened there. Even if she tended to talk without thinking about what she was saying, and more times than not came off as a gossiping bitch, apparently even she had her layers and limits.

The door opened again before anyone else could say anything, and Mr. Carfried stepped back inside. His gaze took in everyone in the room before he directed his attention to Columbus. “Mr. Porter, would you mind escorting your sister up to the counselor’s office? I think she could use a chat with Mr. Roe.”

Columbus reached down to grab his bag, then stepped over to take Shiori’s too, as Aylen held it out to him. Then he gave the rest of us a quick look before heading out into the hall where I could see Shiori sitting down against the wall with her face buried in her hands. She still didn’t look very good.

“All right,” Professor Carfried began once the door was closed. “We’ll be moving on now, and if I hear about anyone saying a word against Miss Porter, you’ll have detention every Saturday for a month.” Looking toward Zeke, he added, “Mr. Levin, since I hadn’t actually stated that rule yet before leaving the room, we’ll only make it two weeks, starting tomorrow. You still should have known better.” As Zeke’s mouth fell open to protest, the professor pushed on, ignoring him. “One more time then. Where were we… oh yes, let’s see… Miss Moon, explain the last category of magic, if you would?”

“Yes, sir.” Vanessa answered promptly. “The last category of magic is Shapeless. Those are enchantments that are made up on the spot. The Heretic determines the effect they want, and imbues the item with that effect without using any previously designed spell. Shapeless magic is the most powerful kind, and the most prone to mistakes and backfiring. Only the best spellcasters, usually in the Development track, use Shapeless magic regularly. Most get by using Directed and Forged spells. A Shapeless spell can become Directed and then Forged after being cast the same way often enough.”

“Excellent,” Professor Carfried smiled then. “Now then, with that in mind, let’s chat about the next spell we’re going to be learning. A long time ago it was called the Cloth of Steel spell. But when I was in school… which, to be fair, was about a year ago, we called it the Kevlar spell. You will learn to enchant your clothing with a temporary spell that will allow them to resist most bullet impacts.

“So, let’s get started.”

******

Later that afternoon, after our final class of the day, I was on my way to Mr. Roe’s office. It was time for my own weekly visit to the school therapist, which was supposed to continue for at least for a couple of months. The school staff wanted to make sure that I was getting past what happened back home (or at least, what they knew of it). Sean and Columbus were walking alongside me. Vulcan, of course, was trotting a little bit ahead of us, his mechanical head twisting eagerly this way and that.

“How’s she doing?” I asked the dark-skinned boy, glancing toward him.

Columbus’s response was a long, heavy sigh. “I don’t know. She said she was just tired. I know she’s not sleeping much, but she won’t talk about what’s wrong. I… I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to sit her down and make her talk to me, but I’m afraid that’ll just make her clam up more. But it’s obvious that this isn’t working, so…” Gesturing vaguely, he shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know.”

Biting my lip, I offered, “Maybe try making it clear that you’re not going to just let it go, but let her tell it on her own time? Be there for her, show her that you’re there and you’re not leaving, but you’re also going to let her talk when she’s ready to. Try just… doing other things with her. Spend time with her. Be around her. Show her that she’s not alone without outright demanding answers. I mean, maybe that’s the wrong advice, I’m not an expert. But you know, it’s the best I can think of.”

Sean agreed, and the three of us continued on for a few minutes before the other boy changed the subject. “So I think it’s safe to say that Deveron’s roommate doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s up with him,” Sean reported, keeping his voice low as we passed by a couple of senior students in the hall.

I glanced sidelong toward him. “I take it you gave him a, ahh, thorough interrogation?” Try as I might, I couldn’t help the little smirk that came along with the words. Which, of course, was followed by a blush as my brain caught up with what I was implying and transferred the mental image back to me.

From the look on Sean’s face, he knew exactly what I was thinking and winked back at me as we continued to walk. “Let’s just say, if he knew something, he would’ve shared. Well, okay, he did know some stuff, but nothing useful. Just that Deveron’s different this year. Lazy. Stuff we already knew. Apparently he’s put in for a roommate transfer, but they keep refusing. So yeah, not a happy guy.”

“You think Deveron knows something about who your brother and sister are?” Columbus asked.

