October

Patreon Snippets 5

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

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where… where am I?

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

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

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

I don’t understand, Mister.

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

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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Interlude 34B – Wyatt

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“I’m sure you thought you’d gotten away with it,” Wyatt announced in a low tone. “I’m sure you were convinced that none of us could possibly see through your elaborate disguise. But you overplayed your hand. I see the truth. I see your evil intentions.” Slowly, the man paced around the target of his interrogation, his tone turning more accusing. “Were you planning on killing everyone on the island, or would you have warned the youngest to flee? How many were you willing to massacre to achieve your ends? How much blood is already on your hands!?”

“Wyatt?” The voice came from the back of the otherwise completely empty classroom, as Reid Rucker, the second in command of the school’s security forces, stood in the doorway. “Buddy? That’s a coffee cup.” He lifted a hand to indicate the thing that Wyatt had been pacing around, his voice somewhat audibly pained. “You’re interrogating an coffee mug, man.”

“Am I really?” Wyatt shot back immediately as he straightened to snap his hand into a sharp salute that bounced off his forehead. “Or is that just what they want us to think?”

Slowly stepping into the room, Reid raised an eyebrow. “What who wants us to think?”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Wyatt elaborated… sort of. “They, they. The ones who could turn one of their elite assassins into a coffee mug. Infiltrators. Monsters. They’re all around us.”

There was no they, of course. At least, not in the way that Wyatt was implying (as far as he knew, anyway). And he wasn’t quite crazy enough to actually believe that the coffee mug on the floor was some kind of threat. But he also didn’t want Rucker to have any idea what he had actually been doing, which was scraping gum from the bottom of the desks. Gum which had been planted by him in the first place, after being enchanted to record any conversations that happened within a few feet that contained the names of Flick, Avalon, or any of the others.

It was unlikely, of course, that he’d actually manage to catch one of the Seosten or their allies being stupid enough to talk about it like that. But then, they had made stupid mistakes before. And this was more of a test run before he would plant his eavesdropping gum elsewhere. All he had to do was stick the wad of used gum somewhere, wait for awhile, then go back and collect it. Putting the first run of the gum here in the classroom under several desks was the first test.

But again, he didn’t want Rucker to know any of that. As attractive as the man might have been, he was not on the vanishingly short list of people that Wyatt actually trusted. That list was actually so short that it might have been better referred to as a sentence. And not even a long one, at that. He might have had a bit of a crush on the man, but he wasn’t stupid about it. Hence the quick ruse he’d set up about interrogating the coffee cup as soon as he’d detected the man’s approach and noticed him listening outside the door.

After that ‘explanation’, Reid gave a long, low sigh while shaking his head. That charming smile stayed on his face while he gave Wyatt a look. “Hey man, you let me know if you find anything interesting in your interrogation, okay? But for now, we should probably clear out of here. I think Professor Vandel is going to be in here in a few minutes to set up for some project he’s working on.”

Just as Wyatt started to nod, there was a chirping sound within his pocket. It was the sound of his phone (or one of a dozen he kept on hand, anyway) announcing a new text message. His hand automatically moved to pluck the phone from his pocket, giving the screen a brief look.

Got the milk, do we need eggs? That incredibly ordinary-seeming message had been delivered from a incredibly ordinary-seeming number. Clearly a mistake, a text sent to the wrong person.

Except that it wasn’t. Even as practiced as he was at hiding his true thoughts from all the people who would have killed him if they had known how much he actually knew, Wyatt still barely kept his expression passive. His eyes skimmed over the message before he shook his head.

“What’s up?” Reid, looking curious (though Wyatt didn’t know it if was natural curiosity/the man’s own friendliness or something far more sinister) asked while gesturing to the phone.

“Either a wrong number,” Wyatt started, “or another attempt to embed a secret code phrase into my brain, so they can take over and control me. But I won’t let them.” Tossing the phone to the floor, he stomped on it hard enough to utterly destroy the device, sending small pieces scattering along the floor. A flick of his hand pulled all the pieces into the air, and Wyatt produced a small brown bag before letting the pieces fall inside. To Rucker, he added, “They keep trying. They think they can shove these messages in my head. But I don’t fall for it.”

