Liam Mason

Interlude 8B – Liam Mason (Heretical Edge 2)

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The first time he lost his wife had been the second-worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Second-worst, because at the time, he’d still had his little girls. As traumatized as little Scout had been, as much as it had killed him that he couldn’t erase what she had experienced, she was at least there. He could hold her, he could comfort her. She and her sister were there as reminders of the woman he loved. He’d had that, at least. They’d had each other. 

The second time he lost his wife had been the worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Because he hadn’t only lost Larissa again. This time, he’d lost his girls too. Scout and Sands. He lost all three of them. And not to some monster or a magic spell. No. He lost them to themselves. They willingly left, chose to leave, out of some misguided belief that the monsters who wanted to enslave, kill, and devour humanity itself were some kind of… innocent little fluffy puppies. 

He’d lost his wife and children, his entire family, within months of actually getting them all back in the first place. They chose to walk away, chose to abandon their father, to side with… with… those things. 

Just like Joselyn. Just like Deveron, Lillian, Roger, Seamus, and Tribald. All of them were supposed to be his friends, back in the day. All of them had gone off on this… absurd belief that the creatures who tore human bones from their bodies, devoured their hearts, and used the remains for blood rituals were actually just misunderstood. The creatures they fought were monsters. Jos, Deveron, the rest of them just didn’t understand. Liam had thought that getting the adults involved would put an end to the whole situation, but it had only made things worse. Instead of being talked down out of their insanity, Joselyn and the others had blamed him for exposing their little group, and everything blew up into a full-scale war. A war that had ended with Joselyn’s identity, as well as almost everyone’s memory of that war, being erased so that things could go back to the way they should have been. 

Now the war was back. It was unerased, thanks to Joselyn’s daughter. And while Joselyn had taken his friends away when she started her version of the war. Felicity Chambers took away his wife and children. 

Felicity Chambers was an idealistic child who had no doubt been manipulated by those much stronger and more malicious than she was. Creatures, likely the same or related to those who had first manipulated Joselyn into believing this insanity, had gotten to her. Whether it was before she ever joined Crossroads or after, Liam wasn’t sure. Only that they used her as a weak point, twisting her mind until she believed the same evil lies as Joselyn had. 

Was it the bodysnatchers who had been exposed earlier in the year? It had to be them, right? That was what made the most sense. If they could possess people, it wouldn’t have been hard to bring some onto the school grounds to say the right things to twist Flick and those around her. 

And Gaia. She was fooled by all this too. Fooled or puppeted or… or… Gods, who knew. It was all such a mess. The war was going again, his family was gone, Gaia was locked up for being part of it, and now Liam had been put in charge of Crossroads as its new headmaster. 

Headmaster. He was the new headmaster of Crossroads, and what happened during the first hunt they’d put together, even with all the precautions? One of their students disappeared. Erin Redcliffe had literally vanished in the middle of the hunt. Despite all the extra guards they had, despite the trackers that were supposed to make sure the students could always be found, despite everything, Erin was just…. gone. 

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing outside of a wooden door as he exhaled a long, slow breath. The man inside had already called for him to enter, but Liam took another moment before pushing the door open and stepping through. 

It was a war room. Or at least it looked like one, with a large table projecting a hologram of the Earth with various marks indicating where sightings of certain people had been, weapons lining all of the walls, a heavy oak desk at the back covered in reports and a handful of recording devices, and shelves behind the desk lined with various enchanted objects. There were no decorations, nothing to indicate any kind of personal life or entertainment for the occupant. It was all entirely built and designed around function. 

Gabriel Ruthers stood at the back of the room, looking at the shelf with magic items. His hand casually toyed with one of the metal orbs there, rolling it between two fingers as he spoke in a quiet, somewhat weary voice. “It’s been a long year, hasn’t it, Liam?” 

“Are we counting since three hundred and sixty-five days ago, January, or the beginning of this school year?” Liam asked. Pausing then, he grimaced. “I guess it doesn’t matter. The answer is yes.” 

“It’s going to get longer,” came the gruff response. With that, Ruthers turned and moved closer. “You’re here about the Redcliffes. What’s going on with her father?” 

“We haven’t told Nolan yet,” Liam informed him simply, folding his arms across his chest while he watched the man. “But he’ll figure it out eventually, when we don’t let him talk to her. You know what a shitshow that’s gonna be? The only reason he’s still here and hasn’t gone off to join the idealists is because he thinks we still have his daughter here.” 

A short pause followed that statement, before Liam dropped his gaze to stare at the floor, his entire frame seeming to deflate a bit. “You know what that sounds like when I say it out loud?” 

“I know what it sounds like,” Ruthers confirmed quietly, his hand finding its way to Liam’s shoulder. “But you have to be strong. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel or sound right. Sometimes it’s hard. When it comes to saving humanity, to protecting our world and our people, we don’t always have the luxury of playing nice. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy to make sure even more people don’t suffer. Liam, you know what we’re up against, don’t you?” 

“Idealists manipulated by evil,” Liam murmured, frowning a bit before looking back up to the other man. “There’s already students talking about Erin’s disappearance, and I know there’s a few trying to decide if there’s a way for them to pull the same disappearing act. They play it cool around their teachers, but I just… I know they’re planning something. I can’t just throw them all in holding cells because I suspect they want to defect. I’ve cancelled future hunts for the time being until we find out what happened with Erin, but what… what else are we supposed to do? We can only keep them trapped at school for so long.” 

“It’s a tropical island with a magnificent beach and a jungle,” Ruthers dryly retorted, “they’re not exactly suffering.” Sobering a bit, he added, “They’ll be fine, Liam. Tell them the truth, that we’re protecting them. Tell them that their friends and family have been tricked, but we’re working to bring them back. Tell them about the bodysnatchers. If it scares them… good, maybe it’ll convince them not to trust people they don’t know, and to be critical of anyone they do know showing up with strange new ideas and opinions.” 

“You want me to make my students paranoid about everyone they talk to?” Liam’s voice was flat as he stared at the man he had looked up to and trusted for so long. 

Ruthers, in turn, stared right back at him. “I want you to teach them to be critical and wary of people who might be trying to lead them astray, be that strangers or… strangers wearing the faces of people they think they know. Teach them that people who suddenly change their minds about every truth we’ve known for so long might not be themselves anymore. Whether they’ve been fooled or… or taken over, those are the people we need to lock down if we’re going to get this under control. I want you to use the authority you’ve been given to keep a lid on our students so we don’t lose any more of them to this absurd insurrection. Can you do that?”

Liam was silent for a few long seconds, letting the words sink in before he straightened a bit, meeting the other man’s gaze. “Yes, Counselor. 

“I can do that.” 

*******

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing in front of a heavy, metal door lined with magical runes and radiating power beyond anything even he could actually comprehend. The spells on the door were stronger than he could possibly have deciphered in several years, let alone done anything about. A single one of the multiple incantations could have been studied for decades to get a full understanding of. They had been prepared by the strongest mages in Crossroads. 

“I can’t let you in here for long, you understand?” Sophronia Leven, the beautiful, auburn-haired Crossroads Committee member whose human story was told in the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, reminded him as she stood by the door. “There are rules that all of us have to follow, no matter how… much we may disagree with them. Lines that we have no choice but to toe.” 

Before he answered, Liam gave the woman a brief, curious look. It sounded more as though she was annoyed about something else when she spoke of lines they had to toe. Belatedly, when she squinted at him, he gave a quick nod. “Of course, Counselor. I don’t need long.”

At least, he hoped he didn’t. Even coming here in the first place felt like a betrayal of Ruthers and everything he was supposed to stand for. But then, Liam was well-versed in betrayal. 

Finally nodding with what was apparently satisfaction, Sophronia touched several parts of the door, speaking an incantation. As a few runes lit up, she gestured and the door swung open entirely soundlessly. “Go. Do what you must,” she instructed. “I will warn you before your time is up. Do not linger when I do so, or the security measures will take their own precautions.” 

With a single, somewhat distracted nod, Liam stepped through the doorway and into a small, dark room. He could sense the walls around him, the space only slightly larger than one of those Bystander portable toilets or a closet. More magical runes covered each of them, all lighting up as the door closed behind him. For a full minute, he was scanned and various queries were sent to three separate people in different locations to ensure that he was allowed to be where he was. Only once all three of those had come back positive did the magic unlock, and he felt a quick rush of power as the small room transported him to his actual destination. 

Now, he was standing on a platform in a large, brightly lit room with no doors or windows. The walls, floor, and ceiling were white and lined with even more spells than the previous door and small room had been. There was more magical power on a single wall of this room than Liam could produce on his own, even if given a full century to do so. 

The room itself was empty, aside from a large glass tube directly in the middle. Within the tube floated the reason for all the security measures, the woman he’d come to see. Gaia Sinclaire. She wasn’t actually floating in water, or any other liquid. Instead, the red-haired woman had been frozen in an ongoing stasis field that was projected from the tube and powered by a few of the spells on the surrounding walls. The rest of those spells were meant to make it impossible to find this place, to have any contact with Gaia herself, to keep Gaia contained if she broke from the stasis, and so on. 

For a moment, Liam froze, staring at the tube. A rush of thoughts and memories passed through his mind, before he exhaled and stepped that way. There was a single metal plate in the middle of the tube, and he put his hand against it firmly before speaking aloud. “Headmistress?” 

You don’t need to call me that, Liam, came the response directly into his mind through the mental link that the metal plate established. Not anymore. 

Yes, Gaia’s body may have been frozen, but it was possible, through the spells that kept her that way, to contact her mind. From what Liam knew, the Committee had been using that in an attempt to get any information from her about the bodysnatchers, the rebellion, the Atherbys, anything useful at all. 

“Gaia,” he amended, cursing himself inwardly for the slip. Of course she didn’t have that title anymore. He had her position. She was a prisoner, a traitor. So why had his first instinct been to show deference and respect? 

Shaking that off, Liam pushed on. “I need–I mean… Erin Redcliffe disappeared.” Over the next few minutes, he explained the situation, how the girl had vanished from the middle of a hunt and their thoughts that either she had somehow planned it out and run away to join her roommate and friends in the rebellion, or that they themselves had taken her. 

