Porthos

Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Exodus 44-04

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“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Shiori muttered a minute later as we made our way across the dark grounds with Avalon, Aylen, Columbus (with Vulcan), and Harper. We had to take a long, meandering route to stay away from the search patterns of the security guards, rather than heading straight for the main building. Luckily, their searches seemed to be mostly centered either around the dorms or off in the direction that Larissa had sent the ones who came to where Liam was.

Glancing that way while leaning just for a second on my staff, I asked, “Nevada really set some kind of evacuation order up with all you guys together?”

She hesitated briefly before offering me a shrug. “It’s not like we have meetings or anything like that. I’ve never actually met all of the other hybrids. She just talked to us individually and told us what to do if the alert goes out. Mostly it amounts to running and scattering. There’s some teleport escape hatch things in different parts of the jungle and beach.”

Avalon held up a hand up to stop us from moving, her eyes focused on the spotlight being cast by some kind of cyberform owl flying in the distance. Her voice was curious. “What kind of alert?”

For some reason, despite the situation, Shiori actually gave a tiny smile. “It’s sort of a song. Trust me, none of the hybrids will mistake it for anything else. Not around here.”

Well that definitely had Avalon and me even more curious. Even Aylen was clearly unsure, which made sense, considering Gaia and Nevada apparently hadn’t known that she was a hybrid. From the brief look on his face, Columbus already knew. But he seemed mostly distracted by his guilt about Sean not being with us. Because if there was one thing Columbus needed more of, it was definitely guilt.

Harper, who had been a few feet ahead as she watched the patrols, turned back to us. “Okey dokey, there’s a door around the side. It’s unlabeled and they don’t use it very much. We can go in there. It’s connected to the teachers’ lounge.”

Raising an eyebrow at her, I decided to try, “And you know that how? I am pretty sure they didn’t just let you wander through to check the place out.”

I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer, and she rewarded that by grinning. “You’d be surprised how far baked goods and a bright smile can get you in this world. Cookies open more doors than you’d think.”

That sounded like a pretty good advice, actually. But I still stuck my tongue out at her for being evasive. Then we were moving again, as I used my staff as a walking stick to keep up.

Flick? Tabbris’s mental voice came down. Are you guys okay? We have reinforcements, but they can’t get through the shield yet. They’re on the other side of the island.

Quickly, I let my little sister know what was going on, and what we were doing. I gave her a brief summary while letting her pick out details from my mind on her own.

So things are about to pretty much blow up around here. We are taking down the shield and letting the hybrid students know they need to GTFO. Which means that if you guys have reinforcements ready to come in and take some of the heat off when we do, that would be pretty damn peachy.

We exchanged mental hugs then as she urged me to be careful and said that she would keep the others updated. I promised not to do anything too stupid and felt her presence withdraw once more.

By that point, we had begun making a long, circular route around the main building.  At one point, we had to stop and crouch down as a lone security guy made his way around the building in the opposite direction. Harper did something. I wasn’t sure what, but she made us touch her shoulders and when the guy glanced in our direction, he didn’t show any reaction even though we were definitely close enough for him to see. He simply paused briefly before continuing his patrol. Still, I didn’t breathe again until he was out of sight.

“Clear,” Columbus announced after staring in that direction with his goggles faintly illuminated. “He’s still walking.”

Harper nodded toward what looked like just another bit of wall. “Faculty lounge door is right there. All we need is teachers credentials to make it open.” She looked to me then. “Sorry, but they’ve got it blocked against things like your security-breaking power. Too many students get stuff like that and try to go snooping.”

Avalon exchanged a brief look with Aylen before staring at Harper. “I don’t know if you’ve eaten too many cupcakes or something, but we don’t have teacher credentials.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah, how are we supposed to deal with that?” Sovereign had landed on her shoulders earlier before attaching himself like some kind of backpack. His head came up over her shoulder to squint curiously at Harper as well.

