Koren Fellows

Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.

******

Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all, was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they were still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Suspects 24-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Fahsteth and Fossor posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Somehow, three hours had passed between the time that I’d passed out and when Roxa’s call had awakened me. That was an almost absurdly long amount of sleep for me ever since I’d gained the Amarok’s power. But after the night I’d had, apparently I’d really needed the rest.

And if the first five seconds of the new day that I’d experienced so far was any indication, it wasn’t going to be any slower or less active than the last one. But hey, at least I’d had three hours of sleep. For me, that was practically like crashing for twelve straight. I’d even slept through both the usual morning workout that I had with Avalon and the school-mandated one. Apparently Gaia had let me take a break from that after the night we’d had.

I was also on my feet before consciously realizing what I was doing. “What?” I blurted, glancing toward Avalon’s side of the room. Her bed was empty, unsurprisingly. It was Tuesday, and almost halfway through breakfast. Which meant she’d probably been up for at least an hour.

Roxa repeated, “Werewolves, we’re looking at them. And I don’t just mean ourselves. It’s Lemuel’s pack, and the other packs he’s called in for whatever meeting they’re having. They’re all over the place. It’s basically a furry convention, Flick. Only with psycho-murdering fucksticks.”

“But I–” Taking a breath, I let it out before making sure once again that my privacy-spell was up. “I thought that big meeting wasn’t supposed to happen yet. We had time, didn’t we? You knew where they were going, so you were supposed to be able to get ahead of them and set up.”

Roxa’s voice was dry. “Yeah, well, I guess their plans changed. Something about losing their Heretic tech specialist and their attempt to abduct the father of the person responsible for that going up in flames. So everything just got thrown into warp drive or something, because their whole camp is up and hopping. There’s dozens of them, Flick, and they’re already getting their marching orders. If we don’t do something about this today, we’re gonna lose them again.”

“Shit,” I muttered out loud, staring up at the ceiling of the dorm room for a second to gather my thoughts before asking, “Okay, how long do you think we have before they take off?”

“The one good thing about having so many werewolves around down there is that some of us can get close enough to overhear things without being sniffed out,” the other girl replied. “Not me, because, well, Heretic. But the others. Apparently Lemuel’s main group is heading out at ten after four, once they give everyone their big recruitment speeches and marching orders.”

“Okay, okay, that’s…” I shook my head, groaning. “It’s better than it could be. Twenty-five minutes after the last class ends. That gives us just that long to find a way to get over there.”

“You sure Headmistress Sinclaire wouldn’t just find a way to excuse you from class?” Roxa asked, a bit incredulously. “I mean, this seems like something she’d be pretty okay with.”

Sighing, I explained, “It doesn’t really matter what she’s okay with right now.” Then I went on to tell her that the real problem was that we had two representatives from the Committee sniffing around. “And I’m pretty sure they’d notice if we just up and missed a whole day of classes.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Roxa muttered. “Hold on a sec.” She went off the phone for a minute, and I could make out the muffled sound of her talking to someone else before coming back on. “Okay, we’ll scout everything out and get the Wonderland people set up. If you’re not here by four oh five, we’re hitting them and making the best of it. That’s as late as we can push it.”  

Twenty minutes. That meant that, once classes ended, we had twenty minutes to get there before the fight started, one way or another, whether we were there or not. Twenty minutes to get out of class, meet up, and get off the island. Not to mention getting briefed on what was going on before the actual fight, and before Lemuel’s group took off. That was pushing it, a lot.

But we didn’t have any other choice. “We’ll be there,” I promised her. “Somehow, I’m not sure of the specifics yet. But we’ll be there. We won’t leave you guys on your own for this, Roxa.”

There was a pause from the other end for a second before the girl asked, “Your dad, he’s okay?”

I coughed at that. “Yeah, actually. He’s–” Pausing briefly, I finally shook my head absently. “Uh, it’s a long story. Trust me, I’ll tell you about it later. But he’s okay. He’s safe, for the moment.”

