Namid

Interlude 3A – Erin Redcliffe (Heretical Edge 2)

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She was a hostage. 

Erin Redcliffe understood that now. Actually, it hadn’t taken her that long to figure out. She was a hostage being held against her father. Not her birth father. That jackass had split with her mother when she was three so he could go live with some colony girl. Then her mother had died when Erin was about nine. She’d been taken in and adopted by Nolan Redcliffe. He was her real father, and he was the one she was being held hostage against. Not that anyone would admit that straight up, but it was the truth. 

Her father was a rebel, but he wasn’t actually helping the rebels. The new ones, that was. Erin knew that, because she’d actually talked to him over video chat in Headmaster Mason’s office. Yeah, Sands and Scout’s dad was the new headmaster at Crossroads. And he had made it clear that she wasn’t supposed to mention the ‘traitors’, or the call would be cut off. Oh, he’d been nice about it and all. He’d phrased it as if avoiding touchy subjects was best for everyone. But she could read between the lines. Just like she’d read between the lines of the bullshit nothing comments from her father about how he was going to be busy doing some extra work for awhile and that she should be good for Mason and the teachers at Crossroads. 

He wasn’t doing anything. She knew that much just from looking at him on that video chat, just from hearing the things he said and things he didn’t say. He wasn’t working for Crossroads and he wasn’t working for the new rebellion. Or ‘traitors’ as Headmaster Mason called them. He was sitting out everything to protect her. Obviously, Crossroads had made some kind of deal with him, and probably with the parents or guardians of other students here. They sat out the war, and their kids would be safe. Who knew what would happen if they didn’t sit it out. Erin wasn’t even sure if the threats had been specific or just implied. Either way, they were enough. 

So, she’d spent the past few months basically holed up on the island, desperate to find out what was really going on. But it was impossible to get real information. She and a few of the others that she’d managed to find out were also leaning toward believing the revelations that Flick and Gaia had magically uploaded into everyone’s minds were being kept in the dark about everything rebellion-wise. They were meant to sit around and ‘enjoy themselves’ over the summer. Right.

At least now school had started. Which was… something of a distraction. And now that they’d been going to classes for a couple weeks, they were even allowing Erin to leave the island. Sort of. She was going along with the rest of her new team (everyone had been shuffled up for the start of school) on their first official monster hunt of the year. Which was something she’d expected to at least be delayed for awhile, but nope. Something about keeping to tradition. A part of her wondered if some of it was also because Headmaster Mason wanted to prove to the Committee that he was capable of keeping things under control and running smoothly. 

Well, that and the fact that sticking them out here on hunting missions was clearly also a potential trap for any family members who might come to pick them up. They had extra security guarding every hunting group, and all the participants, including Erin, were outfitted with a magic bracelet that could teleport them straight to Crossroads at any time if something went off script. Which they said was because of all the events that happened last year with the hunts, but as good of an excuse as that was, Erin was pretty sure the real reason was to yank them back if any of their rebel-leaning family members tried to intervene to get them out of there. 

Seriously, at exactly what point in the course of actually holding students hostage with magical leashes intended to stop their own family members and friends from rescuing them did these people look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they might just possibly be the bad guys? 

Whatever, it was just good to get off the island for a while, though she was also pretty sure that this was a test to see how they would react to killing things after that little memory upload. Mason and the rest wanted to see if they would hesitate too much after hearing the rebellion’s theory about Strangers not all being evil. 

So here they were, her whole team on the first hunt. Her team this year consisted of Zeke Leven and Malcolm Harkess, both members of her team from last year, as well as Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Erin’s new roommate, a Middle Eastern-looking girl named Laila. Erin hadn’t interacted with her very much the year before, because Laila always kept to herself and didn’t say much. Either that had changed this year, or she was different with roommates, because Laila had been asking her a lot of questions every night about what happened the year before. Erin told her that she hadn’t been involved with any of it and that Vanessa had kept everything a secret even from her. Which was a fact that still hurt to think about. Not just from Vanessa, but Sands and Scout too. The three of them had grown up together. They were supposed to be friends. Her dad and their mom were like… besties for a long time. And neither they, nor Vanessa, had said anything to her. 

So yeah, that hurt. And she wasn’t even sure Laila believed it. 

But frankly, Erin had more things to worry about than what her new roommate believed. Most importantly in this very moment was the question of what she was going to do about this whole hunting thing. She’d been thinking about the rebellion’s message for months now, and she just… she believed them even more now than she had that first night. It felt right, even if that meant that everything she’d been taught for so long was wrong. 

But even believing the rebellion’s message, what was she supposed to do about it? She couldn’t exactly just refuse to hunt. That wouldn’t  go over well. And there were very clearly actual bad monsters out there. Monsters that did need to be killed. But she couldn’t trust the people she was supposed to be able to trust to point her at the right ones. 

She wanted to talk to her dad, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not without strict supervision making it impossible to really talk. 

So, she had no actual help on that front. And here she was on the first hunt. She and the rest of her team were standing just outside the loading dock of a grocery store. According to their briefing for this hunt, a pack of Crocotta had taken up residence in the place. They were a sort of magical wolf-dog hybrid creature that was as big as a lion and had teeth that could and did eat through anything. They were always hungry, eating whenever possible because of their fast digestion. And that digestion could apparently take anything. They ate meat and such, but also metals, brick, wood, everything. They were like super powered termites shaped like really big wolf dogs. 

And they had already killed several people in the store before it was shut down by a few Adjacents in the local police department, people without the Bystander Effect for various reasons who helped out a bit but were not actual full Heretics. 

Now Erin and her team were being sent in to kill the monsters, with plenty of people watching over their shoulders to see how they did. And how they reacted to it. She was pretty sure it was no accident that the creatures they were being sent after for their first hunt were non-humanoid and had already clearly killed people. It was a test, but also a safe one. They were being eased into things. 

“Yo, Earth to Erin.” Malcolm’s voice cut through her inner musings, and Erin snapped back to the present. Right, the store. They were right there.

