Peterson Neal

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Mini-Interlude 14 – Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Wyatt and his efforts to protect his newly discovered family (even if they remain oblivious to those efforts). It takes place earlier in the same day as the most recent regular chapter. 

The sound of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock filled the small kitchenette of the apartment that Crossroads had provided Wyatt Rendell for his security position at the school. In the midst of the lyrics about Spider Murphy and Little Joe, Wyatt himself worked his way across the room to the counter near the fridge. His steps were short and awkward, as his feet were crammed into shoes that were more than a little too small for him. As a result, his movements looked more like a mincing tiptoe than a stride.

Two cat litter boxes lay on the floor next to the counter where Wyatt was moving. A small gray cat (really little more than a kitten at the moment) of the breed known as the British Shorthair sat beside the boxes, his deceptively simple-looking collar hiding a baker’s dozen worth of enchantments that ensured no one could shapeshift into the cat, possess the cat, or mentally control the cat without setting off several alerts that had been set up. Rather than look impressed or proud at the collection of magic he was carrying around on his neck, however, the cat simply looked profoundly irritated. Most likely because, rather than hold their namesake, the litter boxes were filled with a combination of dirt, sand, rocks, twigs, and other assorted debris.

“I know, I know, Corporal Kickwhiskers,” Wyatt assured his recently acquired roommate over the sound of the music while stepping directly into the litter boxes, one shoe in each. “I need to empty yours! And I will! As soon as the watch is ready.”

Suiting action to words, the man bent over the counter while plucking up a pair of jewelers glasses. Fitting them onto his head while shuffling his feet back and forth so that the too-small shoes they were partially stuffed inside of would take up more of the contents of the litter boxes, the man settled the many-lensed devices onto his head. Flicking all five additional lenses down over his right eye, he carefully picked up an expensive-looking silver watch. Holding the watch in one hand, he picked up an electric engraving tool with the other and set it against the metal backing. After a quick glance toward the nine different photographs of a similar ring that were taped to the wall above the counter, Wyatt carefully began to inscribe words into the back of the watch to match those in the photograph.

For Services Above And Beyond – G. Ruthers

Once the inscription was finished, and the music had long-since moved on to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps performing Race With The Devil, Wyatt straightened and stepped out of the litter boxes. Turning to the nearby wall, he kicked out a couple times to knock the loose material off the shoes. Then he mince-stepped across the room with the watch, slipping it into a pocket of his too-large jacket before bending down to pick up a third litter box, this one actually filled with what it should be (as well as several distinctly smelly things that made it clear just why the perturbed feline had all-but vocally demanded it be cleaned). Turning with the box, Wyatt dumped it into a nearby waist-high trashcan which appeared to be empty, sans even a bag. Then he tapped his hand against it and triggered the enchantment, transporting the contents into the bottom of the ocean.

That done, he deposited the box back where it belonged and took a moment to fill it once more with the kitty litter. Then he beat a hasty (if awkward-looking) retreat from the room while Corporal Kickwhiskers made a mad dash for the newly-filled box.

In the living room of the apartment, Wyatt kicked off the too-small shoes and slipped on his own proper ones. Bending down, he plucked them off the floor, holding open his jacket pocket before dropping them inside. Not yet done, however, he also reached to the nearby counter and picked up a collection of hairbands, a simple button that belonged to one of the uniform jackets, and three different armbands. All were deposited into that single pocket where the shoes had gone, though it appeared to be flat once more as he patted it on his way out of the apartment.

“Keep an eye on things, Corporal!” he called back to the cat. The answering meow was more annoyed grumble than enthusiastic agreement, but they’d work on that. Frankly, he was considering it progress that the cat responded to his words at all.

Turning back, Wyatt shut his door. Then he proceeded to engage all seventeen of the locks that he had attached to it, as well as the half dozen alarm spells. There were more inside the room itself that would react to any presence other than his own and his new feline roommate.

The cat hadn’t been his idea. He had been a gift from his niece, who thought he needed company in his apartment. Koren. Koren Fellows was his niece, and her mother, the woman currently staying at Eden’s Garden, was his sister. He had a sister. A twin sister.

More than that, he had a family. The very concept itself was… confusing. It made him feel things that he hadn’t actually felt since he had been a young child. Discovering that the people who had taken him in and posed as his parents were spying on him for an unknown party (now obviously revealed as Gabriel Ruthers) had pretty much erased the whole idea of family pride and love from his mind.