After promising again that we’d find a way to be there, I disconnected and sent a quick text to Asenath to make sure they’d made it to the camp okay and to let her know what was going on. Then I sent another text to Avalon, asking where she was before heading for the shower. At the very least, I could soak with the hot water a little bit and let my brain wake up before classes started (not to mention letting it work on the little problem of how to get off the island secretly).

By the time I got out of the shower, there was a response from Avalon letting me know that she was in the cafeteria with the rest of the team, including Deveron. Which made me pause, wincing a little bit. Right, they were gonna want to know what happened the night before. Which… we couldn’t exactly tell them the truth. If one of them was possessed and found out everything we’d learned from Fahsteth, it might push them to do something bad. But if we held back too much and they figured out we were lying, that might also push them over the edge.

Not to mention, we still had the cure for Tangle. Somehow, we needed to get it to her before the Seosten found out and killed her. Maybe that one would be best just to hand to Gaia, as much as I wanted to be in the room when the woman woke up. Then again, what if they had some kind of failsafe for if Gaia showed up there and looked like she might accomplish something? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to go with something more subtle? The Seosten were less likely to think that someone like me could break Tangle out of her coma than someone like Gaia.

Thinking about that, I dressed quickly and started out after paying a quick visit back to the room to grab my books and visit with Jaq and Gus in their box. I gave the two a bag of nuts and bolts for a treat, along with a broken Gameboy that Avalon had scrounged up. The little cyberform mice seemed to like putting things like that back together and making gadgets work again.

I still hadn’t thought of how we were going to get past the Committee guys to leave the island, aside from just asking Gaia if she had any ideas. And somehow, I was pretty sure that they were watching any interaction with the headmistress especially closely. It might come down to that, but I wanted to at least try to come up with another idea first. I knew there was something. A thought, half-formed, kept tickling its way at my brain, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

As I left the dorm building, brow furrowed thoughtfully and the books for my first few classes under one arm, a voice abruptly spoke up from nearby. “Good morning, Miss Chambers.”

It was Patrick. The dark-skinned Heretic was still wearing a stiffly-pressed suit. The only reason I knew it wasn’t the same set of clothes was the slightly different color shirt and tie. He was standing on the grass, a few yards away from the doors to the girl’s dorm. Not creepy at all.

Spinning on one heel, I blinked at the man. “Oh, uh… hey. Can I help you with something?”

His head shook faintly. “No. Just thought I’d make sure you feel up to class today. After all, you had a long night.” Lifting his chin a bit, he added, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from your dad?”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare seemed to materialize behind me. “I’m sure that Miss Chambers will let us know if her father makes contact,” she informed the man before looking at me. “He does have a point though, are you sure you’re ready for class today?”

Oh, how tempting would it be to get out of classes by saying no. But I was pretty sure that if I did that, I’d have Patrick and his partner all over me for the rest of the day. If I was actually going to get out of here at all, I had to make it look like things were as normal as they could possibly be.

So, I just nodded. “I’m good, Professor Dare. My…” I swallowed then, letting my nerves show a little bit, since not being scared would’ve been a pretty big tip-off. “My dad, he’s… if they wanted him dead, whoever they are, they wouldn’t have bothered to save him from the wolves, right?”

Giving me a slight smile of encouragement, Dare nodded. “The investigators will find him, Miss Chambers, I promise you that. We just have to give them time to do their job. The Committee already dispatched a couple of hand-selected Runners to go over your house with a fine-toothed comb, just in case there’s any indication of who took him or what they want.”  

The wink that she added onto the end of that announcement was obviously meant to reassure me. I just hoped it meant that the house had already been sanitized of anything possibly incriminating that Asenath hadn’t had a chance to get rid of before they’d fled the night before.