“I’m good,” she whispered back before looking to the others. Malcolm, Zeke, Laila, Freya, and Summer. For whatever reason, they had put her in charge. Well, Zeke nominated himself, but the others pushed for Erin. And Namid, their new team mentor for the year, had taken their suggestions. 

“Okay,” she continued, speaking quietly despite the magical charm they were using to keep their conversation private, “three in the back and three in the front. The three in the front go in and start driving them back this way. If they attack straight on, the ones in the back come in and hit them from behind. If they turn and run, the ones back here stop them and the ones in the front are the ones who hit them from behind. Good?”

Zeke looked like he might argue, but seemed to catch himself. Instead, the boy ran a hand through his wild mop of brown hair and adjusted his glasses before giving a short nod. “Who’s going around front?”

“Malcolm, Summer, and me,” Erin replied after thinking about it for a second. That would split the team’s two best fighters, Malcolm and Freya, between both groups. And if the monsters did retreat back this way, Freya and Zeke both had shields to help keep them from escaping. Finally, it put the team’s two big weapons, Freya’s rocket launcher (combined from her shield and warhammer) and Summer’s railgun (converted from her shockprod-and-sawblade armed staff) at opposite ends of the store to hit the monsters from either side. 

Still, after making that decision, Erin turned toward the nearby empty semi-truck to look at the girl who stood there. 

“Hey,” Namid idly replied, “I’m just here in case you all fuck up completely. So don’t fuck up, okay?” After a second, she relented and gestured. “If you were doing something really stupid, I’d say something. Note the lack of me saying something.”

Namid. Erin was pretty sure that being a team mentor was about as far from something the punk Native American girl wanted to do as dying her hair blonde, putting on a bright pink dress, and entering one of those Bystander beauty pageants. Unfortunately, it seemed like Litonya, Namid’s great-something aunt, hadn’t given her that much of a choice. But, as much as she clearly didn’t want to do it, Namid wasn’t a bad mentor. She spoke up when she needed to and actually taught them things. She was good at it. At least, she had been over this past couple of weeks. Whatever anger or annoyance she felt at being forced into this, she wasn’t taking it out on Erin and the others. Which actually just seemed to prove that Litonya hadn’t been wrong to put her in this position. 

Quietly, Erin, Malcolm, and Summer made their way around to the front of the store. The parking lot was almost entirely empty and the doors were locked. The inside of the place looked dark, but they could occasionally see shapes moving around between the aisles. The monsters were definitely still in there. 

Touching the badge on her uniform to communicate with everyone at once, Erin spoke up. “Okay, guys. On the count of five, we’re going in. Rear team, stay put until we tell you what they’re doing. Be ready to come in or receive if they run. We’re going in loud so they know we’re here.”

 After getting a collection of acknowledgments, she started counting down. In the process, she freed her sword from its scabbard, noting Malcolm pulling out his own massive hammer and Summer producing her staff. They were ready. 

Reaching zero, Erin lashed outward with her sword. The weapon’s special ability allowed it to control and manipulate the wind. In this case, she used that to generate a hurricane force gust that slammed into the doors with enough strength that the glass was shattered in all of them and went spraying inward throughout the front of the store. 

With the other two at her side, Erin went running right through the opening she had made. The sound of savage barking and howling throughout the store greeted them. The Crocotta were apparently not interested in trying to flee. 

So, Erin let the others know to attack from the other side, and the fight throughout the dimly lit store was on. 

********

After what felt like far longer than the eight minutes it actually was, Erin was very carefully making her way through the snacks aisle. The rest of the team was either spread out throughout the store as they searched for more of the wild monsters, or watching either exit in the case of Freya and Malcolm. They’d already killed more than half of the Crocotra, and now they had to find the rest.

Everyone could be in communication with the others at any point, and Malcolm had touched his hammer against each of them. Which meant he could teleport in next to any of them at any point if they got in trouble. They could do this. They could finish this hunt. Then Erin could go back to figuring out a way to get hold of her father and get away from Crossroads. 

But for the moment, she had to focus on this. There were still monsters in here, monsters who had definitely killed people. Slowly, her eyes scanned the aisle. Seeing nothing, she instead raised the hand that wasn’t clutching her sword and focused on one of her powers. Gradually, a faint red fog appeared, along with a slight yellow one mixed in. The power allowed her to create a visible representation of various strong emotions felt within a certain timeframe. Anger and violent feelings were red and fear was yellow. Only a short time earlier, something feeling very angry and slightly afraid had come right through here. One of the monsters. Following the trail, Erin made her way to the end of the aisle. Rather than poke her head out, she summoned another power. This one brought a small crystal ball to her hand. She threw the ball out about ten feet, then summoned it back. When the ball was back in her palm, she focused on it, and an image of everything the orb had seen while it was out there came to her mind. She could see everything from all sides, everywhere the sphere had a view on. She saw herself standing there and the area surrounding the end of the aisle. And she saw the huge wolf-dog creature crouched behind one of the refrigeration units in the middle of the open space. It was waiting for her. 

Slowly, Erin started to raise a hand to the badge to let the others know she had one. But her hand froze in mid-motion, as she noticed that the creature wasn’t alone. There were several much smaller versions curled up behind it. Pups. The thing had puppies. 

Well, what the fuck was she supposed to do now? Crossroads would say to kill the things before they could get bigger. But they were just puppies. Puppies being protected by their mother or father. Damn it, this was supposed to be simple! 

“Erin,” Malcolm’s voice came, “you got anything?”

Pausing for a brief moment, she reached up to touch the badge before they could think anything was wrong, whispering, “Not sure yet. I’ll let you know.”

Just as she finished saying that, Erin sensed something behind her. She started to spin with a yelp, but a hand suddenly covered her mouth and she was yanked backward. Jerking free, she shoved the person who had grabbed her away and spun with her sword out.

It was a teenaged girl, a very thin one with hair that was long and black as opposed to Erin’s own short, currently neon green hair. 