And yet now, now he had found out that he had a real family out there. And it was just as awkward and strange as Wyatt often felt he himself was. His father appeared to be much younger than he was and (thanks to possessing the appearance of an incubus) didn’t look at all like him. His twin sister had been raised as a Bystander and was now at Eden’s Garden being tutored in Heretic ways as an adult. Meanwhile, his half-sister and his niece were both first year students here at Crossroads. And their fathers were Bystanders.

Had been, in Koren’s case. Her father was… dead. Killed by the Fomorian and then erased from their memory. The tragedy of it, the idea that his niece couldn’t even remember her father, made him feel… anger. And that in and of itself was a strange feeling for Wyatt Rendell. After growing the way that he had, he hadn’t really felt genuine ‘anger’ that way in… well, longer than he could remember.

But when he thought of what had been done to Koren’s now-erased-and-deceased father, he felt it.

At least his half-sister’s father was still alive. And hopefully would stay that way, considering the protection that Flick had arranged for him. Not that she’d told him that much about it, but he’d looked into the situation himself just to be sure that she wasn’t about to lose her own father. Finding the vampire there, he’d thought the worst, but further investigation had revealed the truth.

So that was his family. A niece and half-sister as students, a father as a slightly older-yet-still-younger-than-he-was student, a sister who was a Bystander living at Eden’s Garden, a mother who was the prisoner of an evil necromancer, a Bystander brother-in-law who had been killed, and a Bystander stepfather who was some kind of reporter and who was being babysat by a vampire.

In a way, he liked it. Not the parts where his mother was a prisoner and his brother-in-law was dead, of course. But the chaotic absurdness of the rest of it. Having a completely normal family where everyone fit the exact storybook roles would have confused him, maybe even driven him off. But this? This weird, awkward, totally confusing mish-mash of positions and relations actually helped. The convoluted mess of it made the whole thing feel more real and approachable. It felt comfortable, in some small, strange way.

Or maybe he was just weird.

But comfortable as it may have felt, the last thing he was going to do was slack off when it came to the danger that surrounded them. No sir. Not now, not ever. Not when he actually had something to lose. And he knew for a fact that there were goblins (the metaphorical ones were more dangerous) waiting to snatch all of his family away, and ruin all of this.

The threats surrounding them were almost innumerable. In addition to the standard problems facing any Heretic, there was Gabriel Ruthers himself (who had already abducted Wyatt and Abigail as babies in order to force their mother into prison before erasing her entire identity), Fossor (who currently had their mother imprisoned and clearly wasn’t going to settle for just one), the Fomorians (who obviously weren’t going to stop trying to find a way to use one of his family members to break the spell that prevented them from returning to the planet), the Seosten (who were somehow involved in all of this, he just knew it), Trice and the others from Eden’s Garden (who were trying to kill Avalon Sinclaire and had made enemies of his half-sister and her team in the process), including the werewolf girl (who somehow didn’t show up as a werewolf to Heretic-sight), Fahsteth (the mercenary Stranger who had poisoned Avalon as a child and somehow led to all of this), and whoever was secretly behind both him and Trice’s group (who had arranged the murder of Zedekiah Pericles as well as the current condition of their own ally, Professor Giselle Tangle).

And there were probably more that his frenzied thoughts weren’t thinking about, but before he could sort them out in his head, his feet had already carried him straight to his first target.

“Mr. Adams!” he bellow-squeaked, his voice cracking a bit in mid-word despite his best effort to sound like a proper authority.

Deveron. Father. Dad. Papa. All those words and more worked their way through his mind as the boy-man-person-student-father in question turned away from the conversation that he’d been having with several other students. For a half-second, Wyatt saw an expression of emotion and… longing in the handsome boy’s eyes before it vanished back behind his cool mask.

“Telling you, man, I didn’t do anything,” Deveron-Father all-but drawled. “What’s wrong now?”

“A likely story. I’m onto you.” Shaking his long, awkwardly bony finger at the boy who was his dad, Wyatt stepped forward. “Hands out, knees apart. And don’t make any sudden movements. You all, stay there, or you’ll be tried as accomplices.”

Sometimes, making a point of having a reputation for being… well, the way Wyatt was had its advantages. The boys that Deveron-Father had been talking to barely batted their eyes. They did, however, roll them pretty extensively. But, as awkward and dumb as they thought the interaction was, it was not suspicious.

