Koren Fellows

Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 14 – Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Wyatt and his efforts to protect his newly discovered family (even if they remain oblivious to those efforts). It takes place earlier in the same day as the most recent regular chapter. 

The sound of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock filled the small kitchenette of the apartment that Crossroads had provided Wyatt Rendell for his security position at the school. In the midst of the lyrics about Spider Murphy and Little Joe, Wyatt himself worked his way across the room to the counter near the fridge. His steps were short and awkward, as his feet were crammed into shoes that were more than a little too small for him. As a result, his movements looked more like a mincing tiptoe than a stride.

Two cat litter boxes lay on the floor next to the counter where Wyatt was moving. A small gray cat (really little more than a kitten at the moment) of the breed known as the British Shorthair sat beside the boxes, his deceptively simple-looking collar hiding a baker’s dozen worth of enchantments that ensured no one could shapeshift into the cat, possess the cat, or mentally control the cat without setting off several alerts that had been set up. Rather than look impressed or proud at the collection of magic he was carrying around on his neck, however, the cat simply looked profoundly irritated. Most likely because, rather than hold their namesake, the litter boxes were filled with a combination of dirt, sand, rocks, twigs, and other assorted debris.

“I know, I know, Corporal Kickwhiskers,” Wyatt assured his recently acquired roommate over the sound of the music while stepping directly into the litter boxes, one shoe in each. “I need to empty yours! And I will! As soon as the watch is ready.”

Suiting action to words, the man bent over the counter while plucking up a pair of jewelers glasses. Fitting them onto his head while shuffling his feet back and forth so that the too-small shoes they were partially stuffed inside of would take up more of the contents of the litter boxes, the man settled the many-lensed devices onto his head. Flicking all five additional lenses down over his right eye, he carefully picked up an expensive-looking silver watch. Holding the watch in one hand, he picked up an electric engraving tool with the other and set it against the metal backing. After a quick glance toward the nine different photographs of a similar ring that were taped to the wall above the counter, Wyatt carefully began to inscribe words into the back of the watch to match those in the photograph.

For Services Above And Beyond – G. Ruthers

Once the inscription was finished, and the music had long-since moved on to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps performing Race With The Devil, Wyatt straightened and stepped out of the litter boxes. Turning to the nearby wall, he kicked out a couple times to knock the loose material off the shoes. Then he mince-stepped across the room with the watch, slipping it into a pocket of his too-large jacket before bending down to pick up a third litter box, this one actually filled with what it should be (as well as several distinctly smelly things that made it clear just why the perturbed feline had all-but vocally demanded it be cleaned). Turning with the box, Wyatt dumped it into a nearby waist-high trashcan which appeared to be empty, sans even a bag. Then he tapped his hand against it and triggered the enchantment, transporting the contents into the bottom of the ocean.

That done, he deposited the box back where it belonged and took a moment to fill it once more with the kitty litter. Then he beat a hasty (if awkward-looking) retreat from the room while Corporal Kickwhiskers made a mad dash for the newly-filled box.

In the living room of the apartment, Wyatt kicked off the too-small shoes and slipped on his own proper ones. Bending down, he plucked them off the floor, holding open his jacket pocket before dropping them inside. Not yet done, however, he also reached to the nearby counter and picked up a collection of hairbands, a simple button that belonged to one of the uniform jackets, and three different armbands. All were deposited into that single pocket where the shoes had gone, though it appeared to be flat once more as he patted it on his way out of the apartment.

“Keep an eye on things, Corporal!” he called back to the cat. The answering meow was more annoyed grumble than enthusiastic agreement, but they’d work on that. Frankly, he was considering it progress that the cat responded to his words at all.

Turning back, Wyatt shut his door. Then he proceeded to engage all seventeen of the locks that he had attached to it, as well as the half dozen alarm spells. There were more inside the room itself that would react to any presence other than his own and his new feline roommate.

The cat hadn’t been his idea. He had been a gift from his niece, who thought he needed company in his apartment. Koren. Koren Fellows was his niece, and her mother, the woman currently staying at Eden’s Garden, was his sister. He had a sister. A twin sister.

More than that, he had a family. The very concept itself was… confusing. It made him feel things that he hadn’t actually felt since he had been a young child. Discovering that the people who had taken him in and posed as his parents were spying on him for an unknown party (now obviously revealed as Gabriel Ruthers) had pretty much erased the whole idea of family pride and love from his mind.

And yet now, now he had found out that he had a real family out there. And it was just as awkward and strange as Wyatt often felt he himself was. His father appeared to be much younger than he was and (thanks to possessing the appearance of an incubus) didn’t look at all like him. His twin sister had been raised as a Bystander and was now at Eden’s Garden being tutored in Heretic ways as an adult. Meanwhile, his half-sister and his niece were both first year students here at Crossroads. And their fathers were Bystanders.

Had been, in Koren’s case. Her father was… dead. Killed by the Fomorian and then erased from their memory. The tragedy of it, the idea that his niece couldn’t even remember her father, made him feel… anger. And that in and of itself was a strange feeling for Wyatt Rendell. After growing the way that he had, he hadn’t really felt genuine ‘anger’ that way in… well, longer than he could remember.

But when he thought of what had been done to Koren’s now-erased-and-deceased father, he felt it.

At least his half-sister’s father was still alive. And hopefully would stay that way, considering the protection that Flick had arranged for him. Not that she’d told him that much about it, but he’d looked into the situation himself just to be sure that she wasn’t about to lose her own father. Finding the vampire there, he’d thought the worst, but further investigation had revealed the truth.

So that was his family. A niece and half-sister as students, a father as a slightly older-yet-still-younger-than-he-was student, a sister who was a Bystander living at Eden’s Garden, a mother who was the prisoner of an evil necromancer, a Bystander brother-in-law who had been killed, and a Bystander stepfather who was some kind of reporter and who was being babysat by a vampire.

In a way, he liked it. Not the parts where his mother was a prisoner and his brother-in-law was dead, of course. But the chaotic absurdness of the rest of it. Having a completely normal family where everyone fit the exact storybook roles would have confused him, maybe even driven him off. But this? This weird, awkward, totally confusing mish-mash of positions and relations actually helped. The convoluted mess of it made the whole thing feel more real and approachable. It felt comfortable, in some small, strange way.

Or maybe he was just weird.

But comfortable as it may have felt, the last thing he was going to do was slack off when it came to the danger that surrounded them. No sir. Not now, not ever. Not when he actually had something to lose. And he knew for a fact that there were goblins (the metaphorical ones were more dangerous) waiting to snatch all of his family away, and ruin all of this.

The threats surrounding them were almost innumerable. In addition to the standard problems facing any Heretic, there was Gabriel Ruthers himself (who had already abducted Wyatt and Abigail as babies in order to force their mother into prison before erasing her entire identity), Fossor (who currently had their mother imprisoned and clearly wasn’t going to settle for just one), the Fomorians (who obviously weren’t going to stop trying to find a way to use one of his family members to break the spell that prevented them from returning to the planet), the Seosten (who were somehow involved in all of this, he just knew it), Trice and the others from Eden’s Garden (who were trying to kill Avalon Sinclaire and had made enemies of his half-sister and her team in the process), including the werewolf girl (who somehow didn’t show up as a werewolf to Heretic-sight), Fahsteth (the mercenary Stranger who had poisoned Avalon as a child and somehow led to all of this), and whoever was secretly behind both him and Trice’s group (who had arranged the murder of Zedekiah Pericles as well as the current condition of their own ally, Professor Giselle Tangle).

And there were probably more that his frenzied thoughts weren’t thinking about, but before he could sort them out in his head, his feet had already carried him straight to his first target.

“Mr. Adams!” he bellow-squeaked, his voice cracking a bit in mid-word despite his best effort to sound like a proper authority.