Harper just smiled at them while holding up a golden card. “Don’t worry, I took Mason’s card off his unconscious body back there.”

Shiori sputtered. “When?! I swear, you didn’t even go near him.”

Winking, Harper started to the wall. “That would be a terrible thing to swear to. Besides, it’s not like this is the only faculty card I have.”

That time, all of us exchanged looks behind her back before following the girl. By then, she waved the card in front of the blank wall and part of it immediately slid aside in the shape of a doorway.

We stepped through quickly, and found ourselves, sure enough, in one of the faculty lounges. It basically looked a lot like the student lounge, except bigger, with more individual spaces for private working, and a library area attached to it. There were still pool tables, televisions, even video games. Which was pretty cool. Actually, now I really wanted to see one of my several hundred-year-old instructors playing Mario Sunshine. Or Pokémon!

Shiori glanced to me, whispering, “Nevada said that when she went here, she thought she was the best Pac-Man player on the island until Professor Pericles totally schooled her. A couple years ago they had a Mario Kart tournament that got really big and Pericles stomped everyone.”

I grinned reflexively before my face fell just as quickly. “I really wish I’d gotten to know him.”

Her hand found mine and squeezed as the two of us followed the others across the room at a brisk jog. Or at least as much of a jog as I felt comfortable with. Shiori helped with that too.

Stopping by the door, Harper spoke in a low, soft voice. “Nevada’s office is two floors up. We shouldn’t run into too much trouble, since everyone is either outside searching, asleep, or guarding Gaia or one of her people. But we need to be quick and quiet. Stay close.”

Once again, her voice had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.  It wasn’t quite rude or demanding, just… authoritative. It made me want to do what she said without even thinking about it.

Together, we slipped out into the dimly lit hallway and began to make our way through the eerie school corridors. Harper was right about the place being mostly deserted. There were a couple of patrols that we had to avoid, mostly with her making us invisible or whatever she was doing. But for the most part, we were able to move unimpeded.

On the other hand, I had the feeling that we would have been caught in a few seconds without her help. Then again, we also would have been caught instantly at the beginning of all this if she hadn’t shown up before Patrick and October.

Was Fossor counting on that? Did he plan on me being taken by Crossroads security? Did he have something else in mind? I had no idea what that psycho was thinking. But I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have counted on Harper. Maybe he thought another of Gaia’s people would get me out. Whatever he was up to, it was obvious that he knew a lot more about what was going on here then we’d even suspected after knowing he was controlling Escalan.

The man was a piece of shit, but an annoyingly competent one.

Reaching the stairwell, we made our way up two flights to the third floor. Just as we reached it, Harper stopped us again. Columbus’s hand was raised right after her. We knelt there in the stairwell, listening as voices grew louder.  From the sound of them, it was just two of the security guards asking each other what exactly was going on. All they seem to know was that the headmistress was in deep trouble and the Committee had stepped in. There were rumors flying around about Gaia killing one of the Committee members, about her trying for a coup, about one of them killing her instead, it was all a complete mess. And it was clear that they weren’t being told much yet. Just that they had to keep an eye out for all of us.

Columbus nudged me, his eyes on the door as he whispered, “They’re not looking at each other. They’re facing either direction. About ten feet that way.”

Knowing what he was implying, I nodded. “I’ve got one of them.”

Harper gave me a thumbs up. “Then I’ll handle the other one.“

Without another word, I reached out to touch the door, sending myself into the wood before moving through it and into the wall beyond. Sure enough, there were two guys there, each facing a different way. One of them was looking at the door I had just come through, his expression one of a mixture of boredom and slight apprehension. It was clear that he knew something big was going on and that he and his partner were mostly being left out of it. Probably because the Committee didn’t know how much they could trust Gaia’s own security team.

Sliding myself along that wall, I parked right near the guy and waited for a moment. He kept shifting his weight back and forth before eventually taking a step over to lean against the wall. Unfortunately, it was the opposite wall from the one where I was. And neither the floor nor the ceiling were made out of wood. So, I had to send myself all the way back around again, through the door and to the other wall. Figured.