“Thanks, Professor,” I murmured before gesturing. “I better grab some breakfast before class though. Can’t learn how to be a real monster-slaying badass on an empty stomach, you know.”

With a nod from both Dare and Patrick, I waved and started off. It took effort not to look over my shoulder as I jogged all the way to the other building, but I managed it. A few seconds later, I made my way into the cafeteria and looked around for a second. The first thing I saw was Paul Calburn and Isaac Acosta. The two members of Roxa’s former team were staring at me, neither of them doing much to hide it until I met their gazes. Then they turned away after a couple of seconds. 

That was… going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be an issue once we got Roxa that choker.

It wasn’t long after that before my eyes found my team. Sure enough, Sean, the twins (the ones who were part of my team), Columbus, and Deveron were all sitting around Avalon. The girl looked like she was about to stab someone with a fork.

Before I could take another step that way, my hand was abruptly closed around something. Blinking, I looked down to find myself holding a simple-looking ring. Before I could wonder too much about what it was, a familiar voice spoke in my head. Felicity, look up here for a moment.  

It was Gaia’s voice. Turning, I looked to the front of the room. Sure enough, the headmistress was up there. She gave me a slight nod before speaking in my head again. Wear the ring on your right hand. It will block most of the abilities that can be used to detect if you’re lying, and certainly any that our guests from the Committee would have. Anything you say will sound like the truth. If you wish for their abilities to be able to detect your lies for whatever reason, touch the stone on the ring for a few seconds. Until you touch it again, the ring will stop working.

Well, that was pretty helpful. Glancing down, I slipped the ring on my finger before nodding to the headmistress. She gave me a brief smile before turning her attention back to Professor Carfried and one of the third year teachers, who were both talking animatedly about something.

Then I noticed Koren. The brunette was sitting with her team, but her attention was on me. Noticing me looking, she mouthed, ‘Okay?’ Her expression was concerned. Obviously, she’d heard at least some of what happened. I gave her a nod and gestured to try and indicate that I’d talk to her later while adjusting the ring’s placement.

Just then, Sands caught sight of me. “Flick!” she called over the noise of the other students, waving me over. “Come on, you’re gonna miss breakfast.”

Smirking just a little, I stepped over that way and slid into a seat before replying easily, “And miss telling you guys about our zombie adventure, I assume?” The words almost caught in my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was lie to these guys. I wanted to tell them the truth about what had happened. But any of them, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Deveron, or Sean could be the one who was possessed by Charmiene. Any of them could be an unwitting spy for the Seosten.

So, I carried on the charade, gesturing at Avalon. “Hasn’t Valley told you everything interesting?”

“No!” Poor Sands sounded like she was about a hot second away from exploding. “She hasn’t told us anything! She just said, ‘We fought zombies. We won. We didn’t die.’ That’s it!”

Snickering despite myself, I shrugged. “Well, she’s not wrong. We fought zombies, we won, we didn’t die. Oh, and neither did Professor Dare.” Picking up the menu page then, I perused it briefly before selecting what I wanted and setting it back down. It disappeared, and a moment later, the tray appeared with my food on it. Which, for the record, was still pretty damn amazing.

Somehow, Sands didn’t seem as impressed. Giving me a dirty look, the girl cajoled, “Oh come on, why’d Dare take you guys and nobody else for a zombie run. Is that really all it was?”

The worst part of this whole situation was that I couldn’t tell if Sands was just being her usual enthusiastic self as far as the whole hunting monsters thing went, or if it was a Seosten inside her fishing for extra details. Looking at her now, there was absolutely no way to tell. I felt like I should be able to notice the difference, but there was just… I couldn’t. I couldn’t take the risk. And that was killing me, because not trusting most of the people on my team in a situation like this was pretty much one of the worst feelings in the world. We needed to sort this out and identify the Seosten, and quick. Which was why we had to get that choker away from Pace.  