Deveron. Father. Dad. Papa. All those words and more worked their way through his mind as the boy-man-person-student-father in question turned away from the conversation that he’d been having with several other students. For a half-second, Wyatt saw an expression of emotion and… longing in the handsome boy’s eyes before it vanished back behind his cool mask.

“Telling you, man, I didn’t do anything,” Deveron-Father all-but drawled. “What’s wrong now?”

“A likely story. I’m onto you.” Shaking his long, awkwardly bony finger at the boy who was his dad, Wyatt stepped forward. “Hands out, knees apart. And don’t make any sudden movements. You all, stay there, or you’ll be tried as accomplices.”

Sometimes, making a point of having a reputation for being… well, the way Wyatt was had its advantages. The boys that Deveron-Father had been talking to barely batted their eyes. They did, however, roll them pretty extensively. But, as awkward and dumb as they thought the interaction was, it was not suspicious.

Stepping close, Wyatt carefully patted his boy-father down, checking all of his pockets in the process. While checking his left jacket pocket, he surreptitiously slipped a folded note there while simultaneously extracting one.

Even with privacy spells, it would still look strange for him to interact too often with a normal student. Yet he really wanted to talk to his father. So, the two of them had set up a system of drops and encounters like this in order to pass a constant stream of notes back and forth to one another. It allowed them to almost-converse regularly.

Wyatt didn’t stop there, however. While continuing his pretense of patting the ‘boy’ down for contraband, he straightened and slipped the previously prepared jacket button from his own pocket. With dexterity belying his awkward appearance, he slipped the button directly over its identical counterpart on the front of Deveron-Dad’s uniform jacket and triggered one of the simple spells he had placed on it. The button immediately switched itself for its twin, attaching itself to the jacket in its place, while the normal button was deposited in Wyatt’s hand and quickly discarded back in his pocket.

The spells on the button would warn Wyatt if anything happened to Deveron to put the man-boy in danger. It was the third uniform jacket he’d altered that way. Pretty soon, he’d manage to tag all of his father’s clothes similarly.

And yet, even then, Wyatt still wasn’t done. Stepping around behind the boy, he clapped him on the biceps, one for each hand. In that same motion, he attached one of the armbands that he had prepared. As soon as the band closed around the arm, its magic triggered and the band became invisible and intangible to everyone except Wyatt himself.

Deveron wouldn’t know about the band, itself covered in even more protection and alarm spells, similar to the one he had prepared for Avalon (the same reason that the people after her were apparently trying to kill him, even if they didn’t know that he was their target… yet) any more than he would know about the button. But Wyatt would know. And it made him feel just a little bit better to have more layers of protection on his father. More redundancies for when things turned sideways and everything went to hell.

Why the button if he was already going to put the armband on his father? Back-ups. Always back-ups. Never rely on one solution. Never.

“Ehhh you’re clean, this time.” He announced while stepping back. “But I’m watching you, Adams. I’m always watching you.”

“That sounds really creepy, dude,” Deveron-Dad retorted while giving him a mock-salute. He turned to head back with the other students, casting a glance over his shoulder before giving Wyatt a surreptitious wink.

Then they were leaving, and Wyatt felt the watch on his wrist vibrate as the silent alarm went off. Not from any of his myriad of defensive spells, but simply the one he had set for the current time. Giving his watch a quick glance to confirm, he about-faced and almost sprinted back across the grounds. He had to be at the right spot at the right time, had to be there, had to be there. Run faster. Don’t see the students staring. Now slow down. Slow down, have to look natural. Slow down.

Easing to the right pace at the last second, Wyatt turned the corner of the cafeteria building just in time to see the doors open as a small figure practically lunged out of them. Koren shoved her way through the doors, laden down with a tray that was piled high with pudding bowls.

At the same time, a male figure was moving up toward the doors. As Koren shoved her way out, the tray slammed into the man, sending bowls of chocolate, tapioca, and vanilla pudding all down the front of his clothes.

Not bad, but he was going to have to teach her how to look more subtle.

“Oh my god!” Koren blurted, managing to avoid sounding rehearsed (appropriate considering the hours they’d actually spent rehearsing). “Professor Neal, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”

Peterson Neal, the so-called Head of Student Affairs (and less commonly called Head of Being Ruthers’s Stooge and Official Buttsmoocher) recoiled with a curse. “Miss Fellows!” he blurted. “Watch where the hell you’re going. Do you have any idea how–”

“I saw that!” Wyatt interrupted, charging that way. “Attacking a teacher, attempted assassination! It’ll be the gallows for you, missy!”

“The—what?” To her credit, the girl managed to look equally horrified and confused. “It was an accident. I was just–”
“Save it for the Runners.” Wyatt snapped around. “Will you be pressing charges, Professor? I saw the whole thing. Her murder spree was only thwarted by your quick reflexes and cunning.”

“Murder spr—no,” Peterson managed a bit distractedly. “I just—slow down, Fellows.”

Koren’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “S-sure, yes, sir. I’m sorry, I—here I can…” She stepped forward and started to rub the man’s shirt down with napkins from the tray, mostly simply managing to rub the pudding into his shirt in the process.

At the same time, Wyatt moved to the man. “Stop it, assassin,” he snapped in mock-anger. “You won’t succeed in your attempts, I’m onto you!”

While ‘threatening’ the girl, he took hold of Peterson’s wrist, lifting it to press his card into the man’s palm. “If you change your mind about pressing charges, I’ll be glad to put this little miscreant in her place.”

Then, while the man was being assaulted by the sensation of Koren rubbing pudding into his shirt, as well as the feel of his wrist being held and the card being pressed into his hand, Wyatt smoothly undid the latch of his watch and replaced it with the one that he had just finished preparing. It held all the same enchantments that Peterson’s old watch had (that had taken a long time to work out) as well as a few new ones, such as one that would allow Wyatt to hear whatever was said when the names ‘Flick’, ‘Felicity’, ‘Chambers’, ‘Koren’, ‘Fellows’, ‘Deveron’, ‘Adams’, ‘Joselyn’, or ‘Atherby’ were said.

He was going to find out what Peterson talked with Ruthers about, and just how much the former headmaster knew about what was going on. The only trouble had been finding a way to slip the enchantments onto Peterson without the man realizing what was happening. For that, Wyatt had needed a partner. Enter Koren Fellows, his niece. She had come to him asking for tutoring in the kind of things that he did. So, they had come up with this plan.

Shaking both of them off, Peterson snapped for Koren to get to where she belonged. Then he gave his soiled shirt a distraught look before turning to march back to his own apartment to change. He never even gave Wyatt a second glance.

Once the man was out of sight, Koren straightened, glancing toward Wyatt. “Did we get it?”

“Yes,” he replied, giving his niece what he hoped was a proud, encouraging smile. But it was probably far more goofy and awkward than it was endearing, despite his best efforts. “You were decent.”

Then he nodded down at her shoes, where he had made sure to flick some of the pudding from Peterson’s shirt. “You missed some. Here, let me clean them off.”

“Decent?” she echoed. “I kicked ass, and you know it. I should be an actress, not a monster hunter. A monster-hunting actress.” Kneeling down, she untied her shoes and pulled them off, one after the other. “You can really get pudding off them?”

Nodding, Wyatt whipped a paper bag from his pocket. Dropping both shoes into the bag, he triggered a spell on it. Except, in this case, rather than a spell to clean the shoes, it simply switched them with the other set in his pocket, the one he had just finished breaking in and dirtying up to look similar enough to Koren’s real shoes that she wouldn’t notice the difference.

“See?” he announced then while tugging the new shoes (with their own protection and alarm spells) from the bag and handing them back to the girl. “No pudding.”

“Thanks,” Koren bent to tug the shoes on, focusing on tying them. “How’s Corporal Kickwhiskers doing, anyway?”

“He didn’t pee on my bed today,” Wyatt replied while reaching down to help the girl back to her feet. In the same motion, he clapped another of the armbands against her bicep, letting it vanish from sight and become impossible to either feel or detect before he released her arm.