Eventually, however, I made it back to where he was still leaning. Taking a breath, or at least as much as I could do that while possessing wood, I put a hand out, caught his arm, and possessed the man all in one motion.

Only then did it occur to me how much worse this could’ve gone if the guy was actually already possessed. Or worse, a hybrid himself. Thankfully, he wasn’t, and I was right inside of him.

He also clearly wasn’t very happy about it, as I instantly made his body freeze, his voice dying in his throat before he could cry out. I threw everything into keeping him still and silent, even as the man himself tried to jerk and shout in surprise.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I quickly blurted to him. I know this sucks, and it’s not fair, and I promise not to pry into your thoughts or make you do anything bad. We just need to get through here and we don’t want to hurt you guys. Or be hurt, come to think of it. I promise, we’re not going to do anything, I’m not going to go prying through your head, or anything like that. You just need to go to sleep. After we call your partner over here. But I promise, we’re not going to hurt him either.

Some part of me wondered if I should just use his body to fight and move around. But no. No, I wasn’t going to be that person. Not right now. Not here. This was already bad enough without me possessing a guy and forcing him to fight and be injured by his own friends. Or worse, killed. I didn’t know how far they were willing to go. If I took this guy into combat and things went wrong, I would never forgive myself.

From the serious rant this guy launched into, my words did little, if anything, to reassure him. But at least I tried. Turning my attention to his partner, I made the guy speak up. “Hey, did you see that?”

He looked to me, blinking. “See what?”

Holding a finger up to my host’s lips, I made a shushing noise while staring intently at one of the office doors. Slowly, I made him walk that way while he continued to silently tell me just how much trouble I was in. As if I didn’t already know that.

The other guy fell for it, coming in close, his attention on the empty office. We got close to it, heads bent as though to listen. The guy leaned in, squinting out the door before shaking his head. “I don’t see anyth—”

That was as far as he got before collapsing unconscious to the ground with Harper standing directly behind him. I interrupted my own host’s ranting and frantic questions with another brief apology before letting him fall unconscious as well. Stepping out of the body, I cracked my neck before taking a painful step. Yeah, while Seosten were apparently supposed to be basically completely healed whenever they possessed someone, I either hadn’t fully picked that trick up yet, or the poison that Kushiel used bypassed that. Either way, my legs still hurt. We’d already tried it back at the camp to no avail, so it wasn’t surprising now.

The others joined us, and we stowed the unconscious guards in that empty office before heading down the corridor.

“Don’t worry, boy,” I whispered to Vulcan, who was looking lost. “We’ll get Sean back, I promise.”

Porthos, who was still riding on Vulcan’s back, made a chittering noise of agreement. He was joined a second later by a soft chiming sound from VJ, attached just behind him, as well as squeaks from Jaq and Gus, poking their heads out of my pocket. The menagerie was in agreement. We were going to save Sean. Somehow.

Eventually, we made our way to the door into Nevada’s office. Avalon input the code the woman had given us, and the door clicked. After a quick glance up and down the hall, we slipped inside.

“We don’t know how long it’s supposed to be before someone checks on those guys,” Valley announced. “We should set off this alert and then get the hell out of here. If they know where it came from, they’ll be right on top of us.”

“You said it’s a song?” I asked Shiori. “How do we make everyone hear a song?”

She responded with a quick thumbs up before jogging across the room, toward Nevada’s cluttered desk in a corner. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.”

The rest of us watched curiously as she dug through the desk before coming out with a Rubik’s Cube and a silver hammer. She set the cube on the desk, raised the hammer, and brought it down hard on the thing. It shattered apart into a bunch of  pieces that went flying everywhere.

Instantly, a song blared to life from the speakers in the room. It was also coming from the hallway beyond, and, apparently, from every other speaker as well. I could even hear it blasting across the school grounds. It was everywhere. I had no doubt that it was playing in all the dorms as well. Every single speaker on the school grounds was blaring this song.

Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. That’s the song that was playing. That’s what was blaring out over every speaker on the school grounds. That’s what hundreds of students woke up to, what they heard exploding to life all around them.

I looked to Shiori, who grinned and pointed to the window. I moved that way, looking out. The school had come to life. Mostly by the dorms, I saw students swarming out of every doorway, through the windows, off the roof. A few security guards and Committee agents alike were trying to stop them, but were almost immediately overwhelmed just through sheer numbers. Over a dozen students went right over them. They were taken completely by surprise.

Behind that first wave of students, I saw more emerging with obvious confusion. These were the ones who weren’t hybrids and didn’t know what was going on. They looked around, rubbing sleep out of their eyes while staring as their class and teammates slammed right through the guards who had been searching for… well, us.

Mostly it was older students that did the brunt of the damage, students who were third or fourth years. There were about a half dozen of them, and they basically hit those security guards so fast and so hard that the guys were on the ground before they knew what hit them. Others from the younger classes followed, while their teammates called out confused questions about what the hell was going on. Two of the Committee agents tried to form a dome wall of energy to contain everyone, but were hit by about six different powers at once that put them on the ground. I saw one student shapeshift into a bee, fly straight at one of them, then turn into a rhino just in time to slam into him. Another used a series of vines from the ground to entangle them.

Then something happened. The hybrid students had started to split up, but suddenly all of them hit the ground. It was like some kind of invisible hand had reached up to smack them down, pinning them against the grass. There was a single figure still standing, his hands raised.

“Wait,” I started, “is that–”

I was interrupted by glass exploding in my face. Belatedly, I realized that I was being ripped through the window by an invisible force. The same force, in fact, that had pinned all the hybrid students. I was hauled through the air, slammed through the window as everyone behind me shouted my name, and then found myself dropped unceremoniously to the ground right at the feet of the one responsible for all this.

“You,” Gabriel Ruthers snapped, “are behind this.”

Blinking twice as I oriented myself, I started to say something. “Ruthers, you don’t–”

I was interrupted as the man caught hold of my hair, twisting it a little. “Stop,” he snapped. “You have been turning the students since you arrived, on your mother’s orders. Your mother and Gaia, working together.”

“That’s not wh–” I started, interrupted once again by a sharp pain in my head as he twisted my hair.

“Silence,” he ordered. “You will do nothing else. You and the Strangers that Gaia and Joselyn have brought in will be put through trial. And I can assure you, we will ensure that you are made an example o–”

It was his turn to be interrupted then, as a figure abruptly landed on the grass just in front of us, amongst all the still-pinned hybrid students. Harper. She had flown out, literally flown, before landing hard on the grass, sending up a spray of dirt from the shockwave.

Slowly, the girl I knew as Harper Hayes straightened from where she had landed. As Ruthers gripped my hair and stared, she met his gaze. Her voice, as she spoke, was as cool as ice. The kind of ice that would take your finger at a touch.

“You’re going to want to let her go now, Gabriel.

“You’re going to want to let all of them go.”

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Exodus 44-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

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

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

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

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Exodus 44-01

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Something really fucked up was going on.

That sentence basically could have opened almost any story from my life this past year. But this time it was particularly apt. Harper Hayes was in my dorm room where I had been sleeping with Avalon and Shiori, and she had just apparently knocked out another intruder with some kind of electrified knife before informing us that we had to go because Fossor just killed one of the Committee members and got Gaia arrested for it.

So yeah, with extreme emphasis, something really fucked up was going on.

Avalon was already on her feet, Harper’s words (if it was really Harper at all) bringing her up quickly. She grabbed the girl’s arm, giving her a quick shove up against the wall while hissing, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?”

“Valley,” I quickly blurted, tossing a pen to the girl. “Check her.” She caught it with her free hand while still holding Harper against the wall with her other.