It didn’t really make much sense, even to Wyatt. But he’d had to think quickly, and he was distracted by the actual meaning of that message. Besides, it wasn’t like most people really paid attention to the things he said anyway, after a certain point. As long as it sounded crazy so that they could easily dismiss it, that’s what mattered. And that definitely sounded crazy.

“Right.” Rucker shook his head, stepping back. “Well, let me know if they try again. Maybe we can track down where it’s coming from. And Wyatt, man…” He paused then, giving him a look as though he was trying to decide exactly how to say what came next. “You’re a good guy, okay? And you’re a great security guard. You’ve just gotta take a breath sometimes.”

“Breathing,” Wyatt agreed distractedly while nodding as he moved to the door. “Right, yes, I will keep breathing. Good advice.” He went through the doorway then, saluting one more time before setting off. He can feel the other man’s eyes on the his back as he strolled down the hallway. With effort, he forced himself to keep his pace even, right up until he turned the corner.

Then he ran. Sprinting down the hall and past a few startled students, Wyatt activated the spell on the bag that he had deposited the shattered pieces of phone into. A second later, he opened the bag, still running, and dropped the newly repaired and functional phone into his hand.

Highlighting the message that he had gotten and copying it, he pasted the words into a separate program on his phone, one that he had created himself. As the words went through the translation program, they came out as a set of coordinates. The coordinates of where Flick had apparently just appeared on Earth.

That was what the message had been. He’d had the phone connected to the spell back in his apartment. The second that it had registered Flick’s reappearance, the thing had encoded the coordinates and sent them to his phone in the form of an apparent wrong number. That little bit of obfuscation was just in case anyone else had been looking at his phone when the message had come in. One could never be too careful, after all. And given how many enemies they had to deal with, getting an open text broadly announcing where Flick was would have been stupid.

Flick. Flick was back. She was on Earth once more, apparently somewhere in southern Arizona, according to the coordinates he had received. The point was, she was back! Wyatt sprinted even harder, almost running right over a couple of students who were making out. If he hadn’t been using his stolen vampire speed, the man wouldn’t have been able to adjust course. As it was, the two twitterpated teenagers broke apart with a look of confusion, looking around in the wake of the blur of motion tearing past them so closely that they felt the rush of air.

Wyatt just kept going, turning the corner once more on his way to the nearby stairs. Taking those stairs three at a time, the man practically threw himself to the top. He went skidding around a corner, nearly falling flat on his face before his gawky legs managed to correct just in time (mostly thanks to the enhanced reflexes and coordination he’d inherited from all those dead vampires).

The whole time he had been moving, Wyatt’s fingers were flying over the phone, as he sent a text to Professor Dare. The message was simple, and would seem to have come from a random phone from somewhere back on Earth to any of the security staff (or other faculty) who looked at the record. It read simply, ‘Wanna see a movie?’ Totally innocent, as far as most people would be concerned. And far better than just sending something like, ‘Hey, Flick is back on Earth!’, like some kind of idiot.

Almost no sooner had he sent the message, than the woman in question abruptly appeared right in front of him. There had to be some kind of time-manipulation effect going on there, given how fast she had apparently reacted. Either way, she stood directly in front of him, her eyes wide. “Is it–”

“Shhhhsssssttt!” Throwing his index finger in front of his mouth, Wyatt hushed her frantically. Giving a quick, suspicious look around the admittedly empty-looking (but that’s just what their enemies would have wanted them to think) corridor, the man quickly activated several different privacy spells, layering them over one another in an intricate web before he was even slightly satisfied. Only then did he nod. “Yes, yes, the tracker on Felicity popped up again. Southern Arizona, almost to the border. She’s back. She’s back. How did she get back? Is it the little Seosten in her? Did they take over?! Is she Flick or is she a monster?!”

As he said the words, asking the questions that Dare clearly wouldn’t know the answers to, Wyatt felt a hard stone settle into his stomach. All this time, all of his precautions and tests, and his own little sister had been possessed!? Of course, the Seosten possessing that Pace girl that his other sister had all-but adopted… Theia, apparently, had said that the Seosten possessing Flick hadn’t been actively controlling her. But still! The fact that he’d had no idea, that this apparently young Seosten had hidden herself from him while possessing Flick, it was… it was…

It made him want to shake that girl’s hand and demand that she tell him absolutely everything she knew about detection and hiding spells, and everything else. Because if that girl was good enough to keep herself hidden for what had to have been a very long time… visions of an apprentice danced in his head. An apprentice who could actually teach him some things. Partnership! A worthy partner!