When he was done, Gaia was silent. Well, she was always silent. She gave no mental response for a few long seconds. Just as he was about to ask if the spell had malfunctioned somehow, the woman finally ‘spoke.’ Let me tell you a story. 

“A story?” Liam echoed. “Is this really the right time?” 

There is no better time than this, she insisted before continuing. Once, very long ago, a man lived happily with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They weren’t rich, but neither were they poor. They were content. One day, while the wife and children were off, a traveling salesman came to the man’s door and showed him a grand mirror, six feet in height and three feet wide. The mirror was a sight to behold, set into a stand of wood that had been intricately carved to look like two beautiful, androgynous figures holding the glass. 

‘This will protect your family, good sir,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Because there are monsters in this world, and the mirror will reveal them to you.’ 

“It was a mirror enchanted to break the Bystander Effect?” Liam asked, curiously. 

So it would seem, was her response. With some hesitation, but an eagerness to protect his family from any threats, the man bought the mirror and placed it in his home. As he stood admiring it, his wife returned, and the man brought her to the mirror. However, to his horror, the reflection showed not the woman he knew, but a foul beast. He saw, in the reflection of his wife, a creature with dark scales, pointed horns, and a wide mouth with many fangs. In a panic, the man killed the beast, before hearing the approach of his son. 

Quickly, he hid the body, resolving to explain the truth to the boy before forcing him to see his mother’s body. But, as the boy entered, the man saw his son’s reflection in the mirror. Again, it was that of a demonic being, a snarling beast that drove a shiver through the man’s heart. In despair, he killed the boy, unable to stand the sight of that creature in the mirror. 

Once more, he heard someone approach. His daughter. Terrified and thoroughly suspicious, the man hid the body of his son and waited. Sure enough, when the girl entered the room looking for her family, the man saw the reflection of a most terrible beast, the worst of all. With a heart laden with sorrow and regret, he killed his daughter. 

“I don’t understand the point of this story,” Liam interrupted. “Is it that evil can be everywhere, even where we least expect it? Because–”

He was cut off as Gaia pushed on as though he hadn’t spoken at all. The man was certain the enchantment hiding his wife and children’s true forms would wear off upon their deaths. But it didn’t. They looked the same as they always had to his naked eye. Worse, when he displayed them before the mirror again, their reflections were as normal as his own. Grieving, he took the bodies behind the house to bury, when the salesman returned. 

‘You!’ the man shouted. ‘You lied to me! You told me the mirror would reveal the monsters in this world!’

‘And so it has,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Can you tell me of anyone more monstrous than he who would kill his wife and children?’ 

“I should’ve known that coming here was a mistake,” Liam muttered. “What is that supposed to mean? What does it have to do with saving Erin?” 

Again, there was a brief pause before Gaia responded. Its meaning is for you to determine, Liam. I cannot tell you that. As for Erin, I believe she is fine. My intention was not to protect her, but to save another of my students. One whom I will never give up on, no matter what mistakes they may make. 

“Who?” he snapped, unthinkingly. 

You, Liam.  

I want to save you

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Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

 

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmiene turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmiene asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

 

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

 

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

 

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

 

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose three new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–three? You’re choosing three new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Exodus 44-02

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“We have another problem.”

The quiet announcement came from Aylen, who was looking off at nothing in particular. Actually her eyes were kind of unfo–oh, she was looking through Sovereign’s eyes. The cyberform hawk was soaring silently high above our heads, while people continued shouting down below. Any second now, a general alarm was going to go off and this was going to get even harder.

“Gaze upon the shock with which I react to that news,” I deadpanned before shaking my head. “What else is wrong?”

“Sovereign can see Scout,” Aylen informed us before adding, “And her dad is with her. I think they’re having some kind of argument.”

“What?!” Sands snapped. “Dad’s out with–we have to go get her.”

“The boys are right there,” I pointed out. “And if we don’t get them soon, they’ll be with the Committee. Then we’ll never get them out of there.”

From his place on Avalon’s shoulder, Porthos stood tall, his tail-sword clutched in one hand as he made a brief chittering speech that was complete gibberish, but kind of sounded as though he was challenging the guards down there to try dragging him off. It was apparently a pretty inspiring speech too, because Jaq and Gus were both up on their hind legs on my own shoulders, acting like they were trying to salute.  

“And if Dad takes Scout to them, we’ll never get her either!” Sands blurted. Her eyes were wide as she stared at me, her hands basically flailing. “Scout, Flick! We can’t let them take Scout!”

As she spoke, my eyes glanced toward the boys and their escorts. They’d stopped for the moment, arguing amongst themselves about what to do since the others couldn’t find us. We had a few seconds to decide what to do. But not much. Any second now, they’d push on. And if we let the guys or Scout end up wherever the Committee was, this whole thing would get worse.

Before I could say anything, Harper spoke up. “You won’t.” Her head nodded that way, even as she instructed us quickly and firmly. “Go. Go stall him. If you show up, it’ll keep him busy for awhile. Try talking him down. I’ll get the guys here and meet you.” Her voice still sounded like Harper, but it had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.

Behind me, Shiori hesitantly asked, “You’re going to go over there all by yourself and rescue Columbus and the other guys from a bunch of the Committee’s hand-picked goons?”

“Why aren’t they teleporting?” I suddenly put in. “I mean, why are they walking across the grounds instead of just instantly teleporting the boys straight to wherever they’re going?”

“Security measures,” Avalon replied while holding her jacket open for Porthos to clamber down inside with one more muttered bit of gibberish that was clearly another threat against the Committee’s goons. “They’re using the school’s security shield to shut down instant-transport powers to stop the rest of us from getting out with them. They don’t get to pick and choose who that affects, if they want it to actually work right.”

Harper nodded. “Which is why we need to get out from under it.” To Shiori, she added, “And yes, I’ll get your brother and the others. The only reason Deveron hasn’t done anything yet is because he doesn’t know where Flick and you guys are, so he’s biding his time. I’ll give him an opening, we’ll get the other boys and then meet up with you.”

She knew about Deveron. Or at least knew enough to plan on him being able to successfully fight back against the Committee’s goons if he wanted to. Which, given everything else she apparently already knew, really shouldn’t have been surprising. But it did raise more questions.

“Okay, wait, wait, wait!” That was Koren, snapping her head back and forth to stare at the rest of us. “Wait just a second. What the hell is going on? What was that about one of the Committee members being dead, and Joselyn being involved, and… and… huh? Who exactly is dead, damn it?!”

Quickly, Harper replied, “Fossor used Joselyn to lure one of the Committee members out. It’s not… clear yet exactly how it happened or which one of them killed him, but he’s dead. And the rest of the Committee think that Gaia did it. How or why, we don’t know. Not yet. Percival didn’t have time to tell me everything.”

“Percival?” I echoed. “You mean Committee Percival? He’s talking to–wait, you said him You said that Fossor killed ‘him’. But not Percival. Which Committee member was it? If it was Ruthers–”

“No, it was Oliver Brockett,” she replied simply. “He’s the one who was killed.”

Oliver. I thought of the rotund Committee member. I barely knew anything about him save for the very few brief words we’d exchanged in those meetings. He was the one who had been amused when I pointed out that I hadn’t asked to inherit Manakel’s necromancer powers, and the one who had brought up the Committee’s theory that I was involved with the people trying to kill Avalon.

Koren was shaking her head still. “So Fossor killed a Committee member, which should be basically impossible, and now they think Gaia did it for some reason. So they’re rounding us up. Or trying to. Well, shit.” She looked to me, biting her lip. “Has… has Wyatt…?”

“Nothing from him yet,” I replied quietly before looking away to distract myself from the worry that admitting that brought on. “Aylen? What’s going on with Scout?”

“Still arguing,” the other girl informed us. “He tried to grab her arm, but she pulled back. I think he’s about to give up on the talking thing and try dragging her back. We’re running out of time.”

Taking in and letting out a breath, I nodded. “Okay. Okay, we go distract him and try to get Scout. Let… let Harper get Deveron and the boys and meet back up with us.” Even as I said the words, I wondered just how easily I was rolling with this whole thing. Maybe later it would actually hit me and I’d have to fall over or something. Right now, there wasn’t time to react.

Harper was already over by the far side of the roof, facing the way that Scout and Liam apparently were. Her hand was raised, and I saw a weird distortion in the air, like a rippling effect. “Jump,” she quickly blurted, nodding to the distortion. “It’ll get you partway there. Then just keep your heads down and stay quiet until you get to them.”  Pausing then, she added, “And for the record, after you get used to it, it’s actually a pretty fun way to travel.”

The rest of us exchanged brief glances. But there wasn’t time to debate. There wasn’t even time to worry any more about where Wyatt was or why he hadn’t responded. We had to go, right now. So without another word, we went for it. Shiori and Avalon helped me up onto the edge of the roof, where I took a breath and put Jaq and Gus away in a pocket together before jumping as instructed into the weird air distortion.

Oh boy, did weird not come close to describing it. In an instant, I was abruptly a lot smaller. Like, smaller than Namythiet. Bee sized, or smaller. The world grew huge around me. At the same time, I was being flung wildly through the air like dandelion fluff on a stiff breeze. The whole world spun around me as I was propelled through the distortion in the air, over the heads of several searchers, who apparently couldn’t see or hear me when I passed by.

I hit the ground a hundred yards from the dorm building, lying flat on my stomach behind a bush as I resumed my normal size while clutching the grass and breathing hard. All around me, the others appeared the same way, whimpering and panting as we adjusted to what had just happened. Jaq and Gus clambered out of my pocket briefly, spinning around like they were dizzy before falling onto their backs. Apparently that had been disorienting for them too.

Slowly lifting my head, I stared out through the darkness. In the distance, we could see people searching all around the dorm buildings. Lights were going on in all the windows as students were either waking up, or the searchers were going room to room. Probably a bit of both.

They were searching everywhere around and inside the buildings. But not here. Harper had successfully gotten us outside of their search perimeter, at least for the moment. We had time to go find Scout and get her away from her father. But we had to hurry. Because I was pretty sure that as soon as the Committee’s people realized that we weren’t in the buildings, they’d expand the search pretty quick. And there wasn’t a lot we could do to hide from the powers they’d use.