Harper, for her part, gave a very soft sigh before extending her arm to the side, using her other hand to tug the sleeve down, exposing her skin. “Fine, do it. But quick, they’re already sending more to take your friends.”

Even as Valley scrawled the anti-possession rune on the girl, I was grabbing two things. First, a small coin that Wyatt had given me. My thumb brushed over it as I quickly activated the thing to let him know something was wrong. With my other hand, I grabbed my phone and pressed the button that would let Tabbris know that I needed her to check in. Wyatt and Tabbris, they were first.

Once the messages were sent, I pushed myself to my feet, trying not to wince. My legs still hurt. They weren’t crippled or anything, but they were definitely sore. Just putting my own weight on them after laying down for hours made a short, sharp pain shoot through me. Ow. Seriously ow. I wasn’t going to be jumping around anytime soon. Just the thought of launching myself with my staff and landing on them made me shudder.

One night. Could we not have one single night where we got to win without things going wrong?

In the meantime, Shiori had moved to check the guy on the floor. Glancing that way finally showed me who it was. October Atrean, one of the guys who had been sent by the Committee to keep an eye on things. Checking him, Shiori looked to me, whispering, “He’s breathing.”

Avalon finished with the rune then, stepping back a bit while we all stared. But nothing happened. There was no Seosten possessing her. Which meant… what, exactly? One of Fossor’s zombies? The thought of the chipper, perky girl I’d gotten to know a bit over that year being a zombie filled me with dread.

But no. I could tell she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t possessed, so…?

“What are you?” Avalon snapped. “Who are you? What–shapeshifter, magic, what?”

“There’s a lot to tell you,” Harper agreed. “But now isn’t the time. Like I said, they’re coming for you. They already arrested Gaia. And by they, I mean more Committee members. They weren’t taking a chance with her, not after–” She stopped herself then, head shaking. “Explanations later. Right now, you want to get out of here without everyone you care about being thrown in Crossroads prison? Then we need to get off this island right now.

“Why should we trust you?” I demanded. “You could be working for… or with, any of like a dozen different people that want to get us out from Gaia’s protection. We have no reason to believe that you–”

Harper spoke then. Not words. Numbers. At first I thought she was listing temperatures, then time limits or something. Then I realized the truth.

“Latitude and longitude?” Shiori blurted. “What’s that supposed–”

“The baseball stadium,” I interrupted, staring at Harper. “That’s the coordinates for the baseball stadium that we fought Ammon at. You… you’re the one who sent that telepathic whisper to Professor Dare, the one who told her we were in trouble and where to find us.”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Harper spoke quietly, yet urgently. “And I really want to answer them. But there’s not time. We have to leave, now.”

Avalon spun on her heel, starting to the door. “If Gaia’s in trouble, I–”

Shiori and I were both there, grabbing either of her arms. I spoke quickly. “Valley, stop. If she’s right–I don’t know who she is or what’s going on with her, but if she’s right, we don’t stand a chance. It’s the Committee, and if they have Gaia–if it’s something Gaia can’t handle…”

I felt Tabbris’ presence then. Not fully. She hadn’t recalled to me completely. Rather, she projected herself mentally, checking to see what was going on. I silently filled her in, letting her take in everything from my mind while urging her to stay at the Atherby camp to tell them. For a brief second, I felt a little more relief despite the insanity of the situation, just knowing that Tabbris was getting help.

“What do you want me to do, Chambers?!” Avalon snapped meanwhile, looking to me sharply. “Just abandon her? I can’t do that. I can’t just let her–if they’re going to–” She half-flailed helplessly, her eyes wide.

“Leave now,” Harper put in before I could respond. “Get off the island, regroup with others, and go from there. You won’t accomplish anything by getting yourself arrested. Nothing except turning yourself into leverage that can be used against her.”

Tabbris had everything by then. She was just as confused as I was, clearly. But she promised to tell everyone at the camp, and to get help. Then I felt her presence withdraw.