Of course, if it turned out that she meant Flick harm, there would be no apprenticeship or partnership. Because he would make sure that she never had a chance to hurt his family, or anyone else, ever again.

Dare was shaking her head. “We’ll find out, as soon as we get there. Find Gaia, I’ll pick up Deveron.” Her eyes focused on him. “Do not tell anyone else, okay? We need to find out what the situation is before we pull any more people into this. That includes Avalon and the rest of her team. And Koren. Nobody. If they know what’s going on, they’ll want to help, and… and we need to make sure that Flick is safe first. And why she’s not with the others.”

With that, the blonde woman waited just long enough for Wyatt to give a short nod before she disappeared once more. Wyatt had a feeling she was using that time manipulation again, to avoid wasting as many precious seconds as possible.

Although he couldn’t follow her example exactly, he could pick up the pace himself. Another brief sprint carried him straight to the entrance of the headmistress’s office.

Despite his rush, and excitement, the man didn’t go knocking loudly and wildly on the woman’s door just like that. He had a little more sense. Instead, Wyatt paused for a moment, head tilting a little as he listened. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to hear anything from within the office. Gaia was entirely too security-minded for that, something that he greatly admired her for. Not that there was any shortage of reasons that Wyatt admired the woman who had given him this job, but her attention to that kind of thing was a pretty big one in and of itself.

So no, he wouldn’t be able to hear anything happening with in the office itself. Anything that was actually said would be completely masked. But, he would know for certain whether the headmistress was actually in the office, since the privacy spell that she used gave off a very faint, yet recognizable hum when it was active. And it was only active when the woman was actually present. As he listened, Wyatt heard that distinctive hum. Gaia was definitely in there.

Schooling his expression as best as he was able, Wyatt raised his hand to knock. Just as he was about to, however, the door itself swung open, and he came within a hair’s breadth of smacking Peterson Neal right in the face before catching his swinging hand.

For his part, Neal took a quick step back, muttering a brief curse. His reflexive retreat made the man collide with the people behind him, who turned out to be those Committee representatives, October Atrean and Patrick Dinast, the ones who had been sent to keep an eye on things.

“Whoa,” October blurted, catching Peterson with one hand while looking past him to Wyatt. “We didn’t interrupt an impromptu boxing match, did we?” Beside him, the man’s partner remained silent, though his intense gaze seemed to stare through Wyatt as though trying to read his mind. Not that that was possible. Wyatt had at least seven active spells preventing something like that at all times. After all, he wasn’t a complete amateur at this kind of thing.

“No,” Peterson retorted, pulling himself from October’s bracing grip before pointedly straightening his suit and tie. “Only a rookie security guard who should watch what he’s doing.”

“Is everything alright?” The words came from Gaia herself, who had stepped into view. She paused at the sight in her doorway, before carefully asking, “Mr. Rendell, did you find another Ganesha in the toilets?”

A Ganesha in a toilet would have been impossible, of course. The enormous, elephant-headed Alters would have had a hard time fitting into the bathroom itself, let alone into the toilet. The words were a code, and just to make that code more realistic, Wyatt had officially reported being quite certain that he had found one a couple weeks earlier. If another week had gone by, he would have reported something else absurd that would have become their new code.

“No,” he automatically replied, “it’s flitting about somewhere. But I’ll find it soon enough.”

More code. If he had said it was still there, the translation would have been that Flick was still missing with no sign of her. If he’d said that he thought he’d actually caught the Ganesha, it would mean that he had Flick in hand (so to speak). And if he’d said that the Ganesha had gone home, it would mean that he knew where Flick was, but she was being held prisoner. This, saying that the thing was ‘flitting about’, meant that he knew where she was, but didn’t know the exact situation. And ‘find it soon enough’ translated into an appeal for Gaia to move quickly because he had no idea how much longer the girl would stay where she was.

“Wyatt,” Peterson Neal started then, “if you’re just here to bother the headmistress with another trivial report about one of your insane–”

“It’s okay,” Gaia interrupted. “Mr. Rendell and I need to have a conversation anyway. Thank you all very much for stopping by, and I will take your suggestions under advisement.” Stepping back, she gestured for Wyatt to come in. “If you aren’t too busy protecting our school, of course.”