Stepping close, Wyatt carefully patted his boy-father down, checking all of his pockets in the process. While checking his left jacket pocket, he surreptitiously slipped a folded note there while simultaneously extracting one.

Even with privacy spells, it would still look strange for him to interact too often with a normal student. Yet he really wanted to talk to his father. So, the two of them had set up a system of drops and encounters like this in order to pass a constant stream of notes back and forth to one another. It allowed them to almost-converse regularly.

Wyatt didn’t stop there, however. While continuing his pretense of patting the ‘boy’ down for contraband, he straightened and slipped the previously prepared jacket button from his own pocket. With dexterity belying his awkward appearance, he slipped the button directly over its identical counterpart on the front of Deveron-Dad’s uniform jacket and triggered one of the simple spells he had placed on it. The button immediately switched itself for its twin, attaching itself to the jacket in its place, while the normal button was deposited in Wyatt’s hand and quickly discarded back in his pocket.

The spells on the button would warn Wyatt if anything happened to Deveron to put the man-boy in danger. It was the third uniform jacket he’d altered that way. Pretty soon, he’d manage to tag all of his father’s clothes similarly.

And yet, even then, Wyatt still wasn’t done. Stepping around behind the boy, he clapped him on the biceps, one for each hand. In that same motion, he attached one of the armbands that he had prepared. As soon as the band closed around the arm, its magic triggered and the band became invisible and intangible to everyone except Wyatt himself.

Deveron wouldn’t know about the band, itself covered in even more protection and alarm spells, similar to the one he had prepared for Avalon (the same reason that the people after her were apparently trying to kill him, even if they didn’t know that he was their target… yet) any more than he would know about the button. But Wyatt would know. And it made him feel just a little bit better to have more layers of protection on his father. More redundancies for when things turned sideways and everything went to hell.

Why the button if he was already going to put the armband on his father? Back-ups. Always back-ups. Never rely on one solution. Never.

“Ehhh you’re clean, this time.” He announced while stepping back. “But I’m watching you, Adams. I’m always watching you.”

“That sounds really creepy, dude,” Deveron-Dad retorted while giving him a mock-salute. He turned to head back with the other students, casting a glance over his shoulder before giving Wyatt a surreptitious wink.

Then they were leaving, and Wyatt felt the watch on his wrist vibrate as the silent alarm went off. Not from any of his myriad of defensive spells, but simply the one he had set for the current time. Giving his watch a quick glance to confirm, he about-faced and almost sprinted back across the grounds. He had to be at the right spot at the right time, had to be there, had to be there. Run faster. Don’t see the students staring. Now slow down. Slow down, have to look natural. Slow down.

Easing to the right pace at the last second, Wyatt turned the corner of the cafeteria building just in time to see the doors open as a small figure practically lunged out of them. Koren shoved her way through the doors, laden down with a tray that was piled high with pudding bowls.

At the same time, a male figure was moving up toward the doors. As Koren shoved her way out, the tray slammed into the man, sending bowls of chocolate, tapioca, and vanilla pudding all down the front of his clothes.

Not bad, but he was going to have to teach her how to look more subtle.

“Oh my god!” Koren blurted, managing to avoid sounding rehearsed (appropriate considering the hours they’d actually spent rehearsing). “Professor Neal, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”

Peterson Neal, the so-called Head of Student Affairs (and less commonly called Head of Being Ruthers’s Stooge and Official Buttsmoocher) recoiled with a curse. “Miss Fellows!” he blurted. “Watch where the hell you’re going. Do you have any idea how–”

“I saw that!” Wyatt interrupted, charging that way. “Attacking a teacher, attempted assassination! It’ll be the gallows for you, missy!”

“The—what?” To her credit, the girl managed to look equally horrified and confused. “It was an accident. I was just–”

“Save it for the Runners.” Wyatt snapped around. “Will you be pressing charges, Professor? I saw the whole thing. Her murder spree was only thwarted by your quick reflexes and cunning.”

“Murder spr—no,” Peterson managed a bit distractedly. “I just—slow down, Fellows.”

Koren’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “S-sure, yes, sir. I’m sorry, I—here I can…” She stepped forward and started to rub the man’s shirt down with napkins from the tray, mostly simply managing to rub the pudding into his shirt in the process.

At the same time, Wyatt moved to the man. “Stop it, assassin,” he snapped in mock-anger. “You won’t succeed in your attempts, I’m onto you!”