That understanding made me push myself up a lot sooner than my stomach was exactly comfortable with. I came up to my knees, watching the people in the distance for another second before turning back the other way. Sands was already up in a crouched position, glancing back to the rest of us before she set off the way that Aylen was pointing.

For a brief second, I glanced to the part-Reaper girl. Part-Reaper. Was she really related to the Heretical Edge itself? Himself? Bob, as Koren called him. Was she really related to… him? It made sense. It explained why she was here, why she didn’t want to leave, what her purpose was. Did she want to free him? Of course she did. Of course. And now we were asking her to abandon that. Because there was no way we could get to the lighthouse with the Committee here. We wouldn’t get anywhere near the place before they would be right on top of us.

Together, Aylen, Avalon, Shiori, Koren, Sands, and I set off across the dark grounds. We kept ourselves low, hunching over as we jogged further away from the dorms. Just like the situation with Wyatt, I was also trying not to think about what was going on with Professor Dare. She was known to be basically Gaia’s right-hand woman and protege. So they would obviously try to contain her as well. Part of me wanted to insist that we go find her. But I knew that was stupid. For the same reasons that we couldn’t risk going to find Gaia, we couldn’t go find Professor Dare. If there was anything she couldn’t handle, we’d just end up being used against her.

Before long, I could hear voices. Scout and Professor Mason were definitely arguing. The two of them were right on the edge of the grounds, near one of the cliffs high above the jungle and the beach. The closer we got, the more we could make out their words.

“No, Dad, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve never understood.” Scout’s voice was raised. “You don’t understand the world or how much you’re being tricked. Just like all those other people. But it’s worse for you. It’s worse because they tried to tell you. They tried to help you, tried to show you the truth. But you wouldn’t open your eyes. Because you don’t want to know the truth. Because if you did, if you let yourself see it, you’d have to accept that you were wrong. You’d have to accept that you made a mistake, that you betrayed your friends and started a war for no reason. And you would rather drag everyone down again than admit that. You betrayed your friends for a lie, Dad. You let innocent people die because you wouldn’t believe Joselyn. And now you’re letting them arrest Gaia because you still won’t admit that you were wrong.”

A moment later, I heard Liam’s voice. “Scout, listen to me, it’s okay. You’re young and naive and I know you want to believe this stuff. You have no idea how much I wanted to believe it too. The idea that there can be good Strangers, that humanity isn’t alone? You think I don’t want that? But it’s wrong. It’s wrong, baby. They want to kill us, all of us. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The monsters out there, the ones that pretend to be human, that pretend to be good… I’ve seen them. You think I just… that I just decided to turn on Joselyn for no reason? I tried. I…”

He trailed off for a moment before taking an audible breath. By then, we had managed to sneak close enough, ducked low behind some more bushes in a flower garden, to see the two of them. Scout was staying several feet away, her back basically right up against the cliff, while Liam was there with his hands raised placatingly, his back to the rest of us. From his body language, he was openly desperate to make his daughter understand what he was saying.

After taking a breath, the man pushed on. “There were Strangers, baby girl. There were Strangers and I tried to listen to Joselyn. They looked helpless. They looked safe. So I let them go. I let them go and they murdered an entire apartment complex. Do you understand?” His voice was choked. “I let them go because of what Joselyn said, and they massacred over a hundred people. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. We can’t let that happen again.”

He paused then before speaking in a softer tone. “The rest of you can come out now. I know you’re back there.” Turning slightly, the man watched as we collectively stood up.

“Dad,” Sands spoke sharply while holding her mace in one hand. “Get away from Scout.”

I saw the man’s mouth open, then shut as he looked at the mace, then back to the girl herself. “Sandoval, I know what you’re thinking. And why you’re thinking it. But Gaia is wrong. Joselyn was wrong. All of this is wrong. You need to stand down right now. All of you. No one wants to hurt you. We know you’ve been misled, okay? We know you’ve been listening to Gaia and her people and no one blames you for being idealistic. But put the weapons down, and sit until someone comes to collect you. We’ll handle all of this without violence.”

I saw a very brief smirk cross Sands’ face before she shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dad. Very wrong. Because you’re making a mistake, and you’re trying to drag the rest of us down with you. You’re trying to force the rest of us to believe the same lie you’re desperately clinging to.”

Scout spoke then. “Gaia didn’t kill Counselor Brockett. She couldn’t have.”

“She didn’t,” I confirmed, my voice drawing both her attention and Professor Mason’s. As they stared at me, I went on, trying to get the man to see reason. “Fossor did. He’s manipulating you all just like he manipulated the Heretics back before Crossroads, Professor Mason.”

The man blinked at me, then shook his head. “Fossor? What does he have to do with–” Cutting himself off, he shook his head. “No, you’re the ones who don’t understand. Brockett’s been collecting evidence that Gaia has been sneaking non-human students into the school. She’s been doing it for years. He found out, he confronted her with the evidence and gave her a chance to turn herself in. And she killed him for it.”

My mind was reeling. They knew about Hybrid students? That was bad, really bad. Earth-shatteringly bad. How–what–why did– There were so many questions spinning through my thoughts in those seconds that I couldn’t even order them properly. Fossor had found out what Gaia was doing and used that to frame her, or… or… something. What the hell?

From the corner of my eye, I could see Shiori and Aylen exchange brief glances. Yet Liam seemed to be paying very little attention to them. That seemed to mean that he didn’t know who the Hybrid students were. Only that they existed. But even that by itself was too much. Crossroads would root out anything like that. There was no way they’d rest until they found all of them. This was really bad. Even if–when we got away from here, how many students would that leave in danger here? Hell, how many graduated Heretics would be in danger? What was Crossroads going to do when word got out that some of their own people were half-Alter? What the hell would that mean?

Once again, Fossor had managed to completely fuck over everyone. And he’d probably been laughing to himself the whole time he did it, because of course the Committee (especially Ruthers) would play right into it. Damn it!

Clearly reading our reactions (or at least some of them), Liam gave a slow nod. “That’s right, we know a lot more than you think. And we also know that you kids were being manipulated. It’s not your fault. But you need to sit down right now. If I have to disarm you, I will. Either way, I’m taking you in to see the Committee, where we’ll get to the bottom of all this.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Sands, straightening up as she faced her father. “You’re wrong about all of this. You’re wrong about everything, Dad. Get away from Scout. We’re not staying with you.”

With a soft sigh, Liam let his gaze sweep over us. His tone was regretful. “Then I suppose you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make you.”

“No,” a new voice interrupted. “You won’t.”

Larissa came into view then, emerging from the trees. She stepped past us, putting herself in front of Liam. In one hand was her crystal weapon, currently shaped as a sword. Slowly, she raised it, pointing the end toward her husband. “You want to take these kids, Liam? Ours or any others?

“You’ll go through me to do it.”

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Interlude 34D – Scout

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The door of the Chinese buffet opened, and Liam Mason ushered his daughter (the one who wasn’t lost in space, anyway) inside. “Come on, kiddo,” he urged the girl while gesturing. “Let’s see how many egg rolls we can stuff ourselves with before we burst, huh?” That bit was added with a wink, before the man moved to the nearby cashier to pay for their upcoming meal.

Scout, meanwhile, silently watched her father from just inside the doorway. He had been acting strangely all day long, as if he really wanted to say something but couldn’t stop beating around the bush about it. He was overly interested in everything she said. Not that he was really ever not interested if she spoke, but now it seemed a little odd. And this trip to eat out in the regular world seemed like it was totally planned, despite the fact that he was clearly trying to act as if it was actually an impulsive, out-of-the-blue idea. Something was definitely going on here.

Once their meal was paid for, the two made their way back through the half-full restaurant, heading a for a rear table. Liam took a seat in a booth before smiling at her. “Hey,” he started, “this is fun, right? We’ll have to bring Sands here as soon as…” He trailed off before giving a slightly forced smile. “… as soon as they get back.” That time, his tone was slightly brittle.

During the years that she had spent in almost complete silence, her sister doing the talking for her, Scout had come to realize that people would often say more than they meant to if you just didn’t talk at all. People were uncomfortable with silence, so they tried to fill it up. With that in mind, the girl simply sat there and looked at her father without outwardly responding at all.

Sure enough, it only took a few seconds of silence on her part before her dad started speaking again. “I know you’re worried about Sands, but it’s going to be okay. We’ll get her back, and then… And then we won’t let anything like this happen again. I promise. We’ll fix this.”

And just like that, Scout knew more than her father clearly wanted her to right then. She knew that this trip had something to do with Sands being missing, and she also knew that her father wasn’t working alone with it. He had said we, as in ‘we won’t let anything like it happen’ and ‘we would fix this.’ He had obviously planned this lunch with someone else. But who, exactly?

To give herself time to think about that, the girl stood up and nodded to her father before moving to pick up a plate and fill it with the food. As she made her way through the line, Scout pondered those questions. Who was her father working with, and why had they brought her out here to get lunch? Was it to get her away from Gaia? That sounded about right. If her father wanted to press her about something, doing so away from the island was probably the best way to do it.

Those thoughts and more worked their way through her mind while she loaded her plate, making her way back to the table where her father was already waiting. His own plate was only about half-full, as if he too had been distracted by other thoughts beyond simply his own hunger. He also seemed to be lost in thought, looking off into the distance with a slight frown.

When Scout took her seat and put the plate in front of herself, the man seemed to snap out of it, almost jumping a little before catching himself. “Oh, hey, kid.” With a grin that was a little too put-on, he reached out with his fork to take a bite off her plate. “Mmm. See, that’s why I should always send you out first. You find the best stuff. I didn’t even see this, where was it?”

The two of them sat like that, eating lunch for about five more minutes before a voice spoke up from nearby. “Liam Mason?”

Turning slightly, Scout blinked at the man who stood there. Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers. The former-Headmaster turned Committee Counselor raised an eyebrow at them. “Now this is a surprise,” he announced, holding a plate of food in one hand. “I know I said you should bring your daughter out here sometime, but I didn’t expect you to do it so soon.” He gave a wink then. “You didn’t actually take that suggestion as an order, did you?”