She was also clearly not that strong, considering she almost collapsed completely when Erin shoved her. “Oof,” she half-yelped and half-gasped. “Boy, you’re really strong. I mean girl. You’re definitely a girl, even if you’re really strong.” 

Staring at the girl for a moment, Erin blurted, “Who the hell are you?”

The girl, in turn, shook her head while straightening up. “No, the question is, who are you? I mean, I had that question before I touched you. And you didn’t know I was there, so I definitely had the question first. And why did you have a big leash spell all over you?”

“Look,” Erin started, “you need t— Wait, you know what magic is? Who are you? Where did you come from? Wait, are you from Eden’s Garden? Or the rebellion?”

The girl stared at her blankly. “I’m from 3621 Montgomery, about three blocks that way.” She pointed before turning that finger toward Erin. “What’s Eden’s Garden? What’s the Rebellion? Were you the ones who sent the spy eggs? I thought you worked for Galazien the Iron-Souled, but you’re not nearly evil enough for that. And he usually makes his women wear bikini chainmail.”

“The spy—what?” Erin was now even more confused and started to ask for clarification. Then something else the girl had said suddenly struck her. “Wait, you said why did I have a leash spell, past tense. Why did you use past tense?” 

Staring back at her evenly, the thin girl replied, “Oh, it doesn’t function in the circle. None of that magic stuff on you does. It’s a protection circle.”

Looking at the floor where the girl gestured, Erin saw various symbols drawn on the floor.  A second later, voices caught her attention, and she turned to see Malcolm and Zeke come running. Her mouth open to say something, but Malcolm spoke first. “Where the hell is she?”

“They can’t see or hear you until you step out of the circle,” the strange girl informed her while Zeke and Malcolm walked right past them, stepping on the spell runes to no apparent effect. “It only works for people I pull onto it, so we’re cut off from those others.”

“What about th—” As she started to ask about the monster, Erin glanced that way, only to see nothing there. A fact that Malcolm and Zeke confirmed by stepping all the way over there and finding nothing. 

“She’s my friend,” the girl informed her firmly. “Her and her puppies. They were here a long time before the other ones. The other ones showed up and started killing people yesterday, but she’s nice. She’s not like them. So I sent her and the puppies away. I was going to make an illusion spell for you and your friends to chase, but you told them you didn’t find her.” She frowned. “That’s why I pulled you onto my privacy circle. Why did you do that? Why did you lie to your friends and tell them you didn’t find her?”

Erin’s mind was reeling. But there was one thing she had to focus on, even as she saw Malcolm starting to call in the fact that she had disappeared. “Look, wait, I’ve got just as many questions as you do, about who you are, how you know all this, and what the hell is going on. But there’s just one important thing right now. You said that Leash spell doesn’t work in here, right? Can you get rid of it completely?” That had to be the magic they’d put on the wristband that would yank her back to Crossroads. “And can you do it fast? Because we have to get out of here. You get me out of here without that spell and without any of those guys following and I’ll answer anything you want to know.”

With a shrug, the other girl crouched to touch one of the runes. She seemed to pour some power into it with a look of focused concentration before pointing at Erin. A beam of silver light lashed out, hitting the wristband and disintegrating it.

By that point, the rest of the team was there along with Namid. They were all looking around, shouting her name. An instant later, two adult Heretics from the security team came bursting through a portal with their weapons drawn. They started setting up spells, ordering the other students to go through the portal and get back to Crossroads. There was a lot of arguing, and another adult Heretic appeared.

“Boy,” the strange girl remarked, “there sure are a lot of you.”

Erin’s head shook. “You have no idea. And I don’t care how good your privacy spell is, Miss Magicka, they’re going to figure out we’re here any second. They’re too good to be fooled for long. Do you have any way to send us out of the store like you sent the Crocotra and her pups?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “but for the record, my name’s Dylan, not Miss Magicka. I—”

“There!” one of the adult Heretics blurted, pointing right at them. 

“You’re right,” Dylan remarked, “they are good.” With that, she pulled a pouch from her pocket and threw it at the ground. Even as the rest of the Heretics suddenly moved their way, a cloud of blue smoke enveloped the pair. 

And they were gone. 

Author’s Note: Dylan was both introduced and last seen in second edition of Patreon Snippets, third entry from the top, located here: https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/patreon-snips-2/

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The Third Degree 21-06

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When I’d first met Namid, that time back when she and that one guy, Hue, had found Shiori and me talking (and just talking) in the storage room, I’d thought that she looked like the stereotypical thug. Now? Well, now I had pretty much the exact same impression.  

As she opened the door to let us in, I gave the older girl a quick once-over. She wore a white button-up shirt identical to any of the school uniforms, except hers had the sleeves cut off all the way to the shoulders. On her bare arms, I could see what looked like tribal tattoos running all the way down to her wrists. And instead of the normal uniform jacket, Namid wore a sleeveless denim vest with a bunch of patches of various bands that I didn’t recognize all over it.

“Oh,” she announced succinctly upon seeing us, “it’s you guys.” Gesturing as she pivoted to walk back into the room, the girl added, “Come on then, you might as well get in here.”

Sands and I looked at each other briefly before stepping inside. I leaned back to close the door before glancing around the room. It was pretty similar to the first year dorms, except a little big bigger. And in the middle of the room, between the two beds, there was a terrarium (or was it an aquarium? It was sort half-land and half-water) with two turtles in it. One was swimming around in the water portion while the other seemed to be sunning itself on the pebbles under the lamp.

Noticing me looking at the tank, Namid gestured to the turtle in the water, then the one on the rocks. “That’s Laird and that’s Eastman. Say hi, boys.” She made a finger motion, and a plate by the tank flew up and over to me until I caught it out of the air. On the plate there were some green beans and cabbage. “Feed the boys if you want,” the girl added while sitting on her bed. “They’ve been good. Oh, and there’s some worms in the cupboard under the tank. Mix it up.”   

Glancing toward Sands again, I shrugged before stepping over to feed the turtles. “Now, don’t get jealous, Herbie,” I instructed the rock while taking him out of my pocket so he could sit on the edge of the tank. “You know you’ll get fed tonight. Can’t have you going off your diet.”

