Late Friday Evening, January 26th, 2018 (Three days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)
Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Paul Calburn embodied the very concept of the cliche gentleman cowboy. That wasn’t exactly true, since the one and only time he’d actually ridden a horse, the thing had bucked him. That was back when Paul had been eight years old. He’d ended up with a broken arm and a deep-seated fear of horses that he still hadn’t shaken. He knew how irrational it was, especially now. He was training to fight much, much worse threats. But logic didn’t matter. Anytime the idea of actually sitting on a horse came up again, he had a flashback to his own small body flying through the air, followed by the terrible pain as he’d landed on his arm. Logic be damned, he just didn’t like horses.
But what he liked even less than horses were bullies and manipulators, people who took advantage of others to get what they wanted. People who abused their power like that were the worst scum. And as far as he could tell, that included the girl who called herself Flick Chambers, if that was even her real name. From what he’d seen, everything else about her was a lie.
She had supposedly been a completely normal Bystander with no combat training and no connection to the Heretic world. Yet, within a few months of starting, she was already one of the most advanced combatants in their school. Hell, if the rumors were right (and they seemed to be), she’d killed an Amarok on her team’s first hunt. An Amarok, and Chambers managed to kill it after she’d been a part of the school for… what, barely a month? That was completely absurd.
Then there was everything else. On the third day of school, Professor Pericles had been killed. And who were two of the first people on the scene first thing in the morning according to others who had been there? Flick and Avalon. The next day, who were the two students locked in a room with a bunch of Peridles that came out of it without a scratch despite one of those students supposedly never being in a fight before in her life? Flick and Avalon.
It went on and on like that. Flick kept disappearing and showing up with powers that no one saw her get. She didn’t get them on any kind of official hunt, that was for sure. She just… had them.
Then there was Thanksgiving. It was next to impossible to put together any kind of coherent timeline or description of what had happened. But somehow, Flick had ended up at Koren Fellows’ house and… surprise, surprise, there was an attack by some kind of nasty Stranger. An attack that ended with Koren’s mom needing help. But did they bring her to Crossroads? No. Flick was there and she just happened to have a contact in Eden’s Garden, a contact that took Koren’s mom there instead of to Crossroads. And guess who, completely coincidentally, stopped being so antagonistic toward Flick and her friends right around that same time? Koren.
Koren acted like a… word that he wasn’t going to even let himself think, because he didn’t want to be that kind of person. She acted awful toward Flick and Flick’s friends. Flick ended up at her house, Koren’s mother was horrifically injured, and then was taken to Eden’s Garden… and suddenly Koren’s attitude changed? What better leverage was there than someone’s mother?
And it was around that same time that Roxa had disappeared, with the utterly ridiculous explanation that she had gone for a family emergency. A family that she didn’t have, since she’d made it quite clear to them all that she was an orphan.
That, in itself, obviously didn’t tie her to Flick. But the there was Doug’s power. The power that told them that the answer to finding out where Roxa was lay in Flick. Flick was the answer. She knew where Roxa was, what had happened to her.
What, exactly was more likely, that Roxa had somehow gained an entire family just before having an emergency that required she visit them for months on end… and that somehow Flick knew about it…. or that Roxa had found out the truth about Flick being from Eden’s Garden and she or someone connected to her had done something to the girl?
Maybe they hurt her. Maybe they abducted her. Maybe they brainwashed her, or just convinced her to go to Eden’s Garden somehow. Threats, payments, promises, Paul wasn’t going to pretend to know Roxa well enough to say for certain. But the point remained that Doug’s power said that Flick knew what happened to Roxa. And, in the time since that whole thing had happened, Flick had begun to act more and more paranoid and suspicious of everyone.
She had the people on her team using those magic coins that Paul and the others had found in her dorm room, the coins that masked their conversations. How had she learned that spell?
Flick knew magic she shouldn’t know, she was a better fighter than she should be, she kept disappearing and gaining abilities with no explanation, she had contacts in Eden’s Garden that were strong enough to let her tell them to make someone into a Heretic (and purposefully had that person sent there instead of to Crossroads where her own daughter attended)… and on and on. How much more obvious did it need to be that she wasn’t a normal student?
And that wasn’t even getting into the whole visit from the boy who had somehow mind-controlled their head of security before visiting Flick and Avalon’s room. Sure, he’d then proceeded to use that mind-whammy power of his to convince most of the students in the immediate area to attack them, but as far as Paul could tell, that had only happened after Gaia showed up. At the time, he’d assumed it was just what it looked like. But now… ever since Doug’s power kept repeatedly pointing at Flick as being the source of Roxa’s disappearance, he doubted it. Again, the whole ‘attack Flick’ thing hadn’t happened until Gaia was there. Who knew what else they talked about before then? And it would’ve been a quick way of making Flick look innocent after they were caught in her room by the headmistress.