While ‘threatening’ the girl, he took hold of Peterson’s wrist, lifting it to press his card into the man’s palm. “If you change your mind about pressing charges, I’ll be glad to put this little miscreant in her place.”

Then, while the man was being assaulted by the sensation of Koren rubbing pudding into his shirt, as well as the feel of his wrist being held and the card being pressed into his hand, Wyatt smoothly undid the latch of his watch and replaced it with the one that he had just finished preparing. It held all the same enchantments that Peterson’s old watch had (that had taken a long time to work out) as well as a few new ones, such as one that would allow Wyatt to hear whatever was said when the names ‘Flick’, ‘Felicity’, ‘Chambers’, ‘Koren’, ‘Fellows’, ‘Deveron’, ‘Adams’, ‘Joselyn’, or ‘Atherby’ were said.

He was going to find out what Peterson talked with Ruthers about, and just how much the former headmaster knew about what was going on. The only trouble had been finding a way to slip the enchantments onto Peterson without the man realizing what was happening. For that, Wyatt had needed a partner. Enter Koren Fellows, his niece. She had come to him asking for tutoring in the kind of things that he did. So, they had come up with this plan.

Shaking both of them off, Peterson snapped for Koren to get to where she belonged. Then he gave his soiled shirt a distraught look before turning to march back to his own apartment to change. He never even gave Wyatt a second glance.

Once the man was out of sight, Koren straightened, glancing toward Wyatt. “Did we get it?”

“Yes,” he replied, giving his niece what he hoped was a proud, encouraging smile. But it was probably far more goofy and awkward than it was endearing, despite his best efforts. “You were decent.”

Then he nodded down at her shoes, where he had made sure to flick some of the pudding from Peterson’s shirt. “You missed some. Here, let me clean them off.”

“Decent?” she echoed. “I kicked ass, and you know it. I should be an actress, not a monster hunter. A monster-hunting actress.” Kneeling down, she untied her shoes and pulled them off, one after the other. “You can really get pudding off them?”

Nodding, Wyatt whipped a paper bag from his pocket. Dropping both shoes into the bag, he triggered a spell on it. Except, in this case, rather than a spell to clean the shoes, it simply switched them with the other set in his pocket, the one he had just finished breaking in and dirtying up to look similar enough to Koren’s real shoes that she wouldn’t notice the difference.

“See?” he announced then while tugging the new shoes (with their own protection and alarm spells) from the bag and handing them back to the girl. “No pudding.”

“Thanks,” Koren bent to tug the shoes on, focusing on tying them. “How’s Corporal Kickwhiskers doing, anyway?”

“He didn’t pee on my bed today,” Wyatt replied while reaching down to help the girl back to her feet. In the same motion, he clapped another of the armbands against her bicep, letting it vanish from sight and become impossible to either feel or detect before he released her arm.

“See? Told you, you guys belong together.” Koren grinned at him. Not up at him, despite the difference in their ages. Hell, she was an inch taller than he was, so she was practically looking down at him. Funny, he’d never really cared too much about his height, and yet now… it was just another reminder that he’d never had a chance to actually get to know either her or Flick while they were young and small. The two were practically adults when he met them.

How many birthdays had he missed? How many conversations would he never have with them? How much had been taken away from him by Ruthers? Not just his own childhood, but the opportunity to experience his family’s.

Koren extended a hand, holding it out with her palm up. “We make a good team.”

For a moment, Wyatt simply stared at her offered hand. Emotions and thoughts, far too numerous to count or even try to understand, ran through him. Finally, however, he brought his own hand down to slap hers.

“We do.”

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Facing Evil 11-05

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“Koren!” I blurted in spite of myself. As worn out (not so much tired as… emotionally and mentally exhausted) as I was after the events of the past half hour, my anger shot to the surface. “You can’t do that. Don’t you get it? That piece of shit knows how to get past the shield. Everyone but us is vulnerable. You can’t just leave everyone else in danger by withholding crucial information like that.”

A guilty flush crossed the girl’s face before she retorted, “I—of course I know that! But my parents—what do you think I’m supposed to do when you people are keeping secrets from me that have to do with some mind controlling psychopath that might go after my parents? Seeing what that piece of shit did when he went in the lighthouse, it’s the only thing I’ve got to make you tell me the fucking truth!”