In the background, I heard Namid ask conversationally, “So uh, your teammate, was she always this fucking crazy, or did the constant ambushes and attacks just finally make her snap?”

The casual shrug in Sands’ voice was obvious even without looking. “She brought the rock with her before the first day even started, so I’m gonna go with ‘she was always like this.’”

“Hey,” I retorted after letting Laird eat a green bean out of my hand, “I might’ve already been a crazy person, but now I’m a superpowered crazy person, with special Kung Fu action.” To demonstrate, I made a few chopping and punching motions vaguely in the air with my free hand.

“Eh,” the older girl shrugged. “At least your crazy is directed toward anthropomorphizing rocks and shit. I’ve seen much worse outlets for the kind of shit you’ve been going through this year.”   

She didn’t know the half of it. Shaking my head, I reached down to get under the tank and found the bucket she had been talking about. It was full of dirt, and I could see the worms squirming around inside. With Namid’s eyes on me, watching curiously, I reached into the dirt and dug through it to find a long one. Taking it out, I looked at the writhing, wiggling thing for a second before feeding it to one of the turtles. “Lots of people go through shit around here,” I muttered.

Before the other girl could say anything to that, Sands cut in. “That’s kinda why we want to get this extra credit thing done. You know, before anything else happens to fuck up our work again.”

“Sure, sure, right.” Raising an eyebrow pointedly, Namid held her hand out and waited expectantly until Sands put what looked like two twenty dollar bills in her palm. Then the older girl glanced at them, rubbed both with her fingers, and slid them away into a pocket with a smile. “Perfect,” she announced with a grin. “If nothing else, you freshmen are always good to make a little pocket change off of. What was it you needed for Project Kiss-The-Teacher’s-Ass again?”

Remembering what Sands had said our excuse was, I replied, “Our project’s on ancient Native American Heretics. Specifically, Native American Heretics and the magic artifacts they used.”  

Gesturing, Namid instructed, “Hey, make sure Laird gets a worm too. Don’t let Eastman hog everything.” Watching for another second to make sure I was feeding both turtles properly, she finally focused on our issue. “Anyway, so you’re going all Indiana Jones, huh? I mean, admit it, Old Indy going after some kind of big Native artifact and getting chased by a Skinwalker or something would’ve been a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck that alien shit was.”  

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I coughed and nodded. “Sure, but does that mean you know a lot about it? We figured talking to someone like you would be better than digging into a book.”

“Or at least a little less boring,” Sands added while rolling her eyes. “Not all of us are Vanessa.”

“Hey, you paid for it,” Namid replied, clearly defensively. “I might like taking cash out of you adorable little freshmens’ hands, but I earn every fucking penny. I don’t cheat. You paid for good stuff, I’ll give you enough shit to make Dare wanna make you a guest lecturer or something. ”

“You really know that much about that stuff?” I asked hesitantly, making myself sound unsure about all of it. “ We were gonna ask Aylen, but she’s a uh, Bystander-kin, so she doesn’t know.”

Sands nodded. “Yeah, Silverstones aren’t exactly that useful to get extra information out-”

“Hey,” the older girl snapped surprisingly, squinting at her. “Don’t use that word. I don’t like it.”

Blinking, Sands glanced to me before hesitantly asking, “What word? Silverstone? It’s just a–”

“I know what it is,” Namid informed her. “And I also don’t care what anyone dresses it up as. It’s a word they use to separate people who grew up with Heretics from those who didn’t. And we’ve already got one of those. Bystander-Kin. Silverstone started as an insult. Clueless. Doesn’t matter if they don’t mean it that way now. It’s still an insult. So, you use the word again, and we’ve got problems. Problems that forty bucks ain’t gonna get your little twin ass out of, got it?”

Still looking a little surprised by the other girl’s hot retort, Sands quickly nodded. “Uh, sure. Okay. I just uhh–” She coughed, looking toward me for help after failing to find more words.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” I hurriedly put in before gesturing. “All she was saying was that Aylen doesn’t know much about the Heretic side of things because she wasn’t born into it.”

“True,” Namid agreed before adding, “so let’s get into it. You wanna know about artifacts, you came to the right person. You might say that my family has a… certain history with them.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before offering, “You’ve got relatives that collect them?”

The older girl raised an eyebrow at that. “You could say that. My great… great… something great-aunt Litonya collects them. Or she used to, before…”

“Litonya?” Sands jumped on the opportunity. “You mean Litonya from the Committee? She’s your relative?”

“And what do you mean, ‘she used to’?” I added.

Snorting at that, Namid shrugged. “Not that she’s very proud of that fact, but sure, yeah. We’re related. Great-Aunt Litty, she fucking hates it when I call her that, by the way. Like I said, she used to collect all those artifacts. I guess she still does, but she lost most of her collection about a year or so ago.”

“Lost it?” I repeated, trying my best to make it sound like this was just an interesting extra bit, rather than the exact thing we’d come to find out. “How’d that happen?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in then, “Didn’t she keep the important things in a blood-vault?”

Namid shrugged again. “Usually, yeah. But a couple times a year, she had them taken out to be cleaned, examined, and processed. You know, in case any of the artifacts she had could be used to handle any outstanding cases. They’d go through the worst problems the adult Heretics have been dealing with, then look through all those old artifacts and see if any of them could help.”

“That’s… useful,” I murmured before looking at the older girl. “But it didn’t go so well that time?”

Her eyes rolled. “You could say that. Should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty bitch about it. Apparently some pack of werewolves jumped the examiners while they were cleaning everything. Got away with about three-quarters of her collection before she showed up. Of course, they also killed four Heretics in the process, but what Litty actually cared about was her precious fucking treasure.”

Right, so all those items, probably including the Ring of Anuk-Ité, had been stolen by a pack of werewolves. Obviously, it was the same pack that Pace was part of. Lemuel’s pack. But that didn’t explain why the ring was now a choker. And I couldn’t exactly be that open about it.