I shrugged at the boy, feeling helpless. “I dunno. Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell us.”

Sean just blinked at me a bit blankly. “Won’t tell us what—oh god damn it, are you talking about the security room stuff again?” He demanded, looking toward Columbus and then back to me.

Yeah, that had been fun to figure out. Since Sean and Avalon hadn’t been in the security room with us when we read those files, we weren’t able to actually talk about anything that was in them with the two of them. They weren’t protected from the secret-keeping magic, or whatever it was called. So when we talked about it, their brains just… skipped over it or something. We’d managed to be vague enough to explain what was going on, but any specifics were out of the question. We’d tried writing it down, and they just saw the paper or the screen as blank. We tried sign language, charades, none of it worked.

“Okay,” I announced. “I have a new plan. Let’s try this. Every twenty seconds, I’m going to say a word. You remember every word, then put them in order when we’re done. All right? First word, I.”

“Right, got it.” Sean nodded once easily. “First word is I. God, I hope this shit works. Avalon says she’s got some kind of plan for getting around this, but seriously, this magic secret stuff is getting old.”

We kept walking, as I counted down the seconds before speaking again. “Have. Second word.”

“I have, got it. Got that much.” Sean brightened a little more, clearly encouraged. “Closest so far.”

After another twenty seconds, and as we neared the school therapist’s office, I spoke again. “More. Third word.”

“More,” Sean repeated dutifully. “So far you’ve said ‘I have more’. Shit, this might actually work.”

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I counted down once more and glanced toward Columbus before speaking again. “One more word. Here it comes. Siblings. The last word is siblings.”

Sean met my gaze, started to nod automatically, then asked, “Okay, what is it?”

My heart sank. “Siblings. I just told you. The last word is siblings. Did you get it? Tell me you got it.”

“Get what?” Sean was shaking his head. “You’ve gotta tell me the last word before you can—wait, what was the first—okay, it was I… I have… wait, it was you have… wait, was the first word I?”

Columbus groaned out loud. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. As soon as the sentence is complete, not only do they not hear the last word, but they forget the part of the sentence they already knew? Damn it!”

“Something wrong, Columbus?” The question came from the doorway, as Klassin Roe poked his head out.

The therapist for Crossroads Academy looked… well, as far as I knew, he didn’t look like any therapist I’d ever seen or heard of. For one thing, he looked like he belonged to one of those 50’s greaser gangs. His black hair was always slicked back, he had those high cheekbones, and he actually wore a dark leather jacket along with jeans and a gray tee shirt. I’d seen a tattoo of a sword on his arm once, during our first discussion in his office.

Jumping a bit at the interruption, Columbus finally managed a shrug after a moment. “Nah, just talking about something else. Uhh, wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure do,” Klassin drawled in that simple, casual way he had. “I try to make it a point to know who all the new kids are. Makes it easier if they ever wanna come chat.”

“You mean all the new bystander-kin?” Columbus asked. “Shiori, she came to see you today, right?”

“She did,” the man confirmed without saying anything else about it. “But nah, I mean every student. Bystander-kin ain’t the only ones with problems. Anyone wants to chat without it being some formal thing, my office is open from six to eight on Tuesday and three to six on Sunday. I don’t make appointments then, so if you drop by and the door isn’t closed, feel free to come in and talk about anything that’s on your mind.”

To me, he gestured. “You wanna head on in? Oh, and grab that notebook off the chair there. Shiori left it. Figure Columbus here can take it back. You don’t mind, right?”

Columbus shook his head, and I moved into the simple office, stepping over to one of the padded armchairs. Sure enough, there was a small black notebook sitting there with a pen in the spiral binding, and Shiori’s name written in marker across the front in neat cursive.

As I picked up the notebook, a piece of loose paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I bent to grab it, and started to slip the paper back into the notebook while straightening up when the words on it caught my eye. Or rather, the word on it. There was only one word, and it was written several dozen times. Sometimes it was printed, other times it was in cursive. Sometimes the letters were small, other times they were large and bold. A couple of times there were underlines under the word. One of them had several circles drawn around it. Over and over again the word was written, all across the paper from every angle. Every inch of space on the page was taken up by the single word.

Except it wasn’t a word. It was a name. A single name.

Asenath.

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