Coughing, Scout’s father shook his head. “Of course not,” he replied before gesturing to the girl across from him. “Just thought the kid looked hungry, and this was better than cooking. What’re you doing out here? There’s not a problem, is there?” The last bit was added with a glance around, as though he was worried that Ruthers’ arrival heralded some kind of attack.

“No, no.” Waving that off, the older man simply chuckled. “Believe it or not, even Committee members have to eat too. Sometimes, anyway.” He glanced around before continuing. “I like this place. That’s why I told you about it. Believe me, if there was a problem, I never would have let you bring your daughter here.” To Scout, the man extended his hand. “Hey,” he greeted. “I know you’re worried about your sister. But I promise, we are doing everything we can to find her.”

“And the others,” Scout added for him, her voice so quiet it was barely audible. She met the man’s gaze, neither blinking nor looking away as he stared down at her.

“Of course,” Ruthers agreed easily with a slight nod. “We’re working on tracking down everyone. Whoever took Sandoval and the others, our people will find them.”

“I’m sure they will.” Liam took his daughter’s hand briefly, squeezing it before gesturing. “Why don’t you join us, sir? Maybe you can tell Scout a little bit about how the search is going, just to make her feel a little better about it. You know, if you don’t have other lunch companions that we’d be stealing you away from?”

Chuckling a bit, Ruthers shook his head a bit ruefully. “No,” he replied, “I’m afraid I am on my own today. Or I was, before that invitation. If you’re sure this isn’t just a father-daughter date. I wouldn’t want to barge in on something like that. After all, a child’s relationship with their father is too important to waste.” That was added quietly, as the man glanced away with a slight frown.

“Nonsense,” Liam insisted while scooting over in the booth. “Have a seat, sir, we’d love to have you. I know you probably don’t get to take a break very often. You might as well enjoy it.”

Ruthers took the offered seat, and just like that, Scout had two men sitting across from her. Just as they had clearly planned. There was a moment where the two glanced at each other before starting to eat. After a few silent, thoughtful bites, the Committee Counselor tapped his fork against the plate briefly as he regarded the girl across from him. “Maybe I should start by asking what kind of questions you have about what has been happening. I’m sure you have plenty.”

Sure, Scout was sorely tempted to start, why don’t you start by telling me just how incredibly stupid you both think I am to actually believe that this was an accidental meeting?

Honestly, it was absolutely insulting. The fact that her father actually thought that she would believe this hadn’t been planned out, that they could actually have possibly run into one of the Committee members just by chance and have him join them for lunch was almost outrageous.

But she didn’t say that, of course. She had more control than that. Instead, the girl simply asked, “What do you know about where they are?” Belatedly, she added, “Or about who took them.”

Ruthers’ resulting wince looked completely honest, and she believed that he meant it. “I’m afraid that we don’t know very much about any of it,” he answered quietly, his gaze meeting hers. “We’d like to know a lot more, but… unfortunately, answers seem to be in very short supply. We do know that Eden’s Garden does not have them. The rest of the Committee and I have called in enough threats and favors that I firmly believe that they did not have anything to do with the disappearance of Sandoval or the others. It seems to be the work of some…” He paused briefly before continuing. “… some new force. One which, unfortunately, clearly knows a lot more about us than we know about them. That, or it may possibly be an old enemy working in new ways.”

“An old enemy, sir?” Scout echoed, as though she didn’t already know exactly what he was talking about. Not for the first time, the girl was grateful for the watch that Gaia had given her that disrupted lie-detection powers (similar to Flick’s ring), and blocked most of the (already rare) mind-reading powers that were out there. Because of that, Scout wasn’t as afraid of this little ambush-meeting as she might have been otherwise. Not that she was comfortable with it, but still. The watch definitely helped.

For a moment, Ruthers kept staring at her. He took a long, slow pull from his drink before abruptly coughing as he shot it a brief, betrayed glance. Seeming to realize belatedly that it was just water, the man plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over the glass briefly. When he pulled it away, the water had turned to an amber color. Whiskey, Scout realized after remembering what Flick had said about her meeting with him before. The man had turned water into whiskey.

His drink suitably changed, Ruthers took another pull before smiling faintly with satisfaction. “Yes,” he finally answered, “it probably won’t surprise you to know that Crossroads tends to gather enemies who disagree with our methods or our intentions.” Pausing then, he set the glass down while meeting her gaze. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of anyone like that?”

Without batting an eye, Scout simply replied, “Who would want to stop Crossroads from saving people, sir? Those would be bad guys.”

Smiling broadly, the former headmaster nodded once. “Of course they would be. But we’re afraid that people with… let’s say too much stolen information about our school might have come out of the woodwork after laying low for a few years. If they’re the ones who abducted your sister and the others, we need to find out as soon as possible. Which means,” he added pointedly, “that you need to tell us if there’s anything important you might have been keeping to yourself.

“Now, I know,” Ruthers quickly continued, “being loyal to your team and your friends is a big deal. Believe me, I understand that. But so is loyalty to the cause, loyalty to Crossroads. I mean, if you knew that your sister was going to do something very dangerous, but she made you promise to keep it a secret, would you?”

They were clearly waiting for an answer, so Scout gave them one. “If I knew that Sands was in trouble,” she started slowly, “I would tell everything I knew to everyone that I trusted.”

“Of course you would,” Ruthers replied with an easy smile that looked at odds with his normal expression. He took another pull of his drink, finishing the rest of the whiskey inside before starting to continue. “I’m sure that if you–”

Whatever the man had been about to say then was interrupted, as a woman that Scout didn’t recognize moved up to the table. She leaned close, whispering something into Ruthers’ ear. Scout picked out the words ‘Chambers’ and ‘detected’ before the man lifted his hand, using some kind of power that prevented her from hearing anything else that was said.

After a few seconds of that, the man abruptly stood up, with a nod to the woman who had come to speak to him. He gave Scout and her father a brief look. “I… something has come up,” he informed them simply. “I’m afraid we’ll have to have a bit of a raincheck for lunch.”

Liam, who looked surprised enough for Scout to actually believe that this wasn’t part of their plan, quickly asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Of course,” Ruthers replied, a little too quickly. He nodded back to the woman who had interrupted. “Just a little situation that needs to be attended to. Nothing for you to be concerned with. You know how these kind of things go. Never a moment’s rest for people in charge. Actually…” He paused, looking to Scout as though he was tempted to tell her something, before going with a simple, “there may be good news coming sooner than you think.”

With that, the Committee Counselor rapped the table twice with his knuckles before turning on his heel to walk away, leaving father and daughter sitting by themselves once more.

“That was… odd,” Liam muttered, a frown furrowing his brow. “I thought we were…” Pausing then as though realizing he’d almost said too much, the man gave a sharp shake of his head. “I thought we were having a nice lunch.”

Shaking that off, he looked to his daughter, pausing a little at the look on her face as she stared back at him. “Are you alright, baby?”

Chambers. Why had that woman said Flick’s name? And what was that about detecting something? Did something happen? What would have made Ruthers run off like that? It had to be something big. And it clearly involved Flick. But how? What had happened? What did the Committee find out?

Unlike some of her peers, she’d yet to actually try alcohol. But for just a moment, Scout almost wished that Counselor Ruthers had actually left some of his whiskey behind. Steeling herself inwardly, she met her father’s gaze before answering him with a simple, “I’m not a baby. And I’m not stupid.”

“Stupid?” Liam echoed, having the nerve to look surprised. “Of course you’re not–”

“Stop.” Meeting her father’s gaze, Scout shook her head once. “Just stop.” Her voice was flat, as emotionless as she could make it.

As her dad fell silent, the girl took a long, deep breath. This was hard. Probably the hardest thing she’d done. But she pressed on, raising her eyes from the table to meet his. “I’m not stupid,” she repeated before pressing on over her father’s open mouth, before he could interrupt again. The words came quickly, words that she had thought about and almost said for weeks now, but had always held back. Now, however, nothing could stop them. Being lied to like this, her own father helping to ambush her with Gabriel Ruthers in an attempt to either convince or trick her into betraying her friends… it brought everything out in a rush. For a girl who had spent so long not talking, the words flooded out in a tsunami.

“You love me. I know that. I know that you love me.” The statement tasted like ash in her mouth. But she pressed on. As much as it hurt, as awful as it felt, she pushed on. “But you don’t respect me. When… when you love someone, you trust them. You don’t manipulate them. You don’t lie to them. You don’t try to trick them into revealing secrets that they’re not ready to tell you yet. You don’t betray the people who trust you, just because you think you know better than they do. Part of… of loving someone, of trusting them, is giving them a chance. It’s accepting that they might know more than you do about something.”

That was straying very close to what was obviously things she shouldn’t know about (and which she was fairly certain that her father suspected she did know), but Scout avoided saying it out loud. As long as there was that certain level of deniability, her father wouldn’t risk openly asking what she knew. He wouldn’t take that plunge.

“You’re my dad. You’ve taken care of me since I was a baby. You were always there for me. Especially after Mom… after Mom was gone. You’re my daddy. You’ll always be my daddy. But you made a choice. You… keep making choices… that show that it… doesn’t matter how much you love someone. It doesn’t matter how much someone loves you. You will never… trust them the way that they need you to, the way that I need you to. You love and protect and take care of me. And I’ll always love you for that. Always. But you don’t trust me. You don’t believe in me. You lied to me. You tried to trick me with this stupid lunch, because you still think I’m a baby.  

“You don’t love someone by controlling or tricking them, Dad. You love them by trusting them. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against what you think you know. You listen to them. You give them a chance. You love them by not by betraying them when they trust you. And not by… by ambushing them with someone like Counselor Ruthers. You tricked me. You lied to me. If you wanna know something, either ask me. Or ask yourself why you think I wouldn’t tell you the truth.”

“Scout, baby, I–”

“I’m not a baby,” she corrected once more before the man could continue. “I’m not a baby.”

Visibly shaking and unable to stop it or control herself any more than she already was, the girl pushed herself into a standing position. “I’m going to call Aunt Ginny to take me back to the school.”

Looking like he had been struck, Liam managed to shake his head faintly. “Ba–Scout, wait. Look, we can still have a nice lunch. It can be our day. Just you and me, I promise.”