“No, ma’am!” Wyatt promptly replied, putting himself at rigid attention. “I am at your disposal.”

Dismissing the other three, Gaia waited for him to step in before giving a wave of her hand that made the door shut. “Where?” she asked immediately, not needing to waste any time on frivolities, which he appreciated.

“Southern Arizona, ma’am,” he promptly answered. “Professor Dare is collecting my father–” That felt weird for him him to say. “– and will be straight back here as soon–”

There was a knock at the door, and Gaia waved it open to allow Deveron and Dare to enter. The young-looking man who was Wyatt’s biological father strode straight in, giving him a brief smile before starting with, “What the hell is going on in Arizona? Why is Flick there, and why aren’t the others with her?”

“We will find out presently, Mr. Adams,” Gaia informed him calmly, before pausing as her head tilted. “Hold one moment.”

She stood like that, silent for almost five seconds before letting out a low breath that sounded like an annoyed sigh. “Apparently we must find out very quickly. The Committee has been informed of Miss Chambers’ presence.”

What?!” Dare demanded. “How did they–what?”

Gaia’s head shook. “That much is unclear. Edward Teach was simply kind enough to send a message just now announcing the location of Miss Chambers in case we didn’t have it, along with the promise to delay the other Committee members for as long as possible. But they will be on their way shortly.”

“So we need to go,” Deveron announced then, his fists tightening. “Now.”

Nodding, Gaia looked to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, the exact coordinates, please?”

He provided them, and the headmistress created a portal. Together, the four of them stepped through, and into the desert. A desert that was littered with bodies. None of whom looked like Flick, to Wyatt’s great relief. They were soldiers clad in armor.

Ahead was a long, tube-like metal structure that looked somewhat like a tube or a cylinder, with a single ramp at one end leading up into it.

With a wave of her hand, Gaia turned herself and the rest of the group invisible to most senses, allowing them to slowly and carefully approach that ship. They passed all the bodies, Wyatt aching to check over them for anything useful. But there wasn’t time.

Then they heard voices. Flick’s voice, saying something about getting ‘her’ back, whoever ‘her’ was. That was followed by another voice, just as they reached the top of the ramp. It was a voice that was equally surprising: Tristan Moon.

“What I wanna know,” the boy was saying, “is where exactly this transport was supposed to go, and why it was aimed for Earth in the first place.”

They were there, past a line of what looked like cryogenic freezing pods full of figures, at the far end of the tube. Flick and Tristan. Wyatt could see them then, along with Vanessa Moon, though the latter was slumped onto the floor, apparently unconscious. Standing near them was another blonde woman, whose hair was cut quite short and who wore a clingy red jumpsuit. A smaller blonde figure, a child, stood between Flick and the woman, clinging onto the former in a tight hug while her eyes gazed with what looked like hero-worshipping adoration at the latter. All of them (aside from the unconscious Vanessa) seemed focused on a console that the woman was working at.

In response to Tristan’s last words, Gaia waved her hand once more, dropping the power that had hidden them.

“Perhaps, Mr. Moon,” she started, “that is a question that we should be attempting to work out together.”

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New York Minutemen 27-01

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“You sure keep yourself busy, don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

Turning away from the weight machine that I had been working on (having twelve hundred pounds stacked on it was still enough to make me do a double take whenever I look at the thing), I replied, “I only need an hour of sleep a day, Mr. Atrean. Gotta keep myself entertained through all my extra time. And I told you, it’s just Flick. Especially in the middle of the night.”

Not only was it the middle of the night, about 12:30 in the morning, but it was also Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it. It had been about two weeks since we found out that Columbus was the one who was possessed, and it had been a completely torturous two weeks. I had absolutely no idea how Shiori was lasting this long, though she said having people to talk to about it made it a little easier than when she had been keeping her vampire mother secret. Still, having to act normal while knowing that her brother had been enslaved by that bitch was obviously awful. I had been trying to make it so that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him by monopolizing her time myself. Which, to be fair, I actually enjoyed. Or at least, we enjoyed it whenever we could stop thinking about why I was monopolizing her time. Sometimes we spent as much as an hour forgetting the specifics of our situation.Then one of us would inevitably start thinking about it again and go quiet.