“See? Told you, you guys belong together.” Koren grinned at him. Not up at him, despite the difference in their ages. Hell, she was an inch taller than he was, so she was practically looking down at him. Funny, he’d never really cared too much about his height, and yet now… it was just another reminder that he’d never had a chance to actually get to know either her or Flick while they were young and small. The two were practically adults when he met them.

How many birthdays had he missed? How many conversations would he never have with them? How much had been taken away from him by Ruthers? Not just his own childhood, but the opportunity to experience his family’s.

Koren extended a hand, holding it out with her palm up. “We make a good team.”

For a moment, Wyatt simply stared at her offered hand. Emotions and thoughts, far too numerous to count or even try to understand, ran through him. Finally, however, he brought his own hand down to slap hers.

“We do.”

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A Learning Experience 17-08

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“Professor Kohaku wants me to join the Security track next semester.”

It was a few hours later, shortly after the end of our final Investigation track meeting before the winter break. I’d asked to talk to Professor Dare privately once the meeting was over (we’d mostly spent it talking about what we’d learned about various early investigative techniques), and she had led me into an empty classroom in the main building before gesturing for me to go ahead and talk.

Now, she raised an eyebrow. “Does she?” A thoughtful look crossed the blonde woman’s face briefly before she nodded. “That’s not a terrible idea. After all, Investigation and Security pair together well.”

Blinking, I hesitated. “So, does that mean you’re not disappointed or anything? I mean, I really like Investigation, Professor. I do. It’s just-I think I might need to… with everything that’s happening, I just-”

Dare raised a hand to stop me. “Miss Chambers,” she interrupted gently, “I’m not insulted by the idea that you wish to broaden your horizons. On the contrary, I’m glad that you won’t be limiting yourself to a single track. Learning more is always good. My question was that, are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to look into the Explorers track? You already seem to have a knack for making your way to new worlds.”

Flushing at that, I squirmed on my feet. “I-um, I thought about it. And I do want to look into it. But I think that—Um… I think that Security might help me more in the short term. The things they learn how to do, the um, the defenses they can make. I think that um—I think that with everything I’m already learning from Professor Katarin and Avalon and the headmistress, security can fill in more gaps.”

Dare gave a slight nod after watching me for a second with a thoughtful look. “Miss Chambers,” she started quietly, “if there’s something you need to talk with someone about, something bothering you…”

About the fact that when I turn eighteen, the monster that kidnapped my mother and forced her to have a child with him is going to come back for me? The thought ran through my mind, and I flinched before looking up to her. Our gazes met, and I opened my mouth to say something before stopping myself.

Just tell them how much trouble you’re in, Flick, my brain insisted. It was right. I needed to be open about everything, especially with Gaia. I needed to explain the whole thing, that not only was my mother Fossor’s prisoner, but that he wanted me as well. I needed to tell them the truth. All of it.

Even as I thought that, however, my old doubts kept creeping in. What if they overreacted? What if they stopped me from visiting my father? The Heretics could do that, after all. And how would that affect Dad? If I disappeared, no matter what excuse they made up, either it would kill him, or they’d just erase his memory. Erase his memory of… of me. And that was something I couldn’t let happen.

And yet, it was Professor Dare. And Gaia. I trusted them. Even after everything that I’d found out about how the Heretic leadership had treated my mother, I had no reason to doubt Gaia, and every reason to believe her when she said that I could trust Professor Dare.

“Professor…” I started slowly, swallowing hard as I met her gaze. “I need to tell you the whole truth.”

In response, the woman raised an eyebrow. “The whole truth?” she echoed curiously. “About what?”

“About what happened back in Laramie Falls when I was visiting for my birthday.” Straightening a bit, I looked straight at her. “About Fossor. He was there. I need to tell you about it. I need to tell you what he said.”

******

So I did. I told Professor Dare all of it, from beginning to end. I explained the whole thing with Fossor and what he had promised. I told her about how he had easily and dismissively shut down Ammon and ordered him into the car. And I explained my own failed attempt to hurt him by taking away his ashes. I told her everything, the words continuing to spill from my mouth even as Dare urged me to sit down.

When I was finished, the first thing she said was, “So that’s how you met the vampire and the pooka that are watching over your father.”

I did a double-take at that. “You knew about—oh, I guess Gaia would’ve told you about Asenath.”

She shook her head, watching me for a moment before continuing. “She did, but I knew before that. Did you really think I’d leave your father alone after what you said about Ammon escaping if I didn’t know that he was already being protected? I looked into it as soon as we finished our interview here with Runner Kline and Risa. When I found out you had a vampire and a pooka staying there, I figured that there was a little more to the story that you left out. I was not given the job of Investigation Adviser by accident, after all.”

“So you know about Asenath, and–” I stopped, blinking up at her. “Um, Professor, there’s something else. Something you might not know about her.”

Raising an eyebrow, Professor Dare asked, “Is there?”

“Um, yeah. Well, about her and her father.” Taking a breath, I met the other woman’s gaze. “Her dad’s name is Tiras.”

Well, clearly that surprised the woman. I saw her rock backwards a little, blinking a couple times. “Tiras. That… that makes… he has a daughter.”

Nodding quickly, I explained what I knew from Senny herself and from Shiori, that Tiras had left to do something about the Akharu’s enemies back on their homeworld, and hadn’t been seen since.

By the end, Professor Dare’s expression had gone through several intense emotions before she controlled it. “I hope he returns in time to see the incredible woman his daughter has become.” Winking at me, she added, “I may have looked into this Asenath myself to make sure she was safe to be around your father. Not enough to find out her own parentage, but… there are plenty of stories that assured me that you chose the right bodyguard.”

“You should meet her,” I blurted. “I mean, you spent time around her father, and she… she needs to learn more about him. She hasn’t seen him in hundreds of years, Professor. Hearing about him from you, it would–”

“It’s not a bad idea,” the woman confirmed. “I’ll… see what I can do about visiting your home without attracting too much attention. If you don’t think it would be too awkward with your father.”

“I’ll figure something out,” I insisted. “I don’t think he’ll object too much to have a teacher visit. If… if you want to come.”

She smiled faintly, giving a slight nod. “Of course. It would be… nice to see Tiras’s daughter in person.”

Her gaze turned stern then. “However, Miss Chambers—Flick, you should have told us about what Fossor said before now, as soon as it happened. You can’t hold things like that back from us, if we’re going to be able to help you. We need to know what kind of danger you’re in.”

“I know, I know.” I squirmed a little, nodding. “I just—I didn’t know if I could trust you yet, not with that. And then the whole thing with Gaia on the Meregan world happened and I should have told her about all of it then. I told her a lot, but not… not what Fossor said about coming back for me. I don’t know why. I guess… I guess I didn’t want you guys to stop me from visiting my father.”

“We wouldn’t do that,” she informed me flatly. “He’s your father. Listen to me, Flick…” Raising a hand to my shoulder, she squeezed it firmly. “We—I won’t let them take you away from your dad, okay? No matter what happens, we’ll find a way to make it work. We may have to move him, might even have to adjust things. But no matter what, you and your father are not going to be separated. I promise.”

Her words made me swallow hard, and I felt the urge to hug the woman. So, I did. She seemed surprised by the gesture, making a noise that almost sounded like a protest before stopping herself. Then, gradually, her arms came down to wrap around me. “Flick,” Professor Dare murmured softly, an odd level of emotion in her voice considering it was just a simple hug. “We’ll teach you to protect yourself. Fossor isn’t going to take you. I swear, we won’t let him have you. I won’t let him have you.”

“You… say that like you have history with him,” I managed after a moment.

Dare coughed. “I do. More than a little. I…” She paused before adding, “I’ve had a run-in or two with him. The last time was when I had to stop him from creating another plague.”