“No.” Scout shook her head, swallowing the hard lump that had formed in her throat. “We can’t. I… I can’t. Dad… I’m sorry. I love you. You know that.” She reversed the statement that she had started this with. “You know that I love you. I’ll always love you. Always.

“But I don’t respect you.”

With that final statement, coming in a voice that cracked with each word, the girl turned on her heel. And then she walked away, blinding tears flooding her eyes as she left her father sitting there.

Alone.

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Interlude 29A – Deveron

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Whumph. Whumph. WHUMPH.  

Each successive sound of Deveron Adams’ fists impacting the magically reinforced punching bag grew louder. The bag, meant to withstand the increased (and sometimes outright extreme) strength of the students who used it, still strained under the abuse that the deceptively young-looking boy was inflicting upon it. The material kept taking longer to reset after each punishing blow left it slightly deformed. Yet the man-in-a-boy’s body hardly noticed. Mostly because it wasn’t the bag that he saw in his mind as his fists kept hitting it over and over again.

Gabriel Ruthers. Gabriel fucking Ruthers. He saw the man’s face, his ugly, bulldog looking son of a bitch face with every swing of his fist. Every time he hit the bag, he saw the piece of shit.

Thud. Thud. THUD.

The sound changed. Somehow, without conscious thought, Deveron’s fists had moved from the bag to the nearby wall. It was even more reinforced than the bag was, meant to allow the students to train without bringing the room down on top of themselves. Even then, however, his fists left marks, cracks in the wall that spread a bit every time he hit it. THUD. The crack widened. THUD. The wall was literally starting to break apart under the force of his blows.

“Mr. Adams!” A voice called over the sound of Deveron’s fist hitting the wall that time. Leaving it there, he turned slightly to look over his shoulder while panting a little bit from the exertion.

“I’d ask if you’re alright,” Professor Liam Mason started with a raised eyebrow as he took a step further into the room, “but maybe I should be asking the wall that question instead.”  

Deveron’s eyes narrowed despite himself, and he tightened his fist as it rested against the cracked wall. Of all the people he most didn’t want to see in that moment, this one ranked only a couple below the top. When he spoke, his voice was tight. “I’m a little busy, Professor.

“Hey.” The man kept walking to him, stopping just short of where Deveron was standing. “I’m just gonna let the tone go, cuz… believe me, I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.”

“You know what?” Turning to look at him more fully, Deveron lowered his hand from the wall, keeping his voice as measured and even as he could manage. “I seriously doubt that.”  

Liam squinted at him. “No?” Gesturing toward a nearby weight bench, the man made it slide across the room before taking a seat. “My daughter’s out there, Mr. Adams. I know how bad you feel about her, and about Chambers. And the others. You probably feel responsible. But you shouldn’t. Yes, you are their mentor. But you couldn’t have stopped this. You and Miss Dupont were ambushed. You’re lucky to still be alive right now. Believe me, no one blames you.”

“Look,” Deveron managed after taking a second to collect himself and resist the urge to do something incredibly rash in that moment. “I respect what you’re trying to do. But you are seriously barking up the wrong tree. I don’t need your guidance, or your suggestions, or your empathy. I don’t need anything from you. And you don’t know what I’m feeling right now.”

“Mr. Adams,” Liam retorted, “my daughter is one of the people you’re worried about. My daughter. I respect how much you clearly care for your charges. But don’t try to say that you are more worried about them than I am. You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to have your own child torn away from you, to not know where they are or how to protect them.”

He couldn’t understand? The words reverberated around inside of Deveron’s head. He couldn’t understand what that was like, what it was like to have his child taken away like that? This man, this man had the nerve, the nerve to say that? The man who was responsible for everything that had happened, the man whose betrayal had brought the rebellion out of the shadows before they were ready, and had ultimately led to… to… everything that happened?

Yes, Deveron remembered. He hadn’t at first, not for quite awhile, in fact. But his memory of Liam the traitor had eventually begun to return. It was helped along by Jonathon. Or Klassin, whatever he was calling himself now. The Crossroads therapist had noticed the increasing looks that Deveron was giving Liam as his memory returned, and had interceded in time to confirm the memories that were returning. And, of course, to talk Deveron down from doing anything rash.

Honestly, very few of the people who knew them in their school days would ever have believed that Deveron would be talked out of doing something rash by Jonathon Ruthers. Or that the two of them would have spent many nights of the past month or so having long conversations about the past… and about Joselyn. Mostly because so few knew about Jonathon’s change of heart, or the fact that he’d spent most of the war spying on his father for the rebellion. For Joselyn.

But it had happened. And it was only Jonathon’s presence that had stopped Deveron from doing something rash as the memories of just how much Liam was responsible for had returned.

But Jonathon wasn’t here right now. Liam was. And he was seriously pushing his luck.

“You really think so, Professor?” Deveron started in a quiet voice, barely able to restrain his urge to finish putting a hole in the nearby wall by grabbing the back of the other man’s neck and shoving his head through it. “Because you know what I think? I think you–”

“There you are!” The bright, chipper voice from the doorway interrupted Deveron just in time. Nevada bounced in, grinning brightly, as if she had no idea what she had just walked in on. “Deveron, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Come on, we need to talk about that project.”

“He’s a second year student,” Liam pointed out. “You only teach a first year subject.”

Taking Deveron by the arm, the blonde woman dragged him out of the room, calling back over her shoulder, “Never said it was a project for class! Thanks for keeping him company though!”

The two walked in silence for a couple of minutes then, Deveron almost growling with each step as he fought to get himself under control. Despite the fact that both took the time to use abilities that would ensure they weren’t overheard, Nevada still stayed quiet. She was clearly letting him get his thoughts in order, which he didn’t manage until they were partway across the grounds.

Finally, he spoke in a dark voice. “If he keeps pushing and trying to be my mentor, buddy, or whatever the hell he’s going for, I swear, I…” Stopping himself, he let out a long, low breath.

“It’s been worse since Flick and the others disappeared, hasn’t it?” Nevada asked quietly.

“I just–” Deveron stopped, sighing as he lowered his head and tightened his hands into fists once more. “One thing. She asked me to do one thing: protect Felicity. She trusted me to protect her, Nevada. She trusted me, and I couldn’t–I wasn’t even… I couldn’t…” Unable to continue, he raised his clenched hands to his face and shuddered, making a gutteral sound deep in his throat. “I can’t get to her now. I can’t find her, I don’t even know what’s happening to her. If they-”

Nevada’s head shook, her expression soft. “Deveron, stop. There are plenty of reasons for you to be angry with Liam, but he wasn’t wrong about what he was trying to say. This wasn’t your fault. And I know I didn’t know Joselyn, but… but I’m pretty sure she’d know that too. Flick and the others disappearing is awful, but they’re not dead. Remember, Wyatt would know if anything… too bad happened to Sands or Flick. But you doing anything to blow your cover or get yourself in trouble with the Committee by attacking a teacher, that would be your fault.”

“I know,” Deveron replied flatly, lowering his hands from his face as he fought to find the right words. “He’s just… he’s right there, and he had to bring up losing kids. His words, that I wouldn’t understand what it was like to have a missing kid. After what he did, he has the fucking nerve t-”

Stopping abruptly, in mid-word, he gave a violent shake of his head. “That piece of shit is lucky I didn’t put his teeth out right then and there. I just…” The anger drained out of him, as he slumped a little while lowering his head. His voice was softer. “She asked me to look after Felicity. And I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t there. Just like I wasn’t there when that… that son of a bitch took our kids. They took our children, Nevada. And then they took my wife away too.”

Wincing, Nevada nodded, watching him sympathetically. “Your kids are alive though,” she offered softly, “Wyatt and Abigail, they’re both alive. They grew up into amazing people.”

“Yeah,” Deveron replied in a barely audible voice as he stared at the ground. “They are more than amazing. But you’ve seen Wyatt. You know how he grew up, what made him so paranoid. The things he went through while growing up, he… I should’ve been there. I should have found him. I just–I couldn’t. I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t find either of them. And now I can’t find Flick. I can’t go to her. I can’t do a goddamn thing!” His voice had risen by the end, as he trembled.

Turning to look at the former djinn then, he added, “All my life, I’ve wanted to be a father. I’ve wanted to… to hold my children, my babies. I know… I know that Abigail and Wyatt are amazing. So is Koren. I have a granddaughter, a granddaughter. But I didn’t… I didn’t get to raise them. I didn’t get to guide them. I didn’t get to help them walk, teach them to ride a bike, see them lose their first teeth, tell them stories, check for monsters under their beds…I…”

His eyes closed, tears leaking through. “I didn’t get to raise my kids. I didn’t get to hold them when they were scared. I didn’t get to… I didn’t get to watch them grow up, and learn. They took that away from me, away from us. Ruthers took that away. And Liam helped make it happen.”

“You’re right,” Nevada agreed. “He took a lot away from you. And even if he didn’t mean for it to happen the way he did, Liam was responsible for dragging the rebellion out of the… the shadows. He… he did a lot of bad things, whether he meant to or not. So yeah, I don’t blame you for wanting to… to hurt him. I don’t blame you for almost losing it, because yeah, Flick and the others are missing. They’re… they’re a long ways off. But you can’t just give up on them. They’re alive, and everyone’s working on ways to bring them back. They will come back.”

Deveron smiled faintly. “Yeah… you’re right, I know. I just feel so goddamn useless right now.”

Her head shook. “You’re not useless, Deveron. You–I might not have remembered your face exactly. But I always remembered what you did. You saved my life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. All these hybrids who can go to this school now, who have become Heretics, they couldn’t if it wasn’t for you. If the rebellion succeeds next time, it’ll be because of the hybrids that you helped turn into Heretics. That’s what you did. Because you didn’t give up. Even after they took your kids, even after Joselyn was taken, you never gave up. And you can’t give up now.”

“Believe me,” he replied, “I am nowhere near giving up. Frustrated, pissed off, really close to beating Liam senseless with one of those barbells in there? Sure, all of the above. But giving up? Not a chance in hell. I just wish I knew a way to contribute right now. Joselyn was always the planner. Even finding you, getting you to fix the Edge, that was her idea. I mean, not you specifically, but the goal itself. She was the one who knew that getting hybrids in as students was the way to win the war in the end. We just managed to find a way to put it into action.”