Spinning back to Harper in that time, Avalon started to blurt, “And who the hell–” Stopping herself as I quickly put a hand on her shoulder, she took a breath before staring intently at Harper. “We’re going to have a really long discussion after this.”

“Yes,” the other girl agreed. “We are.” She lifted her chin a bit. “But for now–” Suddenly and without warning, she threw her hand out. An invisible force caught Shiori, Avalon, and me, throwing all three of us out of the way. I fell over my bed with a yelp, while the other two hit a nearby wall.

An instant later, a new figure literally dropped in from the ceiling, phasing through just like October had. I immediately recognized him as the other man’s partner, Patrick. His fists were glowing with a violet energy, and the second he landed, the man was already swinging at Harper. In the span of about a second, as long as it would have taken me to blink, he’d already lashed out three times, twice with his right fist and once with his left. It was so fast, so ridiculously fast, that none of us had a prayer of reacting in time.

None of us, that was, aside from Harper herself. She ducked once to avoid the first swing, turned slightly to let the second go past her face, then rocked herself backwards just a hair so that the third would miss as well. Then her hand snapped up, as she slapped two fingers, just two fingers, against the side of the man’s neck.

He dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, collapsing to the floor where he lay unconscious. It was that simple, that quick. Harper had barely moved. Now, she looked to the three of us, just as we finished picking ourselves up.

“They’ll send more. We need to go, right now.”

“We–” Forcing myself to focus despite the several thousand fucking questions I had, I snapped, “We have to get the others. Sands, Scout, Doug, Columbus, Sean, Koren…” My mind was going a million miles an hour. Vanessa and Tristan weren’t here, spending the evening at the Atherby camp with their parents. But the others, we had to get to the others.

“And Aylen,” Avalon put in sharply. “She’s Koren’s roommate, so it’s not out of the way. And even if it was, we’re not leaving her behind, not after what she did for us. If things are going wrong…”

“Yes,” Harper agreed. “You were the first targets because you were seen as the most… important to contain. But they’re already sending others for your friends.”

Everything the girl said and did made me want to call a time-out and interrogate her for several hours. But there wasn’t time. As much as I wanted to get actual answers from her (especially about how the living hell she had suddenly become such a badass), we had to get moving.

Wyatt hadn’t done anything yet. Or even responded. The thought of what could be keeping him made me cringe inwardly, but I forced myself to say, “We get the girls first, then grab the boys.. And after that…”

“After that,” Harper put in while moving to the door, “we get off the school grounds. I have a way off the island, but we need to be out from under their security system first. For now, get dressed.” She stopped at the door, seeming to listen for a moment before adding, “And grab anything you don’t want to leave behind.”  

Filing that right along with the list of all the other baffling things about the girl, I gave the other two a brief glance before running to my dresser. Hurriedly, I started to dress, shoving a few special things into my pockets and an extra-dimensional bag I’d been given earlier.

“Let’s go, guys,” I announced, kneeling by the box where Jaq and Gus were resting with their new roommate, Porthos. The two mice and the lizard all looked up at me as I extended my hands down, before the three of them hurriedly crawled up to my shoulders.

“Chambers,” Avalon started, and I glanced up to see the other girl by the windowsill where Herbie had been sitting (I’d gotten him back from Larees earlier). She tossed him to me, and I quickly put the little guy in my pocket before returning the favor by tossing Porthos to her.

Finally, I grabbed my notebook. Giving it a quick glance to make sure everything was in order, I shoved it away inside my bag before straightening. “Shiori?”

“Choo’s still with Savvy and the other kids,” she replied, having already slid into the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before. “I didn’t want to wake the little guy up when we got back. Guess that’s a good thing now. I’m good. Well, not good, but you know.”

We were ready. Which was a good thing, because as I looked to the doorway, I saw that Harper had disappeared.

The three of us quickly moved that way, Avalon going first. She hesitated, then slowly turned the knob and opened the door to poke her head out. I heard her make a noise of disbelief before opening it the rest of the way to step through.