My eyes widened, and I leaned my head back to stare up at her. “You… you fought him? You stopped him? You won?”

“He is not invincible,” the woman replied. “Powerful beyond most belief, yes. And dangerous. Never doubt that. But he is not omnipotent. He can be beaten. But that is a story for another day, perhaps when you return from your vacation.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I retorted. “You tell me that there’s a way to beat him and tell me to wait to hear about it? That’s insane.”

Chuckling in spite of herself, Professor Dare raised an eyebrow. “I’m saying wait for it not because you don’t deserve the story now, but because it’s getting a little late. And aren’t you supposed to be meeting Miss Fellows shortly for an important conversation?”

“You—I–how do you–” I stammered, staring at her.

She chuckled. “As I said, I was not given my position by accident. I believe she’s waiting for you now.”

Right. It was time to see Koren, to tell her about what I’d found out. And, afterward, to give her a little surprise that Klassin had helped me come up with.

I just hoped she took the news better than I had.

******

“That motherfucker!”

I really shouldn’t have expected any different reaction from Koren when I told her what I’d learned. After all, that had pretty much been my exact reaction, even if I’d only thought it. Still, even though we were far down the beach beyond the school grounds and I had taken the precaution of the privacy coin, I held my hands up to shush her. “I know. Trust me, I know. But you’ve gotta hear the rest, Koren.”

She huffed a little, folding her arms across her chest tightly in a clear effort to hold herself back from some brash action. “You’re saying that our English Lit teacher is the one who snitched like a little bitch and made the whole war blow up? It’s his fault… pretty much everything happened the way it did.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed quietly. “Including the fact that you and I even exist. We wouldn’t be here if things had been different. Our moms never would’ve met our dads, and well, you know how that goes.”

“I–” Koren fell silent briefly, considering that before looking up. “Yeah, maybe. But you know what? He’s still a dick. He doesn’t get to take credit for happy accidents that happen in spite of his dickishness. And now you said he’s talking about taking the twins off your team? I say again, that motherfucker.”

Smiling in spite of myself, I gave a quick nod. “I get it, Kor. Boy, do I ever get it. But he thought he was doing the right thing. He wasn’t trying to win a prize, or snitch to gain some kind of recognition. He was trying to protect everyone. He was wrong, but I’m not surprised. Look at this place. He loved it here, and he thought that my mom was gonna ruin it. He thought she was crazy, and that she was going to get herself and a bunch of other people killed. What he did was wrong, but I get why he did it.”

“How are you not pissed off?” the other girl demanded. “Why don’t you wanna break his face off?”

“Oh, I am,” I replied flatly. “And I do. I mean, if I could figure out how to break a face off, that is. But I can’t. I can’t even let on that I know anything, or the whole gig’s up. Plus, there’s the small but very important fact that he could pretty much slap me around like a hockey puck at the Stanley Cup Finals.”

Koren made a face at that. “Gruesome and very specific. But true.” She heaved a sigh. “No punching?”

“No punching,” I confirmed. “We have to play it cool. And to do that, I had to start thinking about it from his point of view instead of mine. I had to think about how I’d react if I really did believe that all Strangers were evil and then someone came up and started talking about allying with them. It’s not easy. I’m still really pissed off. But I can control it. At least, for now. But let’s just say I’m glad we’ve got a three week vacation coming up so I can work through it before we have another class with him.”

Koren didn’t say anything for over a minute. She remained silent, looking away while clearly working through her emotions. I knew what she was going through, considering I’d just done the same thing earlier that day. Finally, she straightened and looked back to me. “Are you going to tell Deveron?”

Wincing at the question, I shook my head. “No. I mean, yes, eventually. He deserves to know. But not right now. I’m just… not sure how he’ll react. Professor Mason did end up ruining a lot of his life. I think it’ll be better to tell him later, once… I dunno. Eventually, but not now. I kinda don’t hate him right now, so I’d hate to ruin that by giving him news that makes him run off and start shooting a teacher.”

“Yeah,” Koren murmured, “that might ruin his chances of being your mentor next semester.” A sigh escaped her then. “This sucks. I liked Professor Mason. He made reading those old books interesting.”

Nodding in agreement, I matched the other girl’s sigh while looking out at the ocean in silence. After a moment, I murmured under my breath. “And I haven’t even told you about the thing with Klassin yet.”

“The therapist dude?” she blinked at me then in realization. “Hey, yeah, why were they talking about all that stuff right before you got there? Because that kind of seems a bit, you know, just a little..”

“Convenient?” I nodded. “It was. Klassin set it up. He wanted me to overhear what they were saying.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Why the hell would the school psychiatrist want you to hear all that stuff?”

“That’s a long story” I muttered. Taking a breath, I started to explain, getting up through the part where Klassin told me who his father was.

She took it about as well as I expected. When I got there, she blurted, “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

My head started to shake, but she had already moved on. “Just out of completely morbid curiosity, how utterly screwed are we?” the brunette demanded while narrowing her eyes at me. “And bear in mind, I’d usually say something like, ‘on a scale of one to insert hypothetical really, really bad example for ten here’, but the example I’d use would’ve been, ‘your therapist is Gabriel Ruthers’ son, and well….”

“Would I be standing here like this if we were screwed?” I pointed out mildly. “I definitely wouldn’t be this calm about it.” When the other girl gave me a weird look, I added, “It’s okay. Trust me. Klassin and his father aren’t on speaking terms. He’s on our side, or rather, on Mom’s side. He was a spy for them.”

So I explained the rest of it, how the formerly named Jonathan’s experience with the Alters who had saved and protected him had changed his mind about them, and how he had spied on his father and the rest of the Crossroads Heretics. I told her that he basically disowned his father and took a new identity after it became clear that he couldn’t stop them from erasing Mom’s identity to destroy the rebellion.

“Why didn’t Gaia tell you about him, though?” Koren wanted to know. “You said before that she told you you could absolutely trust Dare, Nevada, Kohaku, and Katarin. Why wasn’t Klassin on that list?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted while shaking my head. “I need to talk to her about it and find out. Hopefully before we leave for vacation tomorrow. Maybe it has something to do with her not wanting to give away that Ruthers was his father before he was ready to tell me himself. Privacy or something.”

“Maybe.” Koren murmured. “Speaking of fathers, what about Sands and Scout? Are you telling them?”

Again, I shook my head, this time more firmly. “No. Not yet. The last thing I want to do is drop a bomb like that on them just before we all split up for three weeks. They deserve better than that. I’m not going to ruin their image of their father right before Christmas. I’m just… not gonna do that to them.”

There was silence for a few seconds before she gave a slight nod. Her voice was a hoarse, somehow painful whisper. “Fair enough. You wouldn’t want to destroy their memory of their father.”

Normally, I would have flinched then. Probably even changed the subject. This time, however, I looked at her directly. I saw the conflicting emotions in her eyes and reached out to touch the girl’s arm. “Koren,” I murmured. “There’s something else. I talked to Klassin some more after all that happened. I talked to him about my mom, about what he remembered. And eventually, I started thinking about… about your dad. About how you and your mom can’t remember him. I… talked to Klassin about it.”

She whipped around a bit, eyes wide as she stared at me. “You talked to him about my dad?”

Seeing the reflexive anger there, I held up both hands. “I know, I know. But listen. Like I said, there’s more, and it’s important. I—here.” Turning, I put my fingers to my lips and gave a sharp whistle.

“Flick, what’re y–” Koren started before falling silent as a figure emerged from the jungle where he had been waiting for me to give the signal. She stared that way. “Wait, isn’t that the… Runner guy?”

“Tribald Kine,” the tall, incredibly thin man himself confirmed while moving closer to us. “It’s nice to meet you, Miss Fellows.” To me, he nodded. “And a pleasure to see you again, Miss Chambers.”

Koren still looked confused. “Flick,” she demanded uneasily, “what’s he doing here? What’s going on?”