Glancing sidelong at the woman then, he added slowly, “Which was really thanks to you more than me. I just gave you a chance. And speaking of that whole thing, we should see about fixing your memory. Just in case there’s still some holes that might end up being relevant later.”

“Can you actually do that?” Nevada asked, raising an eyebrow as she looked at him curiously.

“Not by myself I can’t, no,” Deveron replied while shaking his head. “I’m not the one who cast it. We’ll have to visit Gabriel Prosser for that. Which… I really need to do anyway. I want to talk to Flick’s father myself. It’s about time that he and I had an actual conversation about everything that’s happened. And, well, if you come with, I’m sure he’d take the memory spell off you.”

“Sure,” Nevada agreed with a nod. “I’ll keep you company when you visit Flick’s dad. Hell, even if Prosser wasn’t there, I’d still go. After everything I’ve heard about Joselyn, and what I’ve seen from Flick, I want to meet Lincoln. And he deserves to have people telling him the truth about what’s happening, keeping him up to date. We owe him that much. Hell, we owe him more.”

“More than we can ever give him,” Deveron murmured before shaking that off. “But I suppose that’ll wait a little longer. For now, do you want to tell me why you led me out here?” As he spoke, the man gestured vaguely at the beach that the two of them had gradually walked to.

“Oh,” Nevada giggled, clearly despite herself as she glanced around. “I guess you noticed that after all, huh? And here I thought I was being all sneaky and making it look random. Damn.”

“It was pretty good,” Deveron replied, “but yeah, I could tell. So what’re we doing down here?”

We aren’t doing anything,” she informed him. “You, however, are going on a little picnic.”

Blinking at that, Deveron gave her a curious look. “You’re sending me on a picnic by myself?”

The blonde woman shook her head. “Nope. Not by yourself. With them.” She raised a hand then, pointing to two figures who were waiting just around the corner as they approached.

He looked that way, feeling his heart skip abruptly, as it always did when he saw the two in question. “Wyatt,” he breathed out. “Wyatt and Koren.” His son and his granddaughter.

“Yeah.” Nevada smiled faintly, waving for the others to join them. “You miss Felicity. That’s understandable. But you still have family here, Deveron. Gaia and I thought you might want to spend some time with them. So this,” she reached into her pocket, retrieving a pair of rings, which she handed to him. “First one opens a portal to a park somewhere totally safe and anonymous, where you won’t be recognized. The other one brings you back here.”

Closing his hand around the rings, Deveron swallowed hard before looking over at the approaching pair. He focused on his grown son, seeing the tiny, chubby baby that he remembered for a moment before shaking that off. “You sure you’re okay with being pulled away from your duties for that long, Wyatt?”

The man’s mouth opened, but Koren stepped on his foot while pointedly replying, “Uncle Wyatt’s taking a break before I have to hogtie him. There’s nothing else he can do right now, and there’s an entire security force watching over the rest of the school in case anything else happens. And yeah,” she added with a wink, “I did mention hogtying him just to hear him make that indignant squawk.”

For his part, Wyatt squinted at the girl who had become his almost ever-present companion outside of classes recently. “I’ve got my eyes on you,” he informed her. “I see you with a rope, and we’ll see which one of us gets hogtied, Missy. Don’t you forget what happened the last time you tried your little ambush. Next time, maybe I’ll just make you stay a hamster for a little while.”

Lifting her chin, the brunette made a huffing noise at that. “I almost had you that time. I’m learning your tricks, old man. Just a little more time and I’ll have you.”

Clearing his throat, Deveron stepped in then. “Before Koren pushes her luck too far and ends up having to spend the next week as a turtle or something, I was told something about a picnic in a park?”

The girl gave a quick head bob. “Yeah! And Mom’s gonna be there too.”

“Abigail…” Deveron breathed out, gaze snapping over toward Nevada questioningly.

“That’s right,” the woman confirmed. “Gaia worked it out with Seller. She’s probably already at the park waiting for you guys. Like I said, you’ve still got family here, and you should be able to spend time with them. Take as long as you need. We’ll cover for all of you here.”

A picnic… with his children and grandchild. Deveron swallowed a thick lump in his throat, giving a little shudder despite himself as a series of tumultuous emotions worked their way through him. He could talk to Koren as much as he wanted, of course. And he’d been conversing with Abigail over the phone, and with Wyatt through passed notes. But actually spending an entire afternoon and evening together in the same place? It made him simultaneously happy, and unbelievably sad.

Joselyn. He wanted Joselyn to be there. He wanted their entire family to be reunited. He wanted… a lot of things that would never happen, and some that still could.

“Alright, guys,” Deveron announced then, “let’s go meet Abigail and have a picnic in the park.”

It wasn’t perfect, not by any means. Flick was missing, Joselyn was still a prisoner of that monster, his twins were grown and had gone through their own lives and tragedies without him… but it was something. He had his children. He had his grandchild. And as far as the rest of it went, it was just a matter of time.

Now if only he could continue to resist the urge to put Liam in the hospital…

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Interlude 28 – Scout

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There was a mini-interlude focusing on Joselyn posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks! 

“I knew this would happen. I knew it, but you told me they’d be safe. You told me she’d be safe!”

The voice of Liam Mason was audible even through the closed door that led into the room that Headmistress Sinclaire had pulled the man into as soon as he’d started up when she’d arrived. That was how Scout knew that her father was completely beside himself and had lost all control. He didn’t even bother to put up a privacy screen to keep her from hearing his ranting. Why Gaia hadn’t either, she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe the woman was distracted by Avalon’s reaction.

It had been hours since… since… that had happened, since Sands and the others had disappeared. Since they had been taken to Seosten space. Scout had sat through several interrogations, some with Gaia present, some with her father present, and some with neither. The whole time, she gave them almost nothing, limiting herself to head motions and one word answers. The others, mainly Shiori, Sean, and Columbus, had told their interrogators the most about what had happened. Or at least, the most about what they were all willing to say.

As far as the officials were concerned, a powerful Stranger had secretly possessed Columbus as a way of infiltrating Crossroads. Scout and the other members of their team had found out about it and moved to confront him themselves. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that the other team, Jazz’s team, had been infiltrated as well. During the course of Scout’s teams attempt to get answers out of the false Columbus, the false Paul had intervened. That had prompted a massive brawl. And at the end of it, the fake Paul was dead (killed by Avalon in a blind rage after Flick and the others had disappeared), the thing that had been possessing Columbus was dead (killed by Flick), and half of the people who had been there had disappeared with absolutely no answers whatsoever about what had happened to them.

Or at least, that was the collective story that the Heretic interrogators were being given.

Now, Scout was sitting in this room, half-listening to her father rant at the headmistress. Mostly, she was simply sitting there, watching the opposite wall while barely blinking. The girl might as well have been a statue for all the movement that she made. She simply sat, silent and motionless, staring almost unblinkingly at that wall. Her mind was a million light years away.

That was the position that her father found her in when he finally opened the door and stepped out. Blinking at the sight of his daughter sitting like that, the man cringed before moving to kneel by her. “Scout? Honey, are you alr–” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, her father put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing briefly before using his other hand to gently turn her chin so that she would look at him. “Scout, we’ll get her back, okay? I promise. I promise, we’ll find Sands.”

“I know.” The words were quiet, barely audible. But they came easily. She said them before standing up. She stood in front of her father, waiting for him to rise before she put her arms around him. She hugged him, because he needed it. Because he needed her to be there.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” He lifted her off the floor, clutching the girl to his chest while murmuring, “I’m so, so sorry. You shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been safe. I’ll fix it. I will fix it.”

Scout let him talk, let him murmur to himself. She let her father make himself feel better with his words, allowing them to wash over her. Words didn’t matter. They never did.  Actions mattered. But in that moment, her dad needed to say the words. He needed to make the promises, the apologies, swear the oaths. And she let him. Because it didn’t affect her. It didn’t really matter.

He took her home then. Not to her dorm, but to their family’s apartment in the faculty building. Scout ate dinner at her own spot at their dining room table. Her father barely touched his food, but she ate everything that was put in front of her. She barely tasted it, but she did eat it. Food. Fuel. Sustenance. Her body needed it so that she could go on. So she could continue.

Once dinner was over, her father picked up the dishes, setting them aside before turning back to her. “Okay, kiddo,” he started in a dull voice, “I’ll get some blankets for your room, and then we-”

Scout stood from the table and interrupted before he could continue. “I’m going to my room.” Belatedly, she amended, “My room in the school. My dorm.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. She usually said more to her father than she said to others. Not as much as she said to Sands, but he at least tended to get more than the one or two-word answers that she gave most people.

“What?” Her father blinked before shaking his head. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Scout, you can stay here. Trust me, the headmistress will understand. No one’s going to fault you for needing to stay here for now, while your sister… until we get her back. You don’t have to go back there tonight.”

Smiling faintly, Scout left the table. She walked over to where her father was standing and embraced the man tightly, simply hugging him for a few seconds before speaking. Her voice was even softer than usual, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear her. “You’ll find Sands?”

When her father gave an emphatic nod, she stepped back. “Then I’m going where I belong.”  

As she turned to walk to the door, her father spoke weakly. “I just need to know that you’re safe.”

Scout paused there, turning to look back at him. Her response was simple. “So do I.”

She walked out the door. Closing it behind her, Scout hurried out of the faculty building. As she stepped out onto the grounds, the girl caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, finding a familiar woman standing near the corner of the building, staring at the sky.

Biting her lip, she stepped closer, her voice even more tentative than usual. “Professor Dare?”

“Hello, Scout,” Dare answered without looking away from the expansive starfield that filled the night sky. She seemed almost entranced by it. “Does your father know that you’re out here?”

Nodding, Scout moved closer to the woman. She watched her for a moment, then turned her head to look at the sky, taking in the same sight. The girl stood like beside her professor for a couple of minutes. Neither spoke. They simply stood there, watching the stars in utter silence.

Eventually, Dare spoke, voice contemplative. “Do you remember the start of the year, when I tried to call you by your given name instead of Scout?” When the girl nodded, she continued. “Did you ever wonder why I would do that, when I’ve known you since the day you were born?”

Scout paused, thinking about that for a moment before giving the woman another slow nod.