Shiori and I glanced to one another, then slipped out as well. There, we found three Crossroads security people on the floor, soundly unconscious. Harper was there as well, just straightening from lowering a fourth to the floor next to Sands and Scout’s room. “Hurry,” she said quickly. “They’ll be coming in force now.”

The three of us exchanged quick looks. I pointed. “Valley, get Koren and Aylen, I’ve got the twins.” Then I started to the door Harper was next to, leaving Avalon to go the other way. I tried to sprint, but my legs protested too much, so I just sort of quick-hobbled my way there like some kind of old woman with hip and knee problems.

As a group, we had long-since passed each other copies of the keys that let us access each other’s rooms. Since I had the one for the twins’ dorm in my pocket, the door opened as soon as I turned the knob. Letting myself in, I fumbled for the light switch briefly before flicking it on.

The good news was that Sands was there, already sitting up and staring at me in confusion while her hand grabbed for her mace reflexively.

The bad news, because of course we needed more of that, was that the other bed was empty.

“Where’s Scout?” I blurted. “We have to go!” As if for emphasis, Jaq and Gus both chittered at her from either shoulder.

She stared at me in confusion, already picking herself off the bed. “Go? Where are we–”

“No time! Get dressed, grab anything you need. I–” Hesitating, I looked to her. “Fossor. It’s Fossor. He… he killed one of the Committee members, somehow.” While Sands gaped at me, I continued. “He killed one of them and blamed it on Gaia. They’re taking her in now, and coming after us. We have to go. Where’s Scout?”

To her credit, Sands had started getting dressed before I was even halfway through that. She hurriedly pulled on clothes, shrugging into her jacket before grabbing a backpack. “She probably went for a walk,” she informed me. “She does that sometimes, out on the far end of the grounds, near the edge of the shield where the jungle starts.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed a second backpack and tossed it to me, adding, “We, uhh, prepped for something like this.”

Catching what was obviously Scout’s bag, I blinked twice before nodding. “We’ll get her, come on, guys first.”

The two of us moved back to the hall, where Sands stopped short upon seeing the unconscious guards and Harper. “Wha–”

“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “And we’ve only heard like… five percent of it. She’s on our side, she’s helping us get out of here. The rest can wait.”

“Wait for what?” That was Koren, coming out of the other room with Avalon and Aylen right behind her. The latter had Sovereign perched on one arm, who looked as confused as his partner. Which was impressive for a hawk to begin with, let alone a mechanical one.

Both Aylen and Koren stopped short at the sight of Harper, looking just as confused as… well, everyone else except Harper herself. But before they could say anything, Shiori, who was standing by the door at the end of the hall, turned back to us and came sprinting. “They’re coming,” she hissed. “Four more security guys, plus Peterson Neal!”

“That guy is seriously annoying,” Harper muttered, sounding for a moment like the simple teen girl she was supposed to be. Then she waved us to the stairs. “Move, go. We’ll go up to the roof. Go, go, go.”

No one else questioned it. We all turned, rushing for the stairs. Sovereign hopped off Aylen’s arm to fly ahead, smart enough not to call out. Glancing back, I saw Harper touch something to the floor to activate a spell before she followed us, waving the group on. “Hurry,” she snapped, just as some kind of black cloud started to fill the hallway behind us. “It’ll take them a minute to get through that, but you need to move, now.”

Even as she said that, we were already moving up the stairs as fast as we could go. Shiori had moved to help me, putting one arm around my back so I could lean on her. Flashing the girl a grateful smile, I caught the railing with my other hand and kept heaving myself up that way. Sands, meanwhile, activated one of the privacy coins, as did Avalon, just to be on the safe side.

Around and up we went, running up those stairs while the sound of the door opening below reached us. They were right behind us. If Harper was right, the dark cloud would slow them down. But not for long. We had to get the others and get the hell out of here.

The speed with which Crossroads had gone from a place