“It’s okay,” I assured the other girl. “Like I said, I talked to Klassin and he… well, he told me about Tribald, and said he could help. I asked him to wait until I gave the signal, so I could have a chance to talk to you about the rest of it first.” Looking toward the man himself, I added, “You can help, right?”

“How?” Koren sounded defensive and a bit critical. Not that I blamed her, after all she’d been through. Her inability to remember her father was a sore spot. “Are you going to do some kind of magic spell?”

Tribald’s head shook. “No,” he said quietly, without looking away from her intense stare. “I’m not going to do a spell, Miss Fellows. I am going to tell you about the kind of man that your father was.”

I saw the flicker of emotion in her eyes before she clamped down on it. Her disbelief and cynicism outweighed her hope as she repeated her question. “How? No one remembers him. The Fomorian made sure of that. He deleted the memories of every single person who knew my dad.” Her hand waved vaguely, voice rising almost hysterically. “And why would you know anything about him anyway?”

Tribald’s own voice was soft, and kind. “Because he was my… distant relative, my cousin’s grandson. And,” he added thoughtfully, “I suppose the Fomorian didn’t actually realize that I had any connection to him. I didn’t exactly advertise the fact that I played matchmaker in that situation, after all.”

The doubt and cynicism within Koren kept warring its way through her expression, but her need to know the truth eventually won out. “You–” She stopped, swallowing hard through an obvious lump in her throat. “You’re… wait, we’re related too? You and me, we’re also related?”

“Somewhat distantly, yes,” Tribald confirmed. “I believe the technical term is ‘first cousin, three times removed.’”

“And you remember.” Koren sounded dazed then, like it was just really hitting her. “You remember my dad. You remember him. You can… you can tell me… tell me about him? You can tell me about my father?” There was visible wetness in her eyes that she blinked away rapidly. “Like… his name?”

Tribald reached out, his hand taking hers gently. “His name was Kenneth, Miss Fellows. Your father’s name was Kenneth. And I can tell you a lot more than that.”

“Take a walk,” I suggested when it became clear that Koren couldn’t find her voice. “You guys deserve some privacy.” Gesturing out into the ocean, I added, “I need to spend time with my sharks anyway.”

So they did. For a few seconds, I watched as the two of them moved out of my sight, their voices a soft murmur in the cool evening air. Then I turned away, giving them their space as I moved into the ocean to whistle for my ocean-bound friends.

Maybe I could never give Koren her own memories back. Maybe she’d never actually remember him.

But thanks to Tribald Kine, she would know who he was.

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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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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting for a long time, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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Second Hunt 16-01

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“You know, a lot of people would be pretty freaked out at the idea of having a bunch of sharks as pets.”

After murmuring those words, Koren looked over at me as the two of us continued to tread water a good distance away from the beach. We’d come out this far so that my ocean-bound friends could visit without freaking out the rest of the students who were trying to swim and enjoy themselves.

It was Friday, the eighth of December, about a week since that little hospital trip. December. In Wyoming, I would’ve been slugging my way through a foot or so of snow, freezing my tookus off. Here, I was swimming in the ocean.

My shiver of sharks had found us immediately, the six them swimming around us, preening and vying for attention. “But you just sort of roll with it,” Koren continued, “like they’re puppies or something.”

“Aww,” I shook my head, reaching out to catch hold of Jabberjaw as the pretty blue and white shark swam close enough. He turned toward my touch, practically nuzzling up against me as I held onto him so that I was pulled around in a circle. “They’re better than puppies, Koren! They’re awesome! And look at this guy.” Using one hand to hold onto Jabberjaw, I indicated his sleek form. “Isn’t he pretty?”

For her part, Koren started to chuckle before giving a soft yelp as the yellow Lemon shark bumped up against her from behind. She turned, only to blink the shark bumped her again. “Uh, are you sure this-”

Letting go of Jabberjaw, I kicked over that way while nodding. “Shh, it’s okay, Simpson. Koren just needs to get to know you.” Stopping there, I put my hand on the shark’s snout before looking back to the other girl. “Simpson’s a cuddly one. She likes to be hugged. Like this, see?” To demonstrate, I let myself slip through the water a bit before wrapping both arms and legs around the yellow-tinted shark. Then I held on while she took me for a quick circuit, dropping under the water, then up again toward the end as we returned to where Koren was watching. Letting go, I gestured. “Go ahead, you try.”

Still, she hesitated for a moment while eyeing Simpson carefully. “You’re really, completely sure it’s safe?” Even as she asked, Koren reached out to put a hand against the shark’s side testingly before giving a soft gasp. “Wow, it feels… rough. Like sandpaper. I thought her skin would be all… smooth.”

“It looks like it should be, huh?” I agreed before swimming closer to pat Simpson reassuringly. “Trust me, it’s perfectly safe. These guys are my friends, they wouldn’t hurt you unless I wanted them to.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Koren continued to tread water while replying slyly, “Check, no more saying stupid, mean things without thinking about it or Aunt Flick’ll sic her pet sharks on me. Got it.”

Snorting in spite of myself, I put a hand on the Bull shark that had just swum up to me and ran it down over the rough skin with a wink at the other girl. “See, Sherman? She’s already getting the right idea.”

After taking another breath to brace herself, Koren put both arms around Simpson and held on. A strangled squeal escaped the girl as the shark took her for a brief ride, diving under the water to do a languid figure eight that ended with her back up on the other side of me, sucking in long deep breaths.

“You okay?” I asked, smiling a little while waving a hand under the water toward the largest of my sharks, the Great White named Princess Cuddles. “She didn’t keep you down there too long, did she?”

Koren shook her head, still panting a little bit. “No, it was… holy crap. I always wanted to swim with dolphins, but this was—wow. Flick, this is an awesome power.” She released Simpson, slipping away to come closer to me. “I wonder if there’s a limit on how many sharks you can control.” Pausing, she looked at the figures swimming around us before amending, “Or maybe tame is a better word for it.”

By that point, Princess Cuddles had maneuvered herself directly beneath us. “Incoming,” I warned the other girl while gesturing down. As Koren glanced that way, the Great White rose up, lifting the two of us onto her back before she barely breached the surface of the water. Reaching down, Koren and I held onto the shark as she began to slowly swim in a wide circle, moving carefully enough that we could simply sit there on either side of the large fin in the middle of her back, holding onto it with one hand.

“And tame is probably the best word,” I confirmed once we were settled in place, legs sticking off the side of the lazily swimming massive shark. “I don’t feel like I’m outright controlling them. It’s more like they’re really well-trained animals. And I think my power sort of… makes them a little smarter? I’m not sure, exactly.”

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “And I’m not sure if I could tame more of them or not. Maybe these six are my limit. I mean, there’s gotta be a limit, right? I’m not Aquaman.”

“Maybe we should test it sometime.” Koren offered with a shrug. “Can you imagine having a hundred sharks like these guys all patrolling the ocean around the island, doing whatever you want them to?”

Coughing at that, I shook my head. “I still can’t imagine having six of these guys. But here we are.”

Leaning back a little, I patted Princess Cuddles before looking toward the other girl. “You wanna see something really cool?” When she gave a hesitant nod, I whistled loudly, two short and one long.

Almost immediately at the sound, my two near-identical sharks, the Makos that I called Brody and Quint, poked their snouts out of the water just ahead of where our enormous ride was taking us.

“Hey, guys!” I called to them, waving the hand that I wasn’t using to hold onto Princess Cuddles’ fin. “Let’s show Koren what you can do, okay? Remember, Brody won last time, so Quint goes first!”

Koren looked to me as the sharks went under the water again. “Quint goes first? What’re they doing?”

Grinning with anticipation, I shook my head and pointed out toward a spot ahead of us. “Just watch.”