Sigh. None of that sounded exactly right. Paul couldn’t entirely shake the thought that they were missing something important. He kept doubting things. Yet Doug’s power was insistent. Every time they asked it who was responsible for Roxa’s disappearance, how to find her, who knew where she was, and so on and so forth, it pointed at Flick Chambers.
Sometimes, Paul thought he should just walk up and demand answers from the girl. Other times he thought he should just ask her. Either way, the direct method was tempting. Yet there was also no way to come back from it. If they confronted Flick openly and she was a threat, there would be no do-overs. That was the only thing that stopped him. So many times, he had looked at the blonde girl and thought that just asking her about it would be the best way to do things.
But if she was bad, if she was some kind of Garden secret agent or something and thought her cover was blown… she would be more than a threat to him, she might just have Roxa killed to cover their tracks. And after what had happened to Rex, the little brother who had drowned while nine-year-old Paul was supposed to be watching him… he couldn’t face something like that. He was their team leader. He was responsible for Roxa. He couldn’t make a mistake and trust Flick when it might mean that Roxa would pay the consequences if he was wrong.
Maybe that was why he was so obsessed with finding Roxa. Roxa. Rex. His little brother died because Paul was too busy playing his game instead of watching him. He knew his mother had never forgiven him for it, and likely never would. She’d never looked at him the same way again, even after his parents separated and Paul went to live with his father.
He’d failed Rex. He wouldn’t fail Roxa.
“Now, see dude, when you said you had a plan, I thought you meant something involving teleportation or whatever,” Isaac announced from the backseat of the old red van.
“We did teleport,” Paul reminded the boy from his spot in the driver’s seat. “From Crossroads all the way to my dad’s new place in Montana.”
“Sure,” Isaac replied. “And then we proceeded to sit in a normal old van and drive down the freeway for the past five freaking hours. My cramps are getting cramps.”
Beside him in the front passenger seat, Jazz pointed out, “What were we supposed to do, say, ‘hey, Professor Carfried, could you teleport us to Wyoming? Yeah, we know none of us live there, but we really want to visit all the absolutely nothing that’s there’. We’re just lucky the place Paul’s dad moved to is as close as it is. Five hours isn’t that bad, and I’m the one who has to put up with the boy smell.”
Rudolph, sitting next to Isaac, spoke without opening his eyes. The boy had been dozing in his seat since the moment the drive had started. “And lucky that his dad doesn’t mind him going on roadtrips when he’s supposed to be visiting for the weekend with his team.”
Coughing a little despite himself, Paul tightened his grip on the wheel before nodding. “Dad pretty much lets me do what I want, long as I don’t make no trouble. Not the first road trip I’ve taken. Kinda like the solitude.” Pausing briefly, he asked, “Everyone else okay back there?”
Doug, in the middle seat in front of Rudolph and Isaac, spoke without looking up from his game. “Dandy.” His fingers were flying over the buttons, and his brow was knit with concentration, eyes mostly hidden by the ever-present New York Rangers cap that was pulled down low.
Beside the other boy, Gordon gave a slight nod. His own eyes were focused out the window, watching the Wyoming scenery as they drove by. He spoke quietly. “How far is it now?”
Before Paul could answer, Jazz lifted a hand to point at a sign they were passing. “There it is. Laramie Falls, Wyoming, exit in five miles. You got that question ready, Doug?”
The boy in question nodded before muttering, “I’ll wait until we’re actually in town.”
It didn’t take long from that point. Within a few minutes, they had exited the freeway and were slowly driving through the town itself. Doug finally shut off his game, straightening up. Aloud, he asked, “How do we get from here to the house in this town that is listed as being Flick Chambers’ home?”
No one in the van answered. But then, Doug wasn’t asking them, he was using his power. Once a day, he could ask a question and either receive an answer or directions toward an answer.
A moment later, he opened his eyes. “Got it. Turn right up here, then left at the next corner.”
Over the next couple of minutes, the boy directed them through the town. Just before they reached Flick’s street, Paul pulled into a corner gas station and parked in the back. The six of them stepped out, the boys stretching their legs a bit while Jazz went inside to get some drinks. Then, once they were sufficiently refreshed, the team started out of the lot on foot. They walked down the street, keeping their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. Now would be one of the worst possible times to somehow run into someone who knew who they were. Explaining what they were doing in Flick’s (supposed) hometown would taken awful lot of doing.
Before stepping onto Flick’s street itself, Paul made everyone stop. It was late enough that almost no one was out anyway. But still. They all clustered together, touching Jazz before the girl summoned her invisibility power. It wasn’t perfect, showing a shimmering shape in the air whenever they moved. But as long as the group moved slowly, it was better than nothing. Plus, according to Jazz, the power also somewhat dampened other senses like hearing and smell.