Instead, I tried to get there from another angle. “Why couldn’t Litonya track the artifacts down again? I mean, you’d think she’d have some kind of magic tracking spell stuck onto them or something if they were that valuable.”

“Sure, of course they did.” Namid nodded. “But apparently the wolves either knew magic or knew someone else who could use it, because they blocked the tracking spells. Erased them somehow. I dunno, but trust me, if Litty had a way of tracking them down, she would’ve by now. Especially that fucking ring.”

Struggling not to verbally leap on that too much, I coughed, looking at Sands and back again before trying to sound casual. “Ring?”

“Ring of Anuk-Ité,” she replied. “Fuck, you should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty go on and on and on about that thing. It’s why she put the extra protection on it. Not that it helped, which just pissed her off more.”

“What–umm, what extra protection?” Sands asked before I could.

Namid sat up on her bed then while answering, “The ring’s one-of-a-kind. I mean literally one-of-a-kind. Nothing else even remotely like it. So Litty put some kind of… fuck, I dunno what it’s called. Some spell that’s supposed to lock onto that identical thing and bring it back to the case that you enchanted it for, no matter how far away it is.”

“So why didn’t it work, if the spell’s so good?” I put in, trying once more to sound like I was only interested academically and not as if it was life-or-death.

“Best guess?” she replied with another shrug, “they changed the ring. The spell focuses on it being identical, right? Unique. The only one of its kind. So the only way the spell wouldn’t work is if–”

“Is if they changed it,” I finished, realizing then. That was why the ring wasn’t a ring anymore. That’s why it was a necklace, a choker. They had changed it to avoid that spell.

While I was still focused on that, Sands asked, “What’s so special about that one ring? What makes it more important than everything else she lost?”

Standing up, Namid moved over to where I was. She reached down into the tank to rub one of her turtles. “What’s so special about it? Well first of all, it’s supposed to make anyone who wears it immune to the Stranger sense. Heretics don’t show up as Heretics to Strangers, and Strangers who wear it don’t show up as Strangers to Heretics. Makes you look like a normal person.”

Kinda like I did now, as long as I didn’t use my powers. I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you said first of all? You mean there’s more? That–uh, that sounds pretty powerful as it is.”

“I know, right?” She snorted. “Bad enough without adding in the angel myth.”

That caught my attention. My eyes whipped around. “Wh-what? Angel myth?”

Namid laughed. “What’re you, some kind of religious chick? It’s not real. There’s no such thing as angels, okay? Demons, sure, but not angels.”

“What’d the myth say?” Sands cut in while I was still trying to find my voice. “What does some ring that hides Strangers have to do with angels?”

“It’s the legend of Anuk-Ité,” the older girl replied. “Two-Face. So it works both ways. According to the myth, it doesn’t just hide the wearer’s true nature, you know, as a Heretic or a Stranger or whatever. The myth says that it doesn’t just do that. It also,” she paused then before clearly reciting, “‘reveals the true nature of the hidden ones.’”

“True nature of the hidden ones,” I muttered under my breath, my brain spinning.

Namid went on, still sounding dismissive of the whole concept. “Yeah, the legend says the angels would hide among us–I mean, they didn’t call them angels. They called them gods. But I guess someone else decided they meant angels at some point. Whatever. Gods, angels, fucking aliens. Whatever they’re supposed to be, the story says that they hide among us. But if you wear the ring, it’s supposed to reveal them to you.”

“Reveal the… angels… that are hiding among humanity,” I managed in a voice that sounded weak even to me.

She nodded. “Yeah. I dunno, like… it’s supposed to highlight them or make you suddenly know if the person you’re looking at is really a hidden god or an angel or… whatever.

“Like I said, pretty stupid, right?”

******

“Hey, you worried about the hunt tonight?” Deveron asked a few days later. He was standing there, watching me drink from a bottle of water after another intense training session where he’d been putting me through my paces. Ever since he’d decided to take the whole mentor thing seriously, Deveron had insisted on daily extra training on top of everything else I was doing. Mostly it consisted of him kicking my ass down into the grass over and over again, then carefully going over every last move with me to make sure I understood what I did wrong.

Then he’d just kick my ass again anyway. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t taking it easy.

Slowly lowering the bottle, I looked at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sure seems like things always go wrong on these hunts, you know?” I replied carefully. “Gaia says they’ve got… plans to deal with any kind of interruption this time, but still…” I trailed off, wincing inwardly. It was so tempting to tell him the whole reason I was nervous about the hunt tonight, the fact that at least one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust was actually a Seosten. But I couldn’t, because, well, he was still on that particular list.

Or was he? If he had been taken over by one of the angels, wouldn’t they have already known about Wyatt being the one who put the protection spells on Avalon? They’d definitely know that Professor Pericles hadn’t been the only Zedekiah at the school, and the person on the recording that Miranda had shown me had seemed pretty damn adamant that Pericles was the only one.

Except things might’ve changed since then. I didn’t know how often Seosten changed bodies or what the protocol was there. Maybe they did know about Wyatt by this point.

That was why I’d told him the truth. Because if he was compromised, Avalon was already in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than she had been before. And given the man’s normal paranoia and security measures, I had to believe that he was about as safe as he could possibly be.

And let’s face it, him acting paranoid toward anyone he thought might have been possessed wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary from how he acted the rest of the time anyway.

Besides, I still didn’t know why I appeared to be immune to Seosten-possession. I was kind of hoping it was some kind of blood thing, meaning at least Koren and Wyatt would be safe. But again, I didn’t know for sure. There was just no way to know. Not yet, anyway. We were working on it, but for the time being, we had to play everything really close to our vests.

Of course, if we could track down Pace and get our hands on that damn choker, we might be able to be done with this whole thing. It wasn’t just about getting the thing for Roxa anymore, though she still needed it. Now it was about getting the thing so that we could figure out exactly how it identified Seosten. Gaia had said that if she could get a look at it, she could probably duplicate the effect. But she had to examine the thing first. Which meant that finding Pace had just been given a great big shove up the list of priorities.