The two of us sat there on Princess Cuddles, watching the light waves through the ocean water for a few long, silent seconds. Then, just as Koren was starting to ask how long we needed to wait, the semi-still surface of the water was broken by a figure lunging out of it. Quint breached the surface, the ten-foot long shark leaping a solid fourteen feet into the air before turning over into an impressive flip.

He had just crashed back down into the water before his brother duplicated his maneuver. Brody, however, managed to get up to about seventeen feet before falling back into the ocean with a splash.

“Holy shit!” Koren’s eyes were wide as she stared out there. “They just—they really—that was–”

“Pretty awesome, huh?” I grinning and gave a short whistle of approval before clapping. “Whoo! Good job, you guys! Dolphins eat your hearts out! Go ahead, you two. See if you can beat your old record!”

The two of them dove down to jump again, while I looked to the girl beside me. “So, comfortable enough to do a little diving?” I’d brought her out with me to use the magic air-producing collars that Professor Carfried had taught us to make, now that I was absolutely sure I was doing the spell right.

She started to answer, only to go silent as Brody and Quint did their thing again. That time, Koren clapped as well, cheering them alongside me. Then she looked back and nodded. “Sure, let’s try it.”

“Great!” I grinned, reaching up to the collar that I had worn out to the water. As I activated the spell on it, Koren did the same with her own. The two of us looked at each other before sliding off the massive shark’s back. As we dove under the surface of the ocean, the spell on the collar kicked in and I could breathe just as easily as if we had still above the water. Taking a couple deep breaths just to be sure, I looked toward the other girl to give her a thumbs up. She returned the gesture, and then we turned our attention to the wide open ocean beneath us. My six sharks came swimming in to check us out, and then together, the eight of us began to explore that indescribably beautiful underwater world.

Pretty good for a girl who had grown up in the middle of Wyoming.

******

“Go ahead and call me Santa Claus, Flickster, cuz I’ve got a couple early Christmas presents for you.”

Sitting in one of the extremely comfy armchairs in the lounge a few hours later, I lifted my head to see the grinning Columbus. “Pressies?” I replied with an eager bounce as I made my eyes light up like a little kid. “I get early pressies? Oooh!” Clapping a couple times, I added excitedly, “I hope it’s a pony!”

The boy took the time to lift the goggles from his eyes so I could see him roll them dramatically. “Sorry,” he retorted dryly, “I’m pretty sure you’re gonna have to ask someone else for the pony thing.”

“Nerts.” Smiling anyway, I heaved a dramatic, put-upon sigh. “It was worth a shot. I shall remain forever ponyless. Just me, wandering a wasteland of monsters with narry a four-hoofed friend to call-”

“Flick,” Columbus interrupted, “you have an entire pack of sharks that basically call you Mommy.”

Grinning at that, I gave him a thumbs-up from each hand. “Good point. Water ponies! With big teeth.” Straightening, I added, “Koren came out with me today to go exploring out there. We found a couple underwater caves. I wanna take the rest of you guys out too, so we can check them out a little more.”

The boy looked doubtful for a moment. “You mean go out in the ocean with those sharks? The big ones with the dead eyes and the teeth that go, “Arrgh rar!” He gnashed his teeth together demonstratively.

Scoffing at that, I jabbed him with two fingers. “First of all, they do not go ‘Arrgh rar’, doofus. Sharks don’t roar. I’m pretty sure at least most of them can’t make any sound. They’re not lions. They’re silent, stealthy predators. It’s not like they’re gonna give you this big warning that they’re about to come up–”

“Flick,” Columbus interrupted. “Aren’t you supposed to be talking me into going out there with you?”

Grinning, I shook my head. “Oh, I don’t have to. I’ll just tell Shiori and she’ll bully you into going out.” In demonstration, I gestured to the other side of the lounge, where the girl herself was busy schooling her two male teammates (Gavin and Stephen) at Tekken. You’d think they’d learn better at some point.

The poor boy heaved a sigh at that, shaking his head with clearly mock sadness. “I am so abused.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you suffer so much.” I poked him again before pushing myself up to my feet. Rubbing my hands together, I pressed, “Now if it’s not a pony, what’d ya bring me? Huh, huh, huh?”

Clearly amused, the boy reached into the bag that he’d brought. “Two things. First, here.” He passed me a small metal cylinder about the size of a cell phone case. It even had a clip to attach to my belt. “I already filled it up for you. There’s two hundred pounds of sand in there, so you should be good for awhile. And for the record,” he added while passing it to me, “next time you get to fill the thing up.”

“Oh!’ Quickly taking it, I examined the thing carefully. Sure enough, when I flipped the lid up with my thumb, I could see the sand inside. And stretching my Arenakinetic (According to Vanessa, that was what my sand-manipulation was called) sense down through it revealed a hell of a lot more inside.

“Holy shit, dude,” I quickly hugged the boy. “That’s awesome! Thanks for making this, seriously.”

Flushing with obvious embarrassment, Columbus returned the hug. “Hey, don’t worry about it. That’s what the Development track is supposed to do. Besides, Avalon helped, and we got to turn it in for a grade from Nevada. So really, it’s not a big deal. Just use it to kick ass the next time you get in trouble.”

“You know it,” I replied easily, smiling as I flicked a finger to make a tendril of sand snake up out of the container. After flicking it around a few times testingly, I slipped the sand back inside before clipping the thing to my belt. Smiling in satisfaction once it was there, I looked back to him. “Thanks.”

Shrugging again, he cleared his throat before reaching to his pack once more. “This is the one that I did by myself. I figured since you keep getting in trouble, you could probably use every little advantage you can get.” From the bag, the boy withdrew… a watch and held it out to me. “Here, put this on.”

“Ooh!” Shiori was making her way over to the two of us. Apparently her teammates had decided enough was enough. Now they were playing the game against each other. Trying to practice, apparently. “Is that the thing?” the Asian girl asked as she approached, her face bright with eagerness.

“Yup,” Columbus confirmed with a broad, proud smile. “Just giving Flick her early Christmas presents. Figured since we’re going out on that hunt tonight, they might actually be useful now rather than later.”

Yeah, we were actually going out on another official, sanctioned training hunt. For once, there hadn’t been an interruption or anything else. Then again, the night was still young and we weren’t there yet.

“Well good,” Shiori bounced on her heels a bit, “Maybe I won’t be so scared of Christmas this year.”

Blinking in confusion at that as I held the watch, I asked hesitantly, “You’re scared of Christmas?”

Behind me, I heard Columbus groan while Shiori lit up adorably. “Sure!” she chirped, not sounding afraid whatsoever. “It’s a problem with the whole Santa thing. I’m–” She coughed. “Claustrophobic.”

“Claustro—oh god.” My own groan matched Columbus’s while I shook my head. “Damn it, Shiori!”

If the girl’s bright laugh was any indication, she wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of herself. Instead, she pushed at my hand eagerly. “Go on, put it on, put it on,” Shiori urged. “Trust me, Flick, this is so cool! He made me practice with it before, just to make sure it wasn’t gonna cut your hand off or anything.”

My hand shot into the air then. “Uh, two questions. One, that could happen?! And uh, second…” Turning my attention toward Columbus, I stared at the boy. “If it could, you made Shiori test it out?!”

Flushing and coughing, he made a few vague gestures. “It’s fine, it’s just fine, I promise. Trust me, Flick. I just had to make sure it was calibrated right and all that. Please, just put it on. Oh, but you have to put it so the face is on the inside of your wrist, not the outside. You know, like fancy people do.”

“Fancy people…” I echoed before shaking my head as I put the watch on as instructed, with the band outward and the face itself on the inside of my wrist. “Like this? Hey, it is a nice watch.” It was one of those old watches with the actual hands rather than a digital face. “But I do have a phone, you know.”

“Your phone can’t do this,” Columbus assured me. “You still have that knife? The one your–” He paused, catching himself just in time before accidentally mentioning my mother. “–friend gave you?”