The house in question was mostly dark, with only a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. As they slowly (and almost invisibly) approached, there was no sign of movement aside from some flickering that looked like it was coming from a television. Aside from that, all was still.
“You know,” Isaac whispered barely loud enough to be heard, “I kinda expected something to happen right now. Like a bunch of Garden thugs to jump out or… or… I dunno, something.”
He was being quiet, but Paul still shushed him without taking his eyes off the house. They stood there, across the street while staring at the place for another ten minutes before he ushered the group to move on. Together, they continued down and around the corner, gathering in a gravel-filled alley before Jazz finally relaxed the invisibility so they could see each other again.
Rudolph was the first to speak, his voice quiet and steady. “Looks pretty normal, doesn’t it?”
Paul nodded slowly. “Yeah, not that that means anything.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Right, just like we figured. That motel we found online is just a couple blocks away. Since I’m the only one that’s eighteen, I’ll check in. Most of us get some sleep, and we watch the house in pairs over the next couple days until something happens. Everyone good with that?”
There were an assortment of nods, and Paul gestured. “Right, let’s go. I wanna get back so we can keep an eye on the place before we end up missing something. I’ll take the first shift, with…”
A little over an hour later, Paul started awake abruptly. He was in the driver’s seat of the van once more, which was parked just around the corner from Flick’s home, pulled forward just enough to see the house in the distance.
“Bleh,” Paul muttered, smacking his lips a few times to get rid of the sleep taste. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.” Glancing to his partner for the moment, he asked, “Everything still quiet over there?”
The response came not from the person seated beside him in the passenger seat, but from the back. And it spoke in his own voice.
“Everything still quiet over there?”
Jerking around in his seat, Paul stared at the figure who sat behind them. The figure was… him. It could’ve been his twin brother. Seeing his stare, the doppelganger smiled before speaking, again mimicking his previous words. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.”
Paul’s mouth opened, and then he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck. His head turned, snapping that way in time to see his partner withdraw a syringe even as all of the strength left Paul’s body. He slumped over, collapsing halfway out of the seat.
“Here we go,” his teammate announced quietly while reaching out to yank Paul up by the arm. They steadied him in the seat, patting his cheek. “If it makes you feel any better, you didn’t miss anything in the house. Though, you know, I did wonder if that drink was ever gonna knock you out.”
He was paralyzed. Paul couldn’t move anything aside from his eyes and his mouth, both sluggishly. “Th…wh…what… what…”
“Oh, right,” his teammate… his supposed friend snapped their fingers. “You’ve probably got questions about the guy in the back.” Glancing that way, they smiled slightly. “That’s Fetch. Wait–” They looked to the figure in question. “Was Fetch your name or your species, because I was never quite clear on that.”
“Yes,” the answer came from the back in Paul’s voice.
After pausing briefly, the person beside him nodded. “Right then. Anyway, Fetch. I think it’s some kind of Irish Stranger or something. Anyway, you don’t want a history lesson right now. You just wanna know why it looks like you, right? Well, long story short, he’s a doppelganger. Cuz here’s the thing, Paul… turns out, my uh, let’s call them my benefactors, they think they need some more help. Some backup, you know. So, they sent in Fetch here. He’s one of those Strangers that doesn’t set off the Heretic-sense. Pretty useful. And he’s kind of a mercenary.” There was a pause then before Paul’s teammate chuckled. “Hell, I guess I’m a mercenary too, huh? I mean, they are paying me a shiiiiiit–load for all this. Which, I mean, I almost would’ve done it for free cuz how often do you get to do shit like this? But you know, the money helps.”
Paul was struggling, fighting a losing battle to make himself move, to shout for help, to warn… someone. He was trying to interrupt, but it was hard to talk, hard to do anything but sit there. Even his emotions seemed dulled and slow, because the sense of betrayal that he felt didn’t seem to be the kind of raging fire that it should. Everything was dampened.
“Anyway,” the person beside him continued. “Point is, Fetch here needs someone to take over. You got elected because you’re on my team so I could set it up, and because–well, quite frankly it has been a pain in the ass to keep this team focused. You have no idea how many times you people decided to just go and talk to Flick to straighten this whole thing out. I mean, memory-erasure spells or not, having the same conversation over and over and over again until you get the result you want just gets dull, you know? Now, maybe with my pal Fetch here calling the shots in your place, we can actually stay focused on getting the rest of this team to gather all the evidence we need about Flick being a baaaaaad little girl. Then we’ll take that to the Committee and, well, that’ll be that. Oh, and because Gaia’s so tied into this whole thing, she’ll probably go down too. Won’t that be fun?”