For his part, Deveron winced before nodding. “Yeah, well, you’re right. These hunts don’t have the best track record as far as you’re concerned. But I talked to Gaia myself, and trust me, she’s definitely taking it seriously. If anyone tries anything this time, and she’s going to be right on top of them.” He paused then, falling silent for a few seconds before adding with a curious look in my direction, “She told me that she asked if you guys wanted to sit this one out.”

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly. “We talked about it, but we decided it was better this way. If we sit out any of these hunts, we’re going to get less safe, not more. Because if we’re gonna survive, we need power. We need training. We need skill. We need to hunt, we need to get… we have to get more powerful. If I’m gonna survive when Fossor decides to come after me, I can’t sit things out now. I can’t. I just…” Sighing long and low, I muttered, “These things aren’t gonna stop trying to kill us just because we sit out something that could actually let us get stronger. They won’t stop at all. Not until we stop them. And the only way to do that is to get stronger, get more powers, get better at… everything. So no, we’re not gonna sit out any hunts. We’ll just… be ready.”  

Deveron watched me for a second, clearly considering it before nodding. “Probably smart. And just so you know,” he added with a serious look, “you won’t be alone when it comes to Fossor.”

Oh God, I wished I could trust him right then. I wished that I could know for sure that he wasn’t possessed. He was one of the few people who really understood what I was feeling about my mother, and how much I missed her. I wanted to confide in him everything that was going on. But I couldn’t. There was just no way to be sure that he was really himself. Not yet.

Whoever the Seosten had taken over, whoever they had possessed and enslaved, I was going to make sure they suffered. I’d already promised myself that several times. Pretty much whenever I looked at anyone who might have been the one that was taken, I repeated that promise to myself. They would suffer, and I would make damn sure that their victim was freed.

Instead of saying any of that out loud, I twisted the cap back onto the water bottle and nodded. “Still, under your protection or not, I need training. And that means–”

“Hunting,” the man finished with a grimace. “Right. But be careful, you got it? If you get even the slightest whisper that something’s wrong, you call it in. Even if it’s nothing, you won’t be the girl who cried wolf. You’ll be the girl who thought she saw a wolf because the entire field was surrounded by them.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. We all get it. We’ll be ready for it. And you’ll be right there anyway. I’m pretty sure Gaia’s gonna send you in with us, wherever we’re going.”

“Good,” Deveron gave a satisfied nod. “But first, it’s dinner time. Think you can eat?”

I snorted at that, gesturing to the trampled grass from our sparring session. “After what you just put me through, Escalan better have made enough to feed a school twice this size.”

He chuckled at that before turning. “Just putting you through your paces. Can’t have you getting lazy, you know.”

My elbow nudged him. “Maybe I’ll just pretend to be lazy for a few months. You know, see where that gets me.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Smirking, Deveron gave me a little push. “Let’s go get you refueled, little Flick-star.

“And then it’ll be time to hunt.”

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A Learning Experience 17-03

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The benefit of having finally gotten the hang of the privacy spell that Deveron had taught us was that I only had to feel moderately paranoid as I caught hold of Shiori’s arm and pulled her with me into a storage room once we left class. Holding a hand up to stop her from talking, I tugged the pre-prepared coin from my pocket and activated it so that no one would be able to listen in. Then I nodded to her.

“Did you hear?!” she instantly blurted, grabbing both of my hands before proceeding to jump up and down a few times. “Tiras! She said Tiras! And he was a vampire! Well, she said a heretic that took power from a vampire, but course she’d say that! But Tiras! She said—and he—and that was—and-”

Laughing, I tried not to be too distracted by the cute Asian girl bouncing in front of me. “I heard,” I replied once it was possible to get a word in edgewise. “Shh,” I squeezed her hands. “Shiori, it’s okay.”

“Okay?” she echoed in disbelief, head shaking. “It’s better than okay. It’s amazing! No, it’s better than amazing. It’s… it’s… what’s bigger than amazing? Bigger than a maze—labyrinth. It’s A-Labyrinth-ing!”

“Oh, my god.” I didn’t know whether to hang my head and groan, or hug the girl. Eventually, I settled on coughing to (sort of) hide my snicker. “I take it you’re um, happy about Dare knowing Tiras?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Of course! Do you know how long it’s been since Senny even talked to her father? She was eight years old! She was human. Well, you know, vampeel… but still! It was—hang on—two hundred and fourteen years ago! Two hundred and fourteen, Flick. You know how many times she’s gone over every single memory and story about her dad in those years? It’s like—like–let’s say you were totally alone in a room for two hundred years and you only had ten different movies to watch. Two hundred years of the same ten movies. Hearing about Dare and her father, that’s a brand new movie, Flick. It’s something new! She hasn’t had anything new about her dad for centuries, but this is!”

Her smile and excitement was infectious, and I found myself nodding along with her. “You’re right, it’s a big deal.” Pausing then, I asked, “Think you can hold off on telling her about it for just a few days?”

“Hold off?” Shiori blinked a little, head tilting there in the dim light of the storage room as she stared at me. “Err, why would I need to wait? I mean, other than not talking about it on anything other than your special phone—which if you wanna wait before you share—or don’t share at all—I totally get it!”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I shook my head. “No, no. I don’t mean you have to wait. I just—it’s kind of a big deal, like you said. So I was thinking you might want to wait and talk to her about it in person when you come over and visit during Christmas Break. Wouldn’t that be better than over the phone?”

Eyes widening, the other girl made an adorable little squeaking noise of excitement before actually hugging me. Her arms went around me and suddenly I was being squeezed tight. “Hey, good point! If I wait, I can tell her in person, and then I can… I can…” Her voice trailed off a little before she released me, stepping back against the wall. I thought I could see the pink of her blush. “Um, I mean, thanks.”