“Well,” I shrugged a little bit even as my stomach turned over. “We were kind of… out anyway.” I coughed, making myself blush a little bit until Sands got what I was implying. As her face registered her realization, I nodded. “Yeah. So Professor Dare was talking to us when she got the call from her friend and… well, I guess she thought it’d be a good learning experience.”

Before I could say anything else about the fake zombie fight, Deveron spoke up while laying one of the privacy coins in the middle of the table. “Your dad,” he started, eyes on me. “Is he okay?”

“Wait,  what?” Sands blinked back and forth, clearly confused. “What happened to Flick’s dad?”

This, at least, I could tell the truth about. The Seosten knowing that Dad was with Gabriel wouldn’t reveal where they were exactly. And we already knew that none of the people in Gabriel’s camp were possessed, because they used that expulsion spell that he had taught us just to make sure. Which meant that they, at least, were off the list of potential suspects. And I couldn’t start holding every bit of sensitive information back. Whoever was possessed was bound to figure it out before long if I tried that, and then they’d know that I knew more than I should. Right now, the best advantage we had was that Charmiene didn’t know that I knew she was possessing one of my friends. And I couldn’t wait to rub that particular mistake in her face.

So, for the moment, I quietly explained what happened. Though I left out the bit about the Committee member stepping in. That I wanted to keep to myself. I just said that they were rescued by ‘some Heretic’ before going on to talk about Gabriel showing up to take them in.

By the end, they were all staring at me. Sean’s mouth was hanging open, his hand resting on Vulcan’s head, whose mouth was also open, like his partner’s. It looked kind of funny, actually. “Dude,” he announced quietly, almost reverently. “Your dad is staying with Gabriel Prosser?”

“I hope you realize,” Sands cut in with a slight hiss, “how much effort it’s taking not to squeal and jump up and down with you right now. I can’t believe your dad’s living with–wait what about the Bystander Effect? Did you ever find out how he got around that? Did it have something to do with that Heretic that showed up? Wait, who was the Heretic that saved them? I thought it was gonna be one of Prosser’s people, or even Prosser himself, but you never explained that part.”

Ignoring the pang in my stomach while inwardly telling myself that as soon as we identified the stupid spy, I was gonna tell the rest of the team everything. For now, I made myself shrug. “Gabriel said it wasn’t one of his people. Other than that, we’re not sure. I mean, really grateful, but still… I dunno.” Slowly shaking my head, I added, “Asenath didn’t recognize her either, so who knows.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t your mom?” Columbus spoke up then, head tilted a little curiously. “What if–I dunno, she convinced Fossor to let her save him in exchange for something. Or maybe he just didn’t want the Seosten getting hold of that kind of leverage over you. But–” Belatedly, he shook his head. “I guess Asenath would probably recognize her. Unless… she disguised herself?” His eyes widened then. “Hey, yeah. What if she disguised herself? I mean, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? She wouldn’t want your dad to recognize her, or any of the people that might’ve shown up. It’s gotta be your mom, right?”

If I hadn’t already known who the woman was, that might’ve convinced me. Slowly, I nodded. “Maybe, I–I don’t know. I’m not sure she could convince Fossor to let her, but… I…” Sighing, I rolled my eyes. “We’ve got too many mysteries going on.”

Taking another bite of food, I waited a moment before adding in a low voice, “Besides, if the guys the Committee sent to sniff around are right, Mom might’ve been busy killing a bunch of other Heretics last night.”

Everyone choked on their own food, blurting muffled questions at me until I explained what had happened. Which… didn’t really help. They had a lot more questions after that, most of which I couldn’t answer.

Before long, however, it was time to head for class. Which I did, even though most of my attention was devoted toward trying to work out the bigger problem of how I was supposed to get myself and the people I could trust off the island to help the others with Lemuel’s pack.

It wasn’t until midway through lunch, while telling Koren as much as I could about what had happened, that I figured it out.