I realized what she was doing then. She was scared. Koren was terrified, and doing the only thing she could think of to try to keep her family safe, with her usual… personality. What I’d reflexively thought was a callous threat to get gossip out of the situation was actually her fear-fueled desperation talking. She hadn’t thought through the threat at all. She’d just seen that she had information we wanted, and were withholding information about the danger her family was in. She wasn’t that callous, just scared.

Still, I half-expected Gaia to chew her out. This wasn’t the right situation to withhold information like that, or even to threaten to do so. Yes, Koren had reason to be angry and frightened about what was going on, and why it involved her family somehow. But threatening the safety of the school was wrong.

Not that, to be fair, I had a lot of room to talk. I couldn’t begin to guess how I would react in the same situation. Hell, was I that different? I already knew I’d place finding my mother over obeying Crossroads rules. Maybe I shouldn’t judge so quickly. Especially when it came to something like this.

Instead of disciplining her, however, the headmistress just spoke her name quietly. “Koren.” When the girl reluctantly looked at her, Gaia continued. “You are correct. We ask too much of you to turn around and hide something this important. The danger that we put you in even at the best of times is too much for us to keep secrets from you that pertain to your family. If you can be trusted to put your life in danger to protect others, then you can certainly be trusted to know the truth about those closest to you. So I will tell you. I give you my word on that. But first, you must explain what you saw in there.”

Given that promise and the opportunity to back down without losing face, Koren swallowed hard. “I—okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably easier if I show you. He did, um, something with the light thing.”

I started to step that way, to go to the lighthouse with her. But the headmistress raised a hand to stop me. “Felicity,” she said quietly. “There will be an investigation. You cannot be seen as part of it.”

My eyes widened at that, and I blurted, “What—but–what are you talking about? He was here for–”

“I know,” she interrupted, her voice soft, yet regretful. “And I will share everything that I can with you, as soon as possible. You have my word on that. But our security personnel already contacted the BSR as soon as they realized something was wrong and that they had been deliberately sent away by Professor Kohaku. They are on their way, and the investigators they send will not see things as you and I do. You are witnesses and intended victims. The Runners will insist on thoroughly debriefing you. Which means that you and Shiori should take this time to rest, recover, and… organize your thoughts.”

Right, she didn’t want the Runners coming in and finding their ‘witness’ investigating the same thing they were. If that ended up on the report that made it to Ruthers’ desk, and he was given any kind of proof that I actually knew what was going on, that I knew this was about my mother’s true history and all the hidden secrets that entailed… well, it’d give him even more ammunition to use against Gaia.

Flinching, I glanced toward the other girl. Shiori was still shivering in spite of the temperature shield, her eyes open, yet downcast. I could see something in her gaze, obvious horror at her complete inability to stop herself from following Ammon’s orders. Her eyes were haunted and wet from unshed tears.

Gaia went on. “Go to the underclassmen lounge. I already sent Columbus there with fresh clothes and blankets for you both. Mr. Gerardo,” she added toward Sean. “Would you please accompany them, then visit the kitchens for some hot chocolate?” Finally, she added, “Once I finish speaking with Miss Fellows, I will send her along so that you may have your own conversation. She can tell you everything that she shows me. There will be no secrets from you, I promise. Not when it comes to this situation.”

I didn’t like it, but for Shiori’s sake, I nodded. Taking the other girl by the hand, I started to walk that way with Sean on my other side. Vulcan trotted next to the other girl, letting her rest a hand on his back for support. We walked, and the I looked toward the boy once we were halfway to the other building. “How’d you know what was going on? I mean, you sent Vulcan ahead, so you knew it was Ammon.”

He nodded. “Yeah, Columbus was working on this telescope… thing. Trust me, it’s better if he shows you. Anyway, we sort of snuck out to get up to the roof so we could test it and saw you come running out of the other dorm. Figured out who the kid you were chasing had to be from what happened with Koren. So I sent Vulcan out there after you while Columbus and I went to make sure Avalon was okay. The headmistress was there, having this… let’s just say pissing off her or Kohaku is a really god damn bad idea, okay? I’m talking, given the choice between going mano a mano with another Amarok or fighting one of those two, bring on the big bad wolf.” Belatedly, he added, “Oh, and your uh, room is gonna need to be rebuilt. And, uh, several other rooms. And the hallway. And the… It’s a real mess.”