“I wasn’t your pseudo-aunt then,” Dare explained. “I was trying to create a boundary between us, a… professional separation. Maybe I was overcompensating. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you two to think that you could walk all over me just because of how close we’ve been. But now… now I think there was more to it. Before, I didn’t mind being close to you that way, because you were just children. You were kids. But at that point, at that point you became students. You were Heretics. And Heretics get into trouble.” Her voice was flat. “Heretics die.”

The silence returned for almost a full minute then before Professor Dare spoke again. “I’ve lost people, Scout. I’ve lost more people in my life than…” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “My parents, my entire colony was wiped out. Everyone I ever knew, it was…” Again, she went silent as her voice cracked on the last few words. Scout saw the shudder run through the woman before she found her voice once more. “I thought that maintaining a separation once you became Heretics, once you were in actual danger… I thought it would help if anything ever…”

Swallowing hard, Dare looked to her. “I’m sorry, Scout. If I had been a little bit faster, just a little bit, I could have stopped it. I could have paused time and taken those transport orbs away from your sister and–and the others. I could have stopped them from disappearing.”

Scout met the woman’s gaze as she whispered the one thing that she had told herself when her mind had been filled with all that speculation. “Live in what can happen, not what could have.”

Repeating that under her breath, Professor Dare chuckled softly, seemingly surprising herself with it. Her head shook, and she reached out to gently brush a hand through Scout’s hair. “You’re so much stronger than your father thinks you are,” she murmured quietly. “You all are.”

Something about what she had said just then made Scout remember something else very important. Blinking up at the woman, she asked tentatively, “Flick’s dad?”

Wincing, Dare nodded with a long sigh. “I spoke to him for a little bit. Gaia was going to, but she had a… situation to attend to with Avalon.” The woman frowned to herself, making it clear to Scout that there was a lot more to that particular story than she was going to tell her.

“So yes, I went to visit Lincoln. It… didn’t go that well. But he knows what’s going on. I promised that we’d let him know as soon as we find out anything else. And Gabriel is working on something. Between him and Gaia, they’ll work something out.” Again, she brushed her hand through Scout’s hair tenderly. “We just have to trust that your sister and… and the others can take care of themselves until we find a way to bring them back. Right?” She smiled down at her.

Scout nodded, returning the woman’s smile despite herself. She remembered growing up on these grounds. She remembered Aunt Ginny being there for her after her mother was… after that day. She remembered being rocked back and forth by the blonde woman when her father had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Without her mother around, Aunt Ginny had been the closest thing she and Sands had to that kind of figure, since the headmistress was so busy.  

Eventually, Professor Dare walked her across the grounds, back to the dorm. On the way, Scout thought for a moment before looking over at her teacher. “Waiting,” she spoke simply, with a significant look back the way they had come, back to where the woman had been standing.

Dare gave a soft smile, nodding her understanding. “Yes,” she replied, “I was waiting for you to come out. I didn’t know whether you’d tell your father or not, but I knew you wouldn’t stay there.”

They reached the dorm, and Dare gave her a brief hug. “She’ll be okay. We’ll bring them back.”   

Scout returned the hug tightly, giving her professor a soft smile before nodding. Then she stepped into her room,  the room she shared with Sands, and closed the door behind herself.

For a moment, the girl just stood there, motionless and silent. Her eyes slid across the room, landing first on her own bed, then on the one that belonged to Sands. A hard lump formed in her throat as she stared for several long seconds before slowly taking a few steps that way.

She ran her hand over the bed, letting a shudder run through herself before sitting down on the edge of it. Closing her eyes, Scout laid down there, in the exact spot where her sister always slept. Her head found the pillow, the same pillow that Sands’ head always rested on. She inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in the lingering scent of her sister.

The dam broke, shattering apart. And by morning, the pillow was soaked through with her tears.

******

“I know you all want to find your missing teammates and friends,” Gaia announced the next morning. “And we’re working on that, I promise you. For the time being, however, this is the most obvious solution to the fact that both of your teams are at half strength.”

Both of their teams. Scout, Sean, Columbus, and Avalon stood there on one side of the room. On the other side stood Douglas and Rudolph. The two boys were openly staring at Scout and the others for a few seconds before Douglas spoke up. “Half strength? Headmistress, three of our friends completely disappeared, and the other one… the other one was dead for God only knows how long while an imposter waltzed around in his skin. I think you’re understating it.”

Gaia gave a slight nod. “You are correct, Mr. Frey. This situation is…” She paused then, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “This situation is difficult. Mr. Calburn was…” For a moment, Gaia’s eyes closed before opening again. “Mr. Calburn was a wonderful boy. What happened to him was…. At a certain point, you would think that I would have found the perfect words to say in a situation like this. But those words don’t exist. I am very sorry about Paul. The others… we will find them, but Paul…” She took in a long breath, letting it out before continuing. “His family will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow evening. Any of you, or any student, who would like to attend are welcome. Come to me and I will ensure that you make it there. And you will not be expected to attend regular classes until you are ready to do so.

“But this,” the woman continued, lifting a hand to indicate them all, “this is your team. For as long as it takes to find the others and bring them back here where they belong, this will be your team. What you do with that is up to all of you. Personally, I strongly suggest you talk to one another. The rest of the members of both of your teams are out there. They will be learning to work with one another, learning to trust each other. I believe that you can do the same.”

Scout saw the woman’s gaze move briefly toward Avalon then. Gaia looked like she wanted to say something else, something directly to her adopted daughter. But she visibly stopped herself.

As for Avalon, the girl looked tired. Her usually perfect hair was done in a simple ponytail, and it was obvious that she had barely bothered to shower. She was still beautiful, there was no question about it. Even Scout recognized that fact. But there was no effort there, not today. She just stood near the wall behind the others, shoulders hunched as she stared at the floor in silence while Gaia finished explaining their situation and what they were supposed to be doing.

Finished, the woman looked toward Columbus. “For now, Mr. Porter, I believe you have an appointment with Mr. Roe?”

If anything, Columbus looked even worse than Avalon did. If he’d gotten any sleep at all the night before, Scout would be surprised. The boy said nothing at first. He just stood there, listlessly staring. Then he gave a sudden start, as if he’d briefly forgotten that he was the one in charge of his own body again. “I–” He swallowed visibly, giving a slight nod. “Right. Appointment, I can–” Stopping, Columbus looked toward Avalon. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, but no words came out. He just stood there like that for several long seconds before closing his mouth. Then he turned and started toward the door, head down.

“Wait.” The words came from Avalon. She straightened, and Scout saw the girl mouth something inaudible to herself before moving over to where Columbus was. Slowly, Avalon reached up to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Porter,” she started slowly, her voice cracking once before she got it under control. “Porter, everyone here besides Gaia is only alive and safe because of you. You can be as hard as you want on yourself if it makes you better. But remember that. As much as that bitch took from you, don’t forget it. You could have surrendered. You could have given up, curled into a ball, and let everything happen. But you didn’t. You fought. She let her guard down because she thought you were broken. She ignored you because she thought she had already beaten you. But she didn’t win. You did. No matter what happens, no matter what that cunt said to you, remember that.

“You won.”

Columbus looked choked up for a second. He met the girl’s gaze, and Scout saw him swallow hard before managing a weak, “Thanks… thanks, Avalon.”

“No.” The girl shook her head pointedly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving our lives.”

******

“Scout?” Vanessa Moon’s voice came in a stage-whisper as the blonde girl pulled herself up onto the roof of the girl’s dorm much later, after the sun had gone down. “Are you–” She visibly stopped herself from asking if Scout was okay. “How are you doing?”

Tristan, pulling himself up behind his sister, nodded. “Yeah, what–what’s going on?” 

Scout had left notes asking both of them to meet her up here once they were done with everything else that they needed to do. Then she had come up to wait, throwing her baseball around while she waited.

Now, she stood up, holding the ball in one hand while turning to face the twins. With her other hand, she activated a privacy coin before speaking. “We have to help the others.”

Both Tristan and Vanessa looked surprised, probably because they weren’t accustomed to her saying more than a couple words at a time. But this wasn’t time for that. Scout needed to communicate. Her sister wasn’t here to translate for her. As hard as it was, as uncomfortable as it made her, she had to talk.

“Um, we want to help them, sure. I mean, stuck on the other side of space because of a banishment orb… Trust me, we’re there.” Vanessa was nodding. “But how do we–”

“They need help,” Scout interrupted. And boy did that feel strange. “We… we can’t help them. But your father can. And my mother. We… we have to tell them.”

“Tell them?” Tristan shook his head. “Scout, how can we–”

It was Vanessa’s turn to interrupt. “She’s talking about the–the visions I’ve been having, right? When I saw through Dad’s eyes. But, Scout, I can’t communicate that way. I can’t even do it on purpose. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to do it.”

Scout nodded at that. “You need training.”

“Training?” Vanessa echoed, clearly confused. “How am I supposed to get training? It’s not like there’s any Seosten around who can tell me what I’m doing or how to get better at it.”

Smiling slowly, Scout replied, “Next best thing. Seosten-Heretic.”

“Seosten-Heretic?” Vanessa abruptly started a bit. “You mean Enguerrand, the guy at Gabriel Prosser’s camp?”

Once again, Scout nodded. “Gaia said he could teach you. If you want. We can visit the camp.”

Vanessa’s head jerked into an immediate nod. “Wh–yes, yes, of course. I want to help.”

“She’s right,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, I can’t even do what Nessa can yet, but still. Anything we can do. We’re there. After everything Flick–” He coughed. “We’ll help, whatever it takes.”

The answer made Scout smile. “Good.

“Then let’s go.”

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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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Mini-Interlude 20 – Scout

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Please note, the following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout. It takes place about a week or so before the current events, not too long before Scout and Sands leave for their European trip with their father.

The satisfying pop of the fast-moving ball landing smack in the middle of the open leather glove was followed almost instantly by the whiff of the swinging bat cutting through the air just barely too late.

“Whoo,” the boy with the bat, Tristan Moon, tapped the end of it against the ground while shaking his head. “Nessa’s right, you’ve got a great arm over there. What’d you do, kill a Stranger-Nolan Ryan?”