“Sure.” Nodding easily, I bent down to tug the silver knife out of the sheathe that was attached to my ankle, showing it to him. “I wanted to keep it as close as possible, because…” Pausing, I shrugged. “You know.”

Both of them murmured agreement while Columbus took the knife. “Okay, here, turn your hand over.” He adjusted my wrist and pushed down and in against the watch face. As he did so, the thing popped out a couple inches and opened up on the side facing my palm. With a wink at me, the boy carefully pushed the knife inside the opening, handle first until it seemed to click into place. Then he gave the watch face another gentle push until it closed back up again.

“Okay, now…” Columbus instructed after releasing my wrist. “Hold your hand out like this.” He demonstrated by holding his own hand down with his fingers in a loose approximation of a grip. “Then snap your fingers twice and put your hand back the way it was.”

Shrugging, I followed his lead. Holding my hand down in the same position, I snapped twice before putting it back.

A second later, the watch reopened and the knife shot out of it to land in my loose grip. Catching it, my eyes widened. “Whoa! You—damn, Columbus. You made this?”

He nodded, grinning at me.

“See?” Shiori nudged my arm. “Told you it was cool.”

“Like I said,” Columbus put in with another shrug, “I figured it might come in handy someday. Besides, it was… from your friend, so it’s kinda special.”

Biting my lip, I gave him another hug. “Thanks.” Then Shiori got a hug as well. “And thank you for testing it.”

She started to say something, but before she could, another voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Columbus, Flick!”

It was Deveron. He leaned around the door, looking toward us expectantly. “You guys ready to go?”

“Oh, right.” Looking toward Shiori, I gave the girl a thumbs up. “Good luck with your team tonight.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, sure, yeah. Good um, good luck with you too. Your team, I mean. With the hunting and all that.”

The two of us just sort of stood there for a second until Columbus nudged me. Shaking myself out of it, I started over with him to head out with Deveron so we could join the rest of the team for our second hunt.

God, I hoped there were no more wolves.

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Medical Leave 15-01

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“I swear to Prosser, Chambers,” Avalon’s grumpy voice insisted as the two of us walked down the hallway, “if you ask me one more time if I’m all right, I’m going to be forced to hurt you very, very badly.”

It was about a week after the events of Thanksgiving. Friday morning, to be specific. Breakfast was over, and we were both on our way to our first class of the day: Introduction to Heretical Magic.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I held up both hands apologetically while walking backwards so I could face the other girl. “It’s just that, well… you know.” Trailing off weakly, I looked up to see her glaring at me.

“Just what?” She leaned on her crutches (yeah, crutches) and squinted at me pointedly. “Even with these things, I could still kick your ass up and down this corridor. You want me to prove it?” In spite of her actual words, I could tell she was just lashing out at the very idea of feeling weak in any way.

Because as it turned out, things back at Crossroads didn’t completely freeze while I wasn’t there to see them. Apparently, someone had tried to kill Avalon again while we were gone. This time, it had happened while she and Scout were on their way along the beach to feed Choo. Someone had knocked out Scout before hitting Avalon with some kind of… of drug or poison. The drug had completely paralyzed the girl’s limbs. She could move her head, but her arms and legs were helpless. Then that person had dragged her to the last few feet to the ocean and shoved her head under the water.

Thinking about how that must have felt, how terrifying it had to have been, made me feel sick to my stomach. No matter how okay Avalon pretended she was, I knew how much taking care of herself, defending herself, meant to her. The fact that someone had managed to paralyze her limbs so she couldn’t, and then tried to drown her… I thought of how I would feel with my head forced under the water and held there while I remained completely incapable of moving my arms or legs in any way.

With that in mind, was it any big surprise that I had really wanted to hug the other girl all week long?

Anyway, whoever had tried to kill Avalon might have finished the job if the protection spell (the one that I now knew Wyatt had put on her) hadn’t done its job. Professor Kohaku and Gaia had both shown up within seconds of each other. But as soon as they had arrived, the shadowy figure had vanished.

They had pulled the nearly drowned Avalon out of the water and took her to medical. She recovered, of course. But apparently whatever magic poison she’d been hit with was going to take time to completely flush out of her system. Which meant that she’d be walking with crutches for a few more days, since her legs weren’t responsive enough to walk normally. Needless to say, she was even more grumpy than usual over the situation, especially since certain people (like me) kept asking if she was okay.

Now, I shook my head. “No, no. That’s okay. You don’t have to prove it. I get it, you’re still a complete badass. If anything, you’re even tougher now because you’re already holding a couple things you can beat me with.” I gestured to the crutches before reaching out to open the door that led to the classroom.

“Damn straight,” she assured me before making her way past and into the room. I heard the murmur of conversation beyond dip a bit as the people noticed her before gradually picking up again. Still, as I followed her, I saw several other students still staring at my roommate as the two of us made our way across the miniature auditorium-like room to the table where our team was set up. And that, of course, was another source of Avalon’s annoyance. People wouldn’t stop staring at her. I mean, people stared at Avalon all the time. Especially when she was running or working out. Because duh, look at her. But this was different. Now they were either looking at her with pity because she’d almost died, or with suspicion because yet again she had (supposedly) been responsible for bringing a threat to the school.

It was annoying. I was annoyed, so I couldn’t even begin to guess how Avalon felt about the situation. But she mostly ignored people unless they actually confronted her. Zeke Levin’s nose had already been broken once (it healed quickly, of course) from one of the nasty comments that he had made. After that, most of the other students had backed off and limited themselves to staring and obviously talking behind her back. Which was still annoying and stupid, but at least they weren’t pushing her further.

On the way to the table, I noticed Koren looking at us as well. When she saw me glance that way, the other girl held her hand close to her chest to make her motions less obvious before extending her pinkie and thumb out in the pantomime of a phone. Then she formed a circle with her thumb and index finger, with her other fingers raised above it. The ‘okay’ sign. She’d called her mom and things were still okay.

The sign made me let out a breath of relief. Of course, Koren was calling several times a day, but she always let me know when she’d checked in. She was using the phone that I’d gotten from Gaia to check in. I’d let her borrow it over the week since, to be completely fair, Abigail was her mother. She deserved to be able to check on her any time she wanted to. Anything to make her feel better about not being able to be there with her constantly. I had a pretty good idea of how that felt, and it sucked.

Obviously, Abigail was too old to be one of the normal Eden’s Garden students (though Seller had said he was going to work with her on at least basic knowledge of how to protect herself). Fortunately, this apparently wasn’t a completely unheard of situation. There had been older people made Heretics before, both accidentally or purposefully. So they had other plans of what to do in those situations. In this particular case, Seller had taken her on as essentially an apprentice. In addition to teaching her to protect herself, he was going to help her find another job within the Garden itself. Abigail had several choices. There was taking care of the various Alter-animals that they kept around, being a teacher of one of the Bystander-type subjects, taking care of the kids that were too young to be students, and a few other possibilities. Apparently Abigail hadn’t actually decided which one of them she was going to do.

Well, to be completely accurate, Abigail did know what she wanted to do. She wanted to change everything about Heretical society. She wanted to free all the Alters that the Garden was basically keeping as slaves, rewrite their laws, and essentially bitch-slap everyone involved in perpetuating the ‘every Alter is an evil abomination that needed to be massacred’ lie. So yeah, she knew what she wanted to do. But it was taking time to figure out what she would do for the moment.

When Avalon and I reached the spot where most of the rest of our team was (Sean hadn’t arrived yet), we found Shiori there as well. She was perched on the end of the table, talking to her brother. As the two of us approached, the cute little Asian girl glanced up before blushing just a little bit. “Oh, uh, hey, Flick. Hi, Avalon.” Her gaze lingered slightly before she flinched and looked away. I knew she felt guilty about the fact that Scout had been hurt and Avalon almost killed on their way to feed her little friend. Both of the girls had told her repeatedly not to worry about it, that they could’ve been out for any reason and the attack could have happened at any time. But it clearly didn’t stop all of her guilt.