“But Avalon’s okay?” The question didn’t come from me, but from Shiori. Her head had snapped up at that. “Nothing… bad happened to her, right? And… what about Rebecca?” Her expression was guilty again, as if her not being in the room might have had anything to her roommate possibly getting hurt.

Even hearing the question made me want to go sprinting off to check for myself. The memory of Avalon… Avalon of all people being under Ammon’s control, of the fact that he had been alone with her, that they’d had a conversation (one in which she had apparently been ‘rude’ to him), made me sick. It made me want to scream, made me want to go after Ammon again and just… just beat the evil little piece of shit into the ground for everything he’d done. I wanted to make him pay for everyone he hurt.

In the end, only two things stopped me from going off to find Avalon to make sure she was safe for myself. The first was the fact that I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if I showed up there and any of the girls woke up and wasn’t cleared of Ammon’s mind control. Yeah, it seemed to clear up after people were unconscious, but testing it right then seemed like a bad idea. And the second thing stopping me from leaving was that Avalon was asleep, while Shiori was awake. After what Ammon had done to her, what he almost made her do, leaving Shiori alone was probably the absolute worst idea.

“Oh yeah, they’re all fine,” Sean assured her. “Gaia was holding off Professor Kohaku, and protecting all the girls. While, you know, making sure they didn’t leave the building. They were looking for you, Flick. Being really damn insistent about it too. The baroness, she uh, she was pretty amazing. Kept switching her attention between protecting and containing everyone else, and dealing with Kohaku.”

We reached the lounge by then, and I went in with Shiori while Sean moved on to pick up the hot chocolate. As soon as we entered, Columbus turned away from the television and stepped over quickly. “Shiori!” he blurted, sounding terrified. “What the hell happened? I went to look for you, but you weren’t in the hall with the others. I thought—I didn’t know what—I mean… what—how–” The poor guy was trying to ask so many questions all at once that they kept getting jammed up on one another.

“She’s okay,” I told him. “Physically anyway. There’s no—it’s a long story. Ammon told her to drown herself. We had a little incident in the ocean. But she’s okay. You’re okay, Shiori. He’s gone now.”

“Drown herself?” For a moment, I thought the boy was actually going to storm out of the building and go after Ammon himself somehow. His face contorted in anger, and he made a few frustrated noises before turning around and lashing out to punch the nearby wall with his closed fist. “Son of a bitch!”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he seemed to realize what he’d said and flushed guiltily. “I mean–” He cringed a bit, head shaking rapidly. “Sorry. Sorry. That was a really bad choice of words.”

“It’s okay,” I managed a bit weakly, my throat painfully dry as I fought to find the right words, words that would make him feel even a little bit better. “I know what you meant. Trust me, I’m pissed off too.”

Together, Columbus and I led Shiori past the enormous tropical fish tank that took up most of one of the walls. On the way, I glanced toward the occupants, thinking about the sharks that had saved our lives. I’d promised to go back soon and visit them. And I would, as soon as I had the chance. Something about the way they had all acted more like loyal puppies than perfectly evolved killing machines made me feel not quite as scared of them as I had been before. They were almost cute, in a really deadly way.

And to be fair, as a Heretic, my house was made of a bit too much glass for me to start throwing stones when it came to things that were supposed to be perfect killing machines. At least they did it to eat.

We sat down on one of the couches, and I let the other girl slump against me. Yeah, we were still soaked through. But at that point, I didn’t really care about getting the couch wet. It would dry. Or they could replace it. Or use magic. Whatever. After everything that had happened, they could spare a couch.

A few seconds of silence passed before Shiori spoke up quietly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice shook as she repeated herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. If I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t given him a target to use against you, you could’ve stopped him. You almost had him. I didn’t know what was going on, and he… he was there. He… I’m sorry.” Her voice broke, cracking a bit as she shook her head. “I screwed up, and he escaped because you were too busy saving me to stop him. He got away because of me.”

Flinching, I glanced to Columbus before looking back to her. “Shiori, look at me. I don’t care. I’d let a thousand Ammons walk away before I’d abandon you. Ammon will show up somewhere again. He can’t help himself. There will be other chances to stop him, to catch him. But there’s only one Shiori.”

The two of us locked eyes then, and in that exact moment I remembered what had happened under the water. She had been close to gone, no air and no chance to get more in time. I’d panicked, desperately needing to give her oxygen. And then I’d… my face turned pink at almost the same time as hers.