Standing where she was, Scout Mason felt a blush touch her face. Which wasn’t anything new. It seemed like any time anyone addressed her, the uncertainty and embarrassment tried to set in, let alone if they were paying her a compliment. Strangely, criticism wasn’t as bad. She could handle that. It was when people were nice to her that she felt weird and didn’t know how to respond.

After finally settling on shaking her head, she held her glove up and waited. Rude. Wasn’t it rude not to say anything? But she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know what to say. She hardly ever knew what to say to anyone, let alone when it was someone as boisterous and… well, confident as Tristan.

“See?” Vanessa herself straightened up from her crouched position behind her brother, shaking her hand out where the wicked fast ball had slammed into her glove before looking to the boy. “I told you she’d be a good match for you.” As she spoke, the blonde girl carefully threw the ball back to Scout. She wasn’t quite as awkward and uncertain as she had been when the pair had first started to play catch on the roof of the dorm, though it was obvious she would never be the kind of natural athlete her brother was.

Scout saw the sly look on the boy’s face at Vanessa’s choice of words. The same look she’d seen on plenty of other faces when someone left them open for a great joke or bit of teasing. His eyes glanced toward her, mouth open to put voice to what was obviously a play off of his sister calling her a ‘good match.’

Except he didn’t. The words were obviously there and ready to come out, but the boy paused when he looked at Scout. Remaining silent like that for a couple seconds, he finally shrugged and set himself back up with the bat up. “All right, let’s go, let’s go. I got your timing now.”

Vanessa resumed her position, and Scout took a moment while asking herself why the boy hadn’t said anything. It was obvious that he caught the unintended insinuation, yet he chose not to capitalize on it. He just let it go after he looked at her.

Rather than dwell, she carefully checked the ball against her mitt. Taking a breath, she wound up and then let it fly.

As promised, the boy was ready. That time, his wooden bat connected with the ball rather solidly. The white sphere rebounded from the bat with a satisfying crack that sent the ball spinning off into the air toward the right side of the grassy field they were in.

Scout didn’t bother chasing it. Instead, she turned to watch while tucking her mitt under her arm. Further out, a different figure went after the ball. A very different figure. Tristan’s giant robotic snake twisted its way through the grass, head craned up to watch as it moved at a pretty impressive clip considering its lack of legs, managing to keep up with the flying ball and stay under it as it began to fall. Mouth opening wide, the snake let the ball fall right inside, swallowing it. In the same second, the snake rotated, to aim its mouth toward Scout and fired the ball back toward her. She quickly caught the ball with her glove and turned back to the boy.

“Aww, whose side are you on, Bobbi?” Tristan called to his snake. “You could’ve let that one go.”

“Her name is Bobbi-Bobbi,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not Bobbi.” She, of course, had been the one to come up with the name for the snake-robot that had become her brother’s weapon and companion.

For his part, the boy just blinked. “There’s a difference between saying it once and saying it twice?”

“I’m gonna make you read the book,” the blonde girl threatened before sighing. “Bobbi-Bobbi was the Australian snake-god, remember? Loved humans, gave them bats so they’d have something to eat. Only the bats flew too high to reach, so he took one of his own ribs and gave it to the humans to use as the first boomerang.”

“Right.” Tristan gave a quick, satisfied nod before teasing, “Don’t worry, sis, I’ll only ask you to explain it fourteen more times before it sticks.” With a wink, he called to his partner. “You must reaaaaally love being helpful, don’t you, Bobbi-Bobbi? Just like your namesake.”

The snake made a hissing noise of agreement, and Tristan shook his head before focusing on where Scout was still standing. “Err, right, speaking of being helpful… you mind if we take a little break and talk about something serious?”

Giving her head a quick nod, Scout started to gesture that she would head off to give the two some privacy so they could talk. To her surprise, however, Vanessa shook her head. “No, um, it’s sort of something we want to talk with you about.”

Blinking at that, the quiet girl hesitated before walking in to join them. Her eyes moved quizzically from one to the other.

It was Tristan who spoke first. “Listen, you can do that whole… coin spell thing, right? We sort of need that, just in case.”

Coin spell. Right, the privacy spell. Clearly the boy just hadn’t wanted to be obvious by outright saying the word. With a quick nod, Scout reached into her pocket and took out one of several already-prepared coins that she had from back when the rest of her team kept asking her to do it. Touching her finger to the coin, she activated the spell before nodding to them.

“Great,” Tristan started immediately, not even bothering to beat around the bush. “We need your help to find our parents.”

Clearly recognizing the surprised look on Scout’s face, Vanessa quickly put in, “You remember who—I mean what they are, right? And what happened to them?”

Scout hesitated before slowly nodding. Her voice was a whisper as she spoke only two words. “Garden. Seosten.”

“Yeah, our dad was from Eden’s Garden and our mom was one of the Seosten,” Tristan confirmed. “But the thing is, Nessa’s been looking everywhere in this place and there’s nothing about the Seosten. Nothing. We even asked Gaia and she said that Heretics don’t learn about them. It’s like everything about those dicks has been erased and removed. Which isn’t surprising considering, you know, they made this place.”

“The point,” Vanessa added before her brother could rant any further. “Is that there’s nothing here, so we were hoping you could help.”

She wanted to, obviously. Except… Scout hesitated before whispering a single word. “Vacation.”

Both twins bobbed their heads up and down quickly. Tristan spoke first. “Right, we know. You’re heading out with your sis and dad pretty soon. Off to Europe and all that?”

That was right. In fact, Sands was busy packing up the last of their stuff as they spoke. And probably cajoling their father for more spending money for she and Scout to spend on souvenirs. They’d be leaving pretty much as soon as that was finished.

When she nodded silently, Vanessa gave her a slight smile. “That’s kind of why we’re asking you for help, actually.” She went on in the face of Scout’s uncertain look. “See, you’re going to Europe. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden still have presences there, but they’re not as strong. There’s even entire countries where different Heretic groups are in charge, like France. Crossroads and the Garden barely have an embassy there, and they don’t really have any power. So we were thinking that–”

Scout’s eyes lit up with realization, and she silently raised both hand to pantomime opening a book.

“Yeah!” Vanessa clearly couldn’t hold back her smile. “If the Seosten don’t have as much power in those other places, there might be books about them. We were hoping you could maybe look around while you’re there. Just see if there’s anything about them, or Strangers that possess people, or angels or… or anything like that.”

“Sorry, we know it’s a lot to ask,” Tristan added with a regretful look while laying a hand on the head of Bobbi-Bobbi. “But we don’t really have an easy way to get over there. So when Nessa found out where you were going, we figured… it couldn’t hurt to ask. But if it’s too much, don’t worry about–”

Scout interrupted by holding a hand up to stop the boy. Her head nodded once, and she gave them a tiny smile. Of course she’d help them find their parents. If there had been a chance of saving her mother, she knew she’d never, ever stop trying. She’d run herself into the ground for a chance to go back and rescue her mother from the… from the–

She forced herself to focus, tuning out the memory of the Stranger simulating her mother’s voice to plead for the young Sarah to come out and help her. Looking straight at the other two, she announced simply, “I’ll help.”

A look of obvious relief crossed over their expressions, and Vanessa actually hugged her. “Thank you, thank you. If you find anything, it’ll help. But especially anything about an orb that can teleport people to other worlds and bind them there. If there’s a way to track them, or to undo it, or to build another one, or to–”

“She gets it, Nessa,” Tristan gently interrupted while putting an arm around his twin. “Really, anything at all. Like we were saying, the Seostains erased everything that could’ve been in here. Or they stop it from being recorded at all. Whichever, there’s nothing, so we’re running on just what Grandpa Nick could tell me. Or would tell me. Plus, you know, maybe the Natural Heretics here on Earth found out something he doesn’t know about.”

Scout was already nodding when she saw two figures approaching from across the field. Quickly dismissing the privacy spell, she murmured an almost silent warning while nodding that way so that they’d stop talking about it.

Still, Vanessa gave her a smile and mouthed, ‘Thank you’ while her brother raised his hand in front of his chest to give her a hidden thumbs up. Even Bobbi-Bobbi leaned in and pushed her nose against her shoulder in a show of affection.

“Hey, guys!” Scout’s father called once he and Sands were close enough. “Sorry to interrupt your game, but we’ve gotta get going if we’re gonna make it in time for dinner. Rome’s about seven hours ahead of us.”

Sands turned to poke the man before stepping over to her sister’s side. “So that’s why you wouldn’t let us eat lunch. I thought you were just making some kind of object lesson about respecting people who don’t have as much food as we do or something.”

Their dad gave her a look. “Now what kind of father do you think I am?”

Sands shrugged. “I dunno, one who wouldn’t let me have the cheeseburger I wanted an hour ago?”

Shaking his head, Scout’s father looked toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You two all right over there? We weren’t interrupting anything important, I hope.”

“Nope,” Tristan lied so easily that Scout was immediately envious. “Just trying to decide who got to bat next. Guess it’s Nessa by default.” When Bobbi-Bobbi bumped against him, he shot her an exaggeratedly exasperated look. “You can’t bat, you don’t even have hands!”

Chuckling, the man reached out to grab both of his daughters by the shoulder. “Right, good luck with that. All right, girls, ready to go? All the stuff’s waiting in the Pathmaker.”

“O’course we’re ready!” Sands blurted. “We’ve been ready forever. I’m starving, old man. Let’s go.”

So they started off, heading for the portal building that would send them clear across the globe. On the way, Scout looked back over her shoulder toward the other pair of twins. Vanessa and Tristan were watching, matching expressions of mixed relief and worry on their faces.

She gave them a quick, surreptitious thumbs up before turning back.

Of course she’d help them find information about the Seosten. After all, she hadn’t forgotten that those were the people who had created the Bystander Effect, and probably everything else that had to do with the hated, vile memory erasing spells.

Which meant that if she was going to fulfill the vow to herself to get rid of all of those horrible, evil spells so that everyone could retain their memories the way they should, she’d have to find out as much as possible about the Seosten themselves anyway. If it meant helping Vanessa and Tristan along the way, that was even better.

But one way or another, she was going to make sure no one’s memory was ever erased against their will again.

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A Learning Experience 17-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d love to talk about your mother.”

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