“Okay, this is just silly.” I shook my head. “Shiori, we should probably at least try to talk about our–”

The door to the storage room swung open, revealing a pair of older students. The boy had long, shaggy blonde hair with red tips and sort-of a sheepdog look. With the look and the tinted hair tips, he looked a bit like Thieter (the junior medical assistant I’d met back at Eden’s Garden who took us to see Abigail), though his tips had been white rather than red. Meanwhile, the girl looked Native American, like Aylen. Except her hair was cut short, and while Aylen managed to constantly look regal and dignified no matter what she was doing, this girl looked like the stereotypical thug in an after school special.

“Whoa,” the boy blurted as soon as everyone was through jumping in surprise. “Hey, don’t let us inter-”

He made a noise of pain then, though I didn’t actually see the girl move at all. Instead, she made an impatient gesture. “Go experiment somewhere else, Freshmen, we’ve gotta do actual work in here.”

Well, if Shiori had been blushing before, she was beet red by that point. While I quickly disabled the privacy spell, she was already ducking under the girl’s arm to escape the storage room before hurriedly making her way down the hall with a hasty, “See you later, Flick! Good luck with your stuff tonight!”

My mouth opened and shut, and I raised my hand to give her departing form an awkward and pointless wave when the older girl abruptly demanded. “Wait, you’re that Flick girl people keep talking about?”

Damn it, Flick, don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. I repeated the mantra to myself a few more times while forcing my shoulders to shrug. “Why would people talk about me?”

She snorted at that with obvious disbelief. “You’re kidding, right? You’ve been a Heretic all of three months and you’ve already pissed someone off enough that they break onto school grounds and mind control a bunch of people to attack you. And that’s just like, one thing. I mean, this ain’t exactly a boring school, but you’re kind of over-achieving a bit. Slow it down, you’ve got three more years.”

Her words may have been more teasing than confrontational, but I could tell the girl was sizing me up with more than simple casual interest. Finally, I managed a weak, “I’m not doing anything on purpose.”

The girl continued to stare at me contemplatively for a moment before shrugging as she took a single step out of the way, just enough for me to pass. “Just saying, you might wanna prioritize a little better.”

Unsure of what that was supposed to mean, I slipped past the two and kept going. Before moving out of earshot, I managed to overhear the girl turn her attention to the boy. “You know, dude, the last time I checked, the Baykok files weren’t stapled to her ass. So maybe look in the storage room instead?”

“Aww, Namid, don’t be like that,” the boy protested while I fought the urge to turn and walk backwards. “It’s not my fault we ended up on file duty. How was I supposed to know that a place called Colorado City was in god damn Arizona? It was a trick question, and you know it. I was set up.”

I could hear the eye roll in Namid’s retort. “Of course it was a trick question, Hue. When someone asks, ‘Hildale and Colorado City are border towns located in Utah and what other state’, either they think you’re an incompetent moron who shouldn’t be trusted with anything more dangerous than a coloring book, or the answer isn’t actually Colorado. Here’s a tip, try another state that borders Utah!”

Then I managed to make my way far enough that I couldn’t hear the two of them anymore. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Shiori either. She’d disappeared. Looking up and down the hall full of students (though not the one I was looking for), I finally sighed and slumped a little. Figured. I finally decide to try to talk about at least part of what was going on between us, and we get interrupted.

At least I still had Gaia’s tutoring to obsessively count down the minutes toward.

******

Somewhere along the way, the feeling of intense anticipation had morphed into nervousness. By the time I found myself standing in front of the office labeled ‘Headmistress’ in the middle of the night after curfew had started for most of the other students, I was a big bundle of nerves.

In a somewhat detached way, I thought it was a little weird that there was just an ordinary-looking office door with ‘Headmistress’ written on it. Something about the whole magic school of monster hunters thing made it seem like Gaia’s office should be hidden behind a false wall and protected by a fierce guardian, accessible only by passing some kind of great trial of strength and cunning. Or possibly by answering a riddle. Something out of the ordinary and worthy of the level of person she was.

Barring that, I just reached up and knocked three times, rapping my knuckles against the wood.

The door itself dissolved before my eyes, like a waterfall that gradually stopped to reveal the room beyond.

Okay, I guess that fit my desire for the entrance to Gaia’s office to be something out of the ordinary.

After hesitating for a second, I slowly stepped through the open doorway and looked around. Behind me, the door returned, fading back into existence in a reverse of how it had disappeared before.

First of all, the place was enormous. Entirely too large for the amount of room it seemed to take up in the school, so obviously there was some kind of extra-dimensional shenanigans going on. Not that that was surprising, since I already knew that they did the same thing for the teachers’ apartments. The ceiling itself stretched up thirty feet above my head, sloping into a dome shape that I couldn’t remember actually seeing in the exterior of the school. Across the dome I could see a holographic globe of the world, rotating at a slow, steady pace. Here and there random flares of green, yellow, or red would pop up at various spots, and once in awhile, the flare would turn gold before disappearing.

Meanwhile, the room itself was divided into two equal levels. On the level I was on, the floor was covered in a thick, soft white carpet. The walls were wood with several paintings that seemed to be an equal mix of brilliant artists that were probably worth thousands if not millions of dollars, and the kind of amateurish stuff that could have come straight from my family’s fridge while I was in preschool.

The upper level was accessible through two different sets of stairs that led to a sort of landing that ran all the way around with a waist-high guard rail and open space in the middle that allowed someone to see the domed ceiling from the lower level. Against the walls of that upper level I could see bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves, all heavily laden with their contents to the point of sagging a bit.

Gaia’s desk sat on the lower level at the back of the room, about sixty feet away. It was directly in front of a series of floor to ceiling windows that stretched the entire eighty foot width of the room. Each window was about four feet wide, and each displayed a completely different view. One showed the middle of a jungle, while the one directly next to it showed a busy street in what looked like New York City. Meanwhile, another showed a quiet suburban neighborhood that… actually looked familiar.

“I know that you already have protection for your father,” Gaia’s voice spoke up from the higher level, and I turned to find the woman standing by the railing as one of the bookshelves steadily slid shut behind her, closing on what looked like another hallway. “But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do what I could to keep an eye on him as well. I… apologize for the intrusion.”