Now, the Committee’s stooge raised an eyebrow at me before clearing his throat. “And I believe I told you, it’s October. Maybe we can make a deal and both try to be a little less formal.”

“Are you sure your partner’ll be okay with that?” I asked idly while picking myself up from the machine. Stretching my arm out, I rubbed my bicep while watching him. I knew he wasn’t possessed now (or hadn’t been, at least), but I still didn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw–you know what, that wasn’t a very good figure of speech anymore. I didn’t trust them.

“Eh,” October gave a shrug, stepping back to take a towel off the nearby rack before tossing it to me so I could wipe off. “If Patrick ever eased up, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

“I feel like a broken record,” I admitted with a look at the blonde man, “but do you know anything about my dad yet? I mean, I don’t suppose you were coming in here to tell me that you guys finally found him and there’s a squad of Heretics on their way to rescue him as we speak.”

He had the grace to wince a little before shaking his head. “Would’ve opened with that, I promise.” The man met my gaze. “Just like you’d tell us if you ever hear from your dad?”

“I’d say you’d be the second to know after me,” I replied flatly, “but quite frankly, I’d probably tell my team first, and Gaia, and… maybe someone else. You’re probably in the top ten though.”

October squinted at me briefly before his head tilted as he considered. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. But seriously, if you hear from your father, please don’t try to handle the situation yourself, all right? Whatever or whoever took him, they might have done it so that they could use him to get at you. There are–” He paused, seeming to take a moment to consider his words. “There are people out there who would love to get hold of a promising young Heretic student and twist them. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Now see, that I could actually believe. I just didn’t think that my idea of ‘twisting a student toward bad things’ and his were in the same ballpark. Because quite frankly, ‘make sure that the person you’re killing has actually done something to deserve it beyond being born’ didn’t exactly sound like evil brainwashing to me. But what did I know? I wasn’t a Committee Representative.

“Believe me,” I replied with total and one hundred percent complete honesty, “I have no intention of running off by myself to go attack whoever has my dad without telling you about it first.”

“Good to hear.” The man watched me for another moment, probably trying to test if I was lying (which, thanks to Gaia’s ring, he wouldn’t be able to) before inclining his head in a nod of satisfaction. “I know you probably don’t like us being here that much. Honestly, I’d probably feel the same if I was you. But we really are trying to help, if you let us. Just… think about it.”

He left, heading heading out of the room. I let him go, waiting a minute to make sure he was actually gone before tapping a finger on the water bottle beside the weight machine. “Okay.”

An instant later, Sands appeared next to me, popping out of the bottle as she stopped possessing it. Shaking herself off, the brunette looked to me. “That was kind of close, huh?”

We’d barely gotten the alert that the man coming in time for Sands to hide and leave it looking like I was the only one in the room when October came in. Luckily, the other girl had actually worked out a pretty neat little alert spell and placed it in the corridor outside. It wasn’t anything big that would attract attention. It just had a very simple effect of changing a little ball that we had set up from red to blue whenever someone passed near it. Apparently she and Scout had had a noisy alarm variant of the spell used to keep them out of the treats when they were little.

I coughed at that, nodding emphatically. “Yeah, which is one reason why you staying out to work with me is a bad idea. Plus, there’s that thing where you need a lot more sleep than I do.”

For the past couple of weeks, Sands had insisted on spending at least part of several nights a week doing extra workouts with me, whenever I wasn’t with Gaia. Not only that, she was also now training with Avalon, Deveron, and me early in the morning and in the afternoon. Before all of this had come out, Sands had mostly slept in until the last possible moment. But now? Now she was like a woman possess–shit. A lot of old phrases had been ruined lately, apparently.

Still, Sands shook her head. “I can’t sleep anyway. I just lay there and look at the ceiling, Flick. I might as well do something useful with it. I… “ She paused, biting her lip before looking at me imploringly. “I have to do something. If we’re right and–you know, then just sitting here feels…” She cringed. “I just have to get out of there. Doing this stuff helps get me tired enough to sleep.”

“Trust me,” I replied after wincing, “I understand. I get it. But right now,” I glanced to the clock on the wall, “it’s almost one o’clock. If you’re gonna get enough sleep to function, it’s time.”