“Clothes!” Columbus abruptly blurted, straightening to move to a nearby table where a bundle sat. “Gaia had me bring over dry clothes for you guys. I—huh. I wonder how she knew you’d be so wet.”

He brought over our clothes, as well as a few towels, then stepped out of the room for a couple of minutes while the two of us hurriedly dried off and changed. Being in dry clothes actually helped me feel a lot better. Even it was technically just a little thing, the fact that I wasn’t wearing stuff that was soaked through in ocean water made me feel like that whole horrible situation really was over.

Once we were changed, I looked toward Shiori. “I meant what I said before. I know you feel guilty, that you feel bad now. But don’t. Because the fact that I have people that I care about, people like you? That’s what makes me different from Ammon. Empathy. Friends. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Her mouth opened and shut again before she managed, “But everyone he hurts now, everyone he kills because I was in the way… because I let him use me as a hostage so he could escape, that’s all my–”

“Don’t.” I warned her, stepping that way. “It’s not your fault. If Ammon hurts anyone else, that’s his fault. His and his father’s, not yours. You can’t try to shoulder that burden, Shiori. I won’t let you.”

Before the other girl could say anything else, the door opened, and Columbus came back in. He held the door open for Sean, who came through with a tray of not just mugs full of piping hot deliciousness, but also what looked like little cinnamon rolls. “Thought you guys might be hungry after your… swim.”

Taking one of the mugs, I blew on it like the little wuss I was before taking a sip. The hot liquid felt unbelievably good just then, and I shuddered a little. Then I focused on the boys. “When you guys were over there, did you see the twins? Sands and Scout, the… she was shooting, and I sort of sent Koren in to make her stop before she did anything too bad. I hope she didn’t—I mean, Scout’s okay, right?”

“Uh, yeah. I hope so.” Columbus looked guilty. “It wasn’t Koren that stopped her. I did. I mean, she was working on it, but I sort of shot them both with these things.” He gestured to the goggles. “It was the fastest way to stop them before they did something they’d regret. Then the headmistress did something to make them stay down, and I made sure they were comfortable. I just hope they’re back to themselves when they wake up, because I do not want those two pissed at me for blasting them.”

“Anyway,” he finished, “Koren took off as soon as Scout wasn’t shooting at anyone anymore.”

Sean nodded. “I guess that’s how she had time to catch up with Ammon and see what he did in the lighthouse.” When Columbus started to demand to know what that meant, the boy shook his head in mock resignation. “I’m sorry, man. But if you hang out in the game room all day, you’ll miss stuff.”

That left Columbus sputtering about Gaia and towels and clean clothes for a moment. And, I noticed, had the obviously intended effect of making Shiori smile just a little bit. It looked adorable, as she held the hot chocolate against her mouth and smiled with her front teeth slightly biting the lip of the mug.

I gave the Hispanic boy a quick smile of my own before clearing my throat. “I hope Koren gets here soon. I uh, I guess I get to tell her she’s my niece now? That’s gonna be an interesting conversation.”

The door opened then, and I thought it was pretty good timing on Koren’s part at first. Instead, however, the man who stood in the doorway was one of the staff that I didn’t have much experience with. He was just under six feet, a man with a face that was handsome and rugged in sort of a distinguished middle aged sort of way. The guy looked like Liam Neeson in those Taken movies.

I had to think for a minute before remembering his name. Peterson. Peterson Neal, the head of ‘student affairs’, whatever that meant. I’d never seen the man do anything other than stand around, and occasionally take a phone call or tell a student to hurry up and get to class. He wasn’t a conversationalist.

“Chambers,” he addressed me directly. “They’re ready to talk to you.” Beckoning with two fingers, he pivoted and left the room again, letting the door shut behind him.

Shit. I sighed, then looked to the others. “When Koren gets here, just… promise her I’ll explain when I get back. And wish me luck?”

Shiori caught my hand. “Thanks,” she murmured. “Thanks for saving me. I… I know what it cost you.”

After bracing myself to explain to the Runners what had happened, without telling them more than I had to, I made my way into the hall. “So who am I meeting this time? Is it Runner Kine again?”

Peterson just shook his head, gesturing the other way while another voice spoke. “No, Miss Chambers. I thought I’d get my information straight from the source this time.”

I looked that way, and found myself looking at a face I’d seen in several pictures already, a face that made me freeze up, quips disappearing.

“So I thought we could chat,” Gabriel Ruthers announced. “Just you and me.

“One on one.”

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