“Intrusion?” I echoed before my head shook rapidly. “No, I mean, it’s okay. My dad… I don’t want anything to happen to him.” The words sounded lame as they came out of my mouth, and I flushed a bit but pressed on anyway. “I’m not going to object to someone else protecting him. Especially you.”

Gaia smiled faintly before walking to the nearest stairs. Making her way down the spiraling steps, the red-haired woman didn’t speak again until she was in front of me. “How are you feeling, Felicity?”

My mouth opened and then shut before I shrugged helplessly. “How do I feel? I feel nervous, scared, excited, angry, terrified, grateful… I could go on for awhile, but it’s probably a waste of time.”

That soft, encouraging smile returned. “It’s never a waste of time to analyze one’s own feelings, contradictory as they may seem to be.” Her hand came up to settle on my shoulder before she squeezed gently. “I was… incredibly glad to hear that you were given the opportunity to speak with your mother.”

Flushing a little, I bit my lip and glanced around nervously before asking, “Should we really be talking this… um, openly about all this stuff? I mean, this was Ruthers’s office, wasn’t it? And he’s kind of a-”

“It is safe,” the headmistress assured me. “I have taken the appropriate precautions for our meeting.”

Relaxing just a little bit then, I let out a breath before glancing up at the woman again. “So you, um, still don’t know anything more about the whole Ring of Anuk-Ité thing that my mom mentioned?”

Regretfully shaking her head, Gaia replied, “As I mentioned to Avalon, I have heard of such a thing, but only in whispers and rumors. There isn’t even a firm description of what it actually does. The rumors vary as wildly as you can imagine. I could ask twenty different experts and receive twenty entirely different answers as to what the Ring of Anuk-Ité actually does. As for how Avalon’s father could be using it to go unrecognized at Eden’s Garden, I couldn’t possibly accurately guess. Some say that the ring allows one to possess others, others say it allows them to be seen as friend or enemy no matter who they appear to, while others say that it allows the wearer to change their appearance at will. And there are even more possibilities. We would need a much firmer understanding of the ring before we make any attempt at a plan to counter it. I have… aid on that front, people who are able to ask questions in areas that I cannot, but it will take them some time to come up with any results.”

She straightened then, hand falling away. “And in the meantime, we should proceed with ensuring your safety. After all,” Gaia added with a knowing look and a teasing tone, “it wouldn’t do to spend all this time protecting Avalon, only to have her never forgive me if something were to happen to you.”

My face went a bit red then and I shifted awkwardly. “Oh—um, well, I… uh, where do we start then?”

Chuckling at my reaction, Gaia turned and walked toward her desk while gesturing for me to follow. “We will alternate night by night. One night we will focus on your physical training, and the next, your mental and magical strengths. I would like to meet Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings like this. Would that be all right with you?” she asked then, turning back toward me once we reached the desk.

“Um.” Coughing, I bobbed my head up and down a few times rapidly. “Y-yeah, I mean, I’m not exactly going to object to extra training, Headmistress. I’m not stupid enough to throw that chance away.”

She chuckled lightly, leaning back against the desk. “Please, while we’re in here, simply call me Gaia.”

“Uh, okay…” Shrugging, I tried it out. “Gaia, can I ask you a question that’s been bugging me?” When the woman gestured for me to go ahead, I asked, “What’s the deal with the whole aura color thing that shows up when we um, when we kill things? What do the different colors mean, exactly?”

Laughing, Gaia eyed me for a moment. “Do you have any guesses about what it might mean?”

Hesitating, I thought about it briefly. “I thought it had something to do with relations, since mine is gold and my mom’s is the same. But um, yours is gold too, so… unless we’re—oh my god are we related?!” The words blurted their way out of me as my eyes widened.

That smile softened, and the woman shook her head. “I feel a great connection to you and your mother, Felicity. But no, we have no genetic relation.”

I bit my lip then while shaking my head. “I don’t know then. Why do we have the same color aura, and what do they all mean?”

She straightened, returning my gaze while explaining, “Each Reaper or Hangman is connected in some way to a… sort of central archive of power and information that they can all draw from. Whenever they gain such power or knowledge, it is sent back along their connection to that archive. In that way, each of them is also connected to one another. When we… when the Heretical Edge is used, or when they partake of one of the apples in Eden’s Garden, we open a connection to that archive. And each person who connects to it is linked in some way to one of those other Reapers or Hangmen.”

Blinking rapidly at that, I blurted, “So each color represents a connection to a different Reaper? I thought we were all just connected to the um, the one in the lighthouse.”

“It would not have nearly enough power to grant every Heretic their abilities,” the headmistress pointed out. “The Hangman connected to the Heretical Edge is simply the one that holds the door open to allow the connection into the central archive that the rest of them use. We… tap along that connection to gain access to one of the other, living Reapers. Then they and the new Heretic are connected in a way similar to the blood mixing of a natural Heretic.”

Thinking about that, I hesitated before managing a weak, “So, I guess family members tend to be connected to the same Reaper and so they have same color aura because it’s… closer to them or something?”

“Correct,” Gaia confirmed with a nod. “You and your mother are both connected to the same Reaper that I was connected to when I was exposed to the Edge. One Reaper or Hangman per color, as there… are not that many of them, for an entire species. They are quite rare, relatively speaking.”

Rocking back on my heels at that, I thought about the implications before giving a little shudder. “Um, Headm—Gaia, I mean. Speaking of the whole aura color thing, could you umm… could you teach me the spell that my mother used to talk to me? The animal projection one. I—I think it would be useful to be able to communicate if anything else goes wrong.”

Gaia watched me for a few seconds in silence then before bowing her head. “Yes, Felicity,” she answered quietly. “I believe that would be a good idea. It is not an easy spell, but if you’re quite sure that you want to put the effort into it.”

“I am—I do.” I nodded firmly, meeting her gaze. “I want to learn it. I’ll work for it.”

She smiled just a little bit at that. “I believe you will, Felicity…

“I believe you will.”

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