It was so hard to talk, it was so hard to think. Paul forced his mouth open, struggling to say even a couple words. “Flick… not… bad…”
“Flick’s not bad?” the figure echoed. “Yeah, I guess if you like snoopy blondes with firm little–oh, you meant evil. Well, no, she–oh, just for the record, were you talking about the real Flick, or the one we overheard the other day? Cuz uh, the one that came in her room and just conveniently spilled all that information just when we happened to be there? Yeah, that was my friend over here too. Just making sure they spoofed the security system correctly and all that. You know, while dropping just enough info to keep the rest of you guys interested and right on Flick’s tail. I mean, not as literally on her tail as I’d like to be, but…well, you can’t have everything.” A pause then, before there was a thoughtful, “Actually, do you think they might let me have her when this is over?”
That was enough for Paul to almost push himself up a bit. His fists actually clenched. “Piece… of… shit…”
His teammate pushed him back down. “Oh, look at me, rambling forever. It’s just–it’s been a long time since I got to be myself, you know? I was just… faking it for so goddamn long, ever since they found me and told me all about this plan and… yeah. Seriously, it’s just nice to talk to someone. And see the look on your face. That’s–that’s gotta be one of the best parts of this whole thing. It’s almost as good as the look on Pericles’s face when he realized I was just distracting him before, well…” He drew a finger over his throat.
“Y… you… you…” Paul’s eyes were wide as he desperately fought against whatever he had been injected with. “… killed…”
“Me? Dude!” the figure beside him blurted. “You know how cool that would’ve been? Imagine how many powers I would’ve gotten from that.” A sigh then. “But no, they wouldn’t let me do it myself. I was just the distraction. But believe me, the person who did do it…. Well, let’s just say you’d be really surprised.”
“Wh… why…?” Paul’s voice was a weak croak, the words barely audible.
“Why do this? All of it?” His teammate paused before shrugging. “Well, I already told you about the money. Believe me, it is a lot of money. You have no idea. But beyond that, I’d say because it’s fun. I mean, check this out. You know those um, what were those little freaks called, the umm…” Their fingers snapped a few times as they fought to remember. “The Jekern, right, the big warthog things that’re like those Russian nesting dolls. You get one of those and you cut off its legs and you put these metal caps on the stumps so it can’t go anywhere, right? Then, all you gotta do is wait for it to get big enough that there’s a bunch of them inside. And once it is, there’s this technique you gotta do with the blade, you gotta angle it just right and when you shove it in, you can kill three, four of them all at once. Shrick, straight through all the brains, just like that. So all that’s left is the smallest one. Then you take that little baby, you cut off its legs, lock it up in the cage and feed it until it gets big enough to have more inside it. I mean seriously, dude, why don’t we just do that in the school? I must’ve killed eight or nine of the piggy freaks by now.
“And there’s other ones you can do that shit with too, you know? You just figure out how to cripple ‘em, lock the bastards up and let them spit out little ones. But you know, in that case you gotta kill the little ones, not the big ones. Don’t wanna get rid of your breeder, that’s just dumb and wasteful. And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s wasteful. Learned that lesson with my sister. I mean, one little slice and it was over, you know? I didn’t get to enjoy it or anything. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret not showing just a little more restraint. But you know, first times and all that. I think I can be forgiven for shooting off a little quick in that case. I’m much better at keeping my cool now.”
“I’m done.” Paul’s voice spoke up once more from the backseat, his doppleganger, Fetch.
“Done?” the traitor echoed before grinning. “Great.” To Paul, they added, “See, Fetch can just copy your physical appearance and all that if need be. But his real trick is a lot better than that. See, if he spends a few minutes close to the person he’s copying, he can sort of… lock onto their spirit. Or whatever you wanna call it. The point is, it means when you die, he gets to copy all your memories, your skills, your powers, everything useful. He can only hold onto that stuff for a short time before it fades. Someone like you is probably weak enough that he can copy it all for a couple months. But you know, that outta be long enough for our purposes.”
When he died. When he died. Summoning all of his anger, his rage, his desperation, Paul jerked forward in his seat… only to receive a knife in the middle of his chest.
It was a literal one, to match the metaphorical one that his supposed friend had stabbed him with already.
Dropping their hand from the handle, the figure beside him watched as Paul collapsed back into the seat. It was… it was cold… colder than Paul thought it would be. He was struggling, hand grasping for the door handle, mouth struggling to move, fighting to flee, to fight, to escape, to scream.
Fighting to live.
“Man,” the traitor announced calmly. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that, you sanctimonious prick.”
Paul’s hand fell from the doorknob. Rex, he thought desperately. Roxa. Roxa, I was trying–I was trying–
The last thing that he heard, the last thing he would ever hear, was the derisive snort of his supposed friend.
“Man, would you just die already?”
Isaac Acosta gave a wide smile. “I wanna see how many of your powers I’ll get.”