******

“Flick?” Shiori asked while stepping into one of the empty classrooms at the end of the day, a minute after classes had ended. “Is everyone else –oh.” She blinked at the sight of the people with me. Specifically, Avalon, Tristan, and Vanessa. “Heya.”

“Thanks for coming, guys,” I started quickly. “We don’t have much time. But hey, at least Prosser’s spell did most of the explaining?”

Once I’d figured out what I was going to have to do, the next step had been making sure that everyone who could help was in on it. Since the only other students I knew for a fact weren’t possessed besides myself were Shiori, Avalon, and the Moon twins (for virtue of being hybrids and therefore immune to possession), they were who I had. To that end, I had used the spell that Prosser taught me, the one about writing information on a piece of paper and then sending it straight into the mind of the person who touched it, to let the four of them know as much as possible. I’d told them that Roxa’s pack had found Lemuel’s, that they were going to disappear if we didn’t get there as soon as possible, and in the twins’ case, that they were the only ones we knew for a fact weren’t possessed.

Vanessa and Tristan had had a lot more questions, and I’d been trying to answer them in the minute that we’d had before Shiori made it. But now, we had to move on.

“Listen,” I started. “None of you guys have to come with. Especially you two,” I added the last bit with a nod toward Tristan and Vanessa. “This isn’t about y–”

“Yes it is,” the boy interrupted. “Roxa wouldn’t even be a werewolf right now if it wasn’t for me. I’m gonna help.”

“And I’m not letting Tristan go without me,” Vanessa put in.

“Right.” Breathing out, I looked to Avalon. “Did you get the stuff from Gaia?”

She nodded once, pulling a bag from behind her back, which she opened before passing several silver knives to everyone. “If they get knocked out of your hand,” she instructed, “say ‘Retrieve’, and they’ll pop back to you. It’s the best thing to put the weres down for good.”

“And these,” Vanessa piped up. From her own bag, she produced a handful of small metal cylinders, about the size and shape of–

“Grenades?” Tristan blinked. “Nessa, when were you messing with explosives?”

“They’re not that kind of grenade,” the blonde informed her brother with a sniff. “You hit the button there and throw them, and they spray a chemical all over the place. These ones have aconite-laced oil in them.”

“Aconite,” I echoed. “That’s… wolfsbane?”

She nodded quickly. “The books said that it slows their regeneration, and irritates them. They’re allergic. It dulls their senses, makes them feel sick.”

“Right, let’s try to keep the stuff away from our wolves,” I pointed out before smiling. “Still, nice job pulling those together. I thought you weren’t in the Development track.”

She shrugged, nodding to the red trim in her uniform for the Explorers. “I’m not,” the girl replied. “But I like to learn things, and they won’t let me any deeper into the library yet, so…”

“So she’s been looking into other tracks,” Tristan finished for her, his voice clearly as proud as it was teasing. “Because God forbid she get a normal, non-school-related hobby.”

“We’re wasting time,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “You said we had to get there… now, pretty much.”

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “But how are we supposed to get off the island without those guys stopping us or following? They’re definitely watching everything Gaia or any of her people does, and there’s no way we can get anywhere near the Pathmaker without–”

“We’re not using the Pathmaker, or Gaia,” I interrupted. “We already have a way off the island, a way that’s completely undetectable. In fact, it’s so undetectable that they spent most of the twentieth century trying to figure out how it was done.”

“Wait.” Avalon’s voice was flat, as she and Shiori’s eyes both widened. “You mean–”

“Yeah,” I replied while moving to the nearby window. It had come to me while I was talking to Koren earlier, when I remembered what had happened the night that Ammon had shown up. “You wanna know how we’re gonna get off this island without the Committee lapdogs knowing about it?”

Opening the window, I pointed to the lighthouse in the distance and to the imprisoned Hangman’s skull inside.

“We’re gonna ask one of my mom’s friend’s to give us a lift.”

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And get past all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”

******

“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to say something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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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 watch 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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