“Yeah…” Sands straightened. “Plus, Scout gets worried if she wakes up and I’m gone. Thanks.”

She jumped back into possessing the water bottle then, which I picked up before making my way out of the room and back across the grounds to the dorms. Passing a couple of the security guards on the way, I gave them a wave. They knew me by then and simply waved back before continuing on their patrol. No one was really going to question why I was carrying water around.

After dropping Sands off at the room she shared with Scout and paying a quick visit to my own, I found myself back outside. But I didn’t go anywhere else. Instead, I stood there in the space between and slightly in front of the two dorm buildings. This, right in the spot I was standing, was where Professor Pericles had been murdered in cold blood, his body eventually found by security more than an hour later.

Opening my special notebook that I’d retrieved from its hiding place, I scribbled in it while looking at the ground where Pericles’ body had been found.

We knew a lot more than we had at the start of this whole thing. We knew why Pericles had been killed: because the murderers thought that killing him would undo the spell that protected Avalon. And they thought that because when they used a spell to determine the identity of the spellcaster, it returned the name ‘Zedekiah’, which they thought referred to Zedekiah Pericles.

We also knew who had done the killing, or at least who was responsible for it: the Seosten and whoever they were possessing. This Manakel guy, he was probably the one who had done the job. He-or she depending on who he was possessing- had walked right up behind Pericles and-

Huh. According to everything I’d heard, Professor Pericles had been killed by being stabbed in the back, literally. But how could someone– I turned slightly, positioning myself the way that Pericles had apparently been before he was stabbed. According to what everyone said, based on the position of the body and the fact that, as far as they could tell, he hadn’t been moved, Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he was murdered. He was standing here, facing the boy’s dorm. From that position, the front of the girl’s dorm would still be in his peripheral.

The fact that he had been stabbed in the back… Yes, Manakel was obviously possessing someone, clearly someone that Pericles wouldn’t have reason to suspect. And yet, they had stabbed the man in the back. That kind of said that Manakel wasn’t confident in his ability to take Pericles in a one-on-one fight. Or at least, not quickly enough to avoid attracting attention.

And yet, how would someone, even a Seosten possessing an adult Heretic, sneak up on someone like Pericles and avoid being seen? Would they rely entirely on their own stealth, or…

Again, I looked over toward the boy’s dorm, frowning a little. Pericles had been facing that way when he died. Would Columbus have been possessed back then? God, I really hoped not.

I was speculating too much. It could’ve been nothing. Maybe Pericles was just distracted by something else. Or maybe whoever Manakel was possessing was just that good at avoiding detection. Or maybe… any number of things. I kept half-expecting the same magical intuition that had made me realize that Sands’ and Scout’s mom had been friends with Tristan and Vanessa’s mother to pop up again to give me the answer to this. But nothing happened. I thought there might be something to the fact that Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm, but maybe there wasn’t. I just… didn’t know. With a sigh, I closed my notebook.

What I did know, was that I had missed out on a lot by not getting the chance to have Zedekiah Pericles as a teacher. Manakel and Charmeine had taken away a lot when they killed him. And I was pretty sure they’d also taken away a lot when they put Tangle in that coma. I had the cure for it, but the second I actually used it, they’d know that we knew more than we should. Given that we had no idea who in the hospital might be working with them, it… felt safer to wait. Even if it was yet another reminder of how much the Seosten had taken from us.

I just hoped that, one day, we’d have a chance to take a lot away from them in return.

******

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Columbus’s voice intoned skeptically. “You guys went out in the regular world for almost an entire day, and nothing bad happened? Nothing at all?”

It was about a week after I’d had that conversation with October in the middle of the night, making it late February. We still had no idea who Manakel was possessing, and it was all I could do not to sarcastically retort that ‘Columbus’ would’ve known if anything had happened.

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since we started looking for Manakel and there was still no sign of who he had possessed. I’d even had some of the others test people when it made more sense for them to do it. Hell, even Gaia had done a couple, working her way through her staff. Though she did say that she didn’t want to tell anyone else what was going on. Not even people she trusted. There was too much chance of them being possessed at some point in the future. She wanted to keep this as small as possible until we’d actually identified Manakel.

But again, it wasn’t like we were having any luck at that. Which was why we had to sit here and keep pretending that we didn’t know that Columbus was being puppeted by that Seosten bitch.

Thankfully, it was Avalon who spoke up while I was still swallowing back that comment. “Yes, Porter,” she answered simply, “six whole hours in the Bystander world and nothing went wrong.”

We were standing out on the grass near the Pathmaker building. And by we, that was the entire team, Deveron included. The seven of us were waiting for Dare to show up with Paul, Rudolph, and the rest of Roxa’s former team. Because it was finally time for that trip to New York. Yeah, wouldn’t that be fun? A whole weekend with people who were convinced that I was somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance (okay, I kind of was, but not in the way they were thinking) sharing a hotel, transportation, and everything else with us. That wouldn’t be awkward at all.

Thankfully, we already had a plan for that. Once we were up there and were given free time, Roxa was going to join us. I’d meet up her privately, pass her the choker so she’d be safe, and let her come visit with her old team. Then they’d see that the girl was okay, that I wasn’t some psychopath that had her trussed up in my basement or something, and it’d all be hunky dory.

Shut up, I could pretend to be optimistic for a little while.

Deveron was smiling, arms folded over his chest as he watched us. “So you guys actually went on a real date, huh?” he asked, in a way that made me feel like he was just barely suppressing the urge to reach over and ruffle my hair or something equally embarrassing and weird.

‘Columbus’ spoke up then. “So, how did it go? I mean, you two and Shiori out on a date together? Didn’t that get… you know, weird?” If I hadn’t already known that Charmeine was the one pulling his strings, it would’ve sounded like the boy was just being a protective brother. As it was, the question just made me feel nauseous. She was obviously poking for sore points and seeing if there were ways that she could get Columbus to screw with us if need be. Probably so that they could cause a problem and isolate Avalon in the future whenever they needed to.

Somehow, I made myself smile, winking at ‘him’. “Sure, but it was more like two separate dates. Gaia sent us out in the middle of some city in California. She and Professor Dare were the only ones who knew where we were. They picked the city at random. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there. And we had Wyatt and Dare shadowing us, playing bodyguards, just in case. They were pretty good about staying out of the way though.”

Sean, kneeling next to Vulcan while letting the mechanical dog munch metal nuts out of his hand, raised an eyebrow. “Two separate dates?” he asked curiously. “How’d that work?”

I shrugged. “Shiori and I spent a couple hours together first. We went to play laser tag, visited this cool little train museum, and did some shopping. Avalon did uh, whatever she did, with Professor Dare watching. Then we switched. Professor Dare and Shiori went out to do something while Avalon and I went and did our thing. Mostly we took this boat out on this lake in the park and did some fishing. It was pretty cool. Plus, we actually caught some fish.

“Then we all went to dinner together, and saw a movie.” I smiled, glancing toward Avalon, who was blushing while looking away from all of us. Obviously, she was thinking about other things that had happened during that movie and immediately afterward. “It was pretty great,” I finished.  

“Good,” Deveron announced. “You all deserved a break, and a real date. Or two real dates.”

Sands reached out to poke me in the forehead. “Yeah, we all deserve that kind of break. But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one person that likes us like that. Let alone two.”

From his kneeling position, Sean teased, “I dunno, I’m sure Zeke would love to take you out.”

The other girl made a face at that, leaning over to kick lightly at him. “Don’t even start with that. Our parents used to make us play together as kids and he was a selfish jerk then too. Now he thinks I should be his girlfriend or something just because we spent some time in the sandbox when we were five. I ate worms back then too, and you don’t see me doing that anymore.”

Snickering despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “At least he actually likes you. Even if he’s got a weird way of showing it. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m crazy.” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock, letting him perch on my palm. “Doesn’t he, little buddy?” Pausing for a moment to listen, I nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs. Truly, you are the most noble of us all, Sir Herbie.”

“Believe me, Flick,” Sands informed me then, “I’d rather date your rock than that jerk.”

Before we could say anything else about the (amazing) date that Shiori, Avalon, and I had gone on, Scout nodded past us. I turned, to see Dare heading our way with the other team. Right. It was time, I guessed. Time for our trip to New York.

This was going to be… interesting.

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Suspects 24-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

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Suspects 24-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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