In spite of that, she still smiled a little bit after taking a moment to collect herself. Returning her gaze to me, the other girl asked with that entirely too innocent tone that came whenever she was trying to tell one of her jokes, “Hey, Flick. What kind of coffee do incredibly pregnant cows like to drink?”

Despite groans from the others, I willingly took the bait. “I dunno, what kind of coffee do they like?”

Her frankly adorable smile widened even more then, and Shiori promptly answered, “Decalf.”

Our giggles were drowned out by the chorus of groans from Columbus, Avalon, and Sands. Scout just sat there smiling quietly to herself. Then another voice spoke up. “Hey, what’d I miss this time?” Sean was there, with Vulcan in tow. The boy stood at the other side of the table, already pulling out his chair.

Rather than explain the joke, or even say it again like she usually would have, Shiori just looked at Sean for a moment. Her face flushed a little for an entirely different reason before she pushed herself off the table. “I’ll—uh, I’ll see you guys later,” the girl spoke a little awkwardly before walking away.

I sighed inwardly in spite of myself, noticing the way Sean winced. Yeah, Shiori wasn’t exactly happy with him. Actually, she was kind of pissed. Apparently, he’d unthinkingly mentioned her little secret to his uncle and the man’s boyfriend, the one who had come to help Roxa. Both of them were fine with it, of course. But the fact remained that Sean had spilled her secret without actually asking her first. And as scared as the other girl was about the wrong people finding out about her, she hadn’t taken the news well. Ever since the initial scene where she’d pretty much laid into him about telling people things that weren’t his to tell, Shiori hadn’t really spoken more than a couple words directly to the boy all week.

Sighing, Sean took his seat before looking at his roommate. “Sorry, man. I deserve it. I should’ve asked her if it was okay before I went to see my uncle. I just thought it was okay since, well, you know.”

We did. His uncle was dating a werewolf. Obviously he wasn’t going to start blabbing about Shiori’s half-vampire state. But I also knew why Shiori was upset. Trustworthy or not, it was a big secret. And it was hers. It was her life. She should be the one who had control of it, who got to decide who knew. Sean had told two men that Shiori herself had never met. I didn’t blame her for being upset about it.

But I did hope that the two of them worked it out soon. I really didn’t like it when people I cared about were mad at each other. It made me feel sick inside despite myself. Which I guessed stemmed mostly from a childhood of believing that my mother had willingly and maliciously abandoned Dad and me.

Meanwhile, Columbus just shook his head at Sean. “Hey, it’s between you and her. Don’t worry though, I think she’ll be okay. Just apologize whenever she gives you a chance, and leave her alone until then.”

Sean was nodding while the door to the class opened and Professor Carfried entered. The young teacher was carrying a bag over one shoulder, whistling as he headed for the middle of the little pit area. “Good morning, class!” the man announced once he’d reached the center of the room, next to some kind of huge empty fish tank that had already been sitting there. Holding the bag up, he let his gaze pass over the students quickly to make sure we were all present and accounted for. “Everyone here? No one missing in action or still asleep in their breakfast? Perfect, let’s get started then, because we’ve got a lot to go over today.” He grinned at us. “It’s time to learn a brand new spell!”

With that, Carfried opened up the bag and dumped it out on the nearby table. Several dozen silvery metal collars fell into view, scattering over the surface. Necklaces, I realized after a second.

“All right, one person from each team come up and get necklaces for the rest of your group,” Carfried announced. “Don’t be shy, there’s one for everyone. And yes, boys, you’ll be wearing them too.”

Sands went up for us, and I let my gaze flick over toward another of the tables, where there were only five people instead of six. Paul, Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and Isaac. Roxa’s team. As far as the five of them knew, Roxa had had some kind of family emergency that required her to take a leave of absence from the school. Gaia was trying to make it easier for Roxa to rejoin the school if (no, when, I sternly reminded myself) we managed to get that necklace from Pace so that her werewolf-side would be hidden. Her team wasn’t happy about losing her, but at least it would be safe for Roxa to come back.

As I glanced that way, I saw that one of them, Douglas, was staring at me. He was a skinny little guy that I had never seen without his black baseball cap with the New York Rangers logo. As far as I knew, he was Heretic-born, so I was curious about how he’d become a fan of them. Then again, Scout really liked the Minnesota Twins, so I supposed it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary or anything.

At the moment, the boy was kind of staring at me. I met his gaze, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then it seemed like he thought better of it and looked away, returning his attention to the rest of his table just as Paul, the tall, charismatic boy from Kentucky, came back to their table with a handful of the necklaces and started to hand them out. Doug took one and ignored me.

“What was that all about?” Columbus asked, drawing my attention back to them. He was looking between me and the other table where Douglas was, his eyebrows raised with obvious curiosity.

I shrugged. “Beats me. I don’t think I’ve said more than three words to Doug all year while we weren’t in class. Maybe he wants to ask me what it’s like being the roommate of the most gorgeous girl in school.”

A sharp pain in my ankle then reminded me that while Avalon didn’t have full use of her legs or feet, she did have a pair of crutches that she could use quite well. She was squinting at me, though I could see a slight pink color to her cheeks. “Knock it off, Chambers,” she muttered before shifting in her seat.

“Yeah.” Columbus grinned. “Besides, it doesn’t have to be her he’s interested in. I mean, you’re the one he’s staring at, and you’re not exactly an ugly hag yoursel–” That was as far as the boy got before I saw Avalon make a jerking motion under the table with her crutch, and his words turned into a yelp.

Thankfully for both my embarrassment and Columbus’s shins, Sands returned with the necklaces then and spread them over the table. I picked one up, trying once more to actually focus on class.

“Everyone have their chokers?” Carfried asked, glancing around the room curiously before nodding in satisfaction. “Excellent. Now, we’re going to turn them into not-chokers.” The man smiled at his own joke before clearing his throat. “Ah, what I mean is, we are going to use magic that will allow you to use the choker to breathe, even if you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If you’re wearing one of these after they have the appropriate spells on them and you activate it, you will be able to breathe through poison gas, under water, or in any environment where oxygen is unavailable. With your skill and strength levels as far as magic goes, you should all be able to make a necklace that lasts about one hour after activation.”

Around the room, I saw several students glance toward our table. Specifically, toward Avalon. And I heard Zeke mutter sarcastically, “Gee, I wonder what prompted this lesson.”

“Well,” Professor Carfried spoke up clearly and loudly, addressing the boy. “I was going to ask for a volunteer to demonstrate, but it seems like we already have one. Thank you, Mr. Levin. Come on down here.” He gestured with a hand. “Come on, come on. Don’t be shy all of a sudden. And don’t worry, I’m not going to choke you. We’ll start with something much safer: terrible smells.”

With that, Carfried pointed a hand to the nearby empty fish tank that I’d noticed earlier. From his pocket, he withdrew two stones with writing on them. “Smell of rotting eggs,” he announced before dropping the stone in the tank. “And smell of full baby diapers.” Then he dropped the second stone.

“Come then, Mr. Levin. We’ll start by letting you poke your head in the tank to take a nice big sniff. See how long you can last. Then we’ll see how very helpful the oxygen spell actually is.”

Zeke looked like he wanted to do absolutely anything else, including possibly punching the teacher. But he did what he was told anyway, despite his disgust. I almost felt a little sorry for him.

Class went on that way, and we all learned to make the magic collars. Personally, I was actually really happy about the lesson. Because it meant that I’d be able to spend more time with my sharks and really get down where they liked to swim.

Still, throughout the class and the rest of the day, one thing stayed on my mind. Tomorrow was Saturday, which meant we would be going to the hospital to see Tangle.

Hopefully, we’d find actual answers there about why she or someone was so obsessed with killing Avalon.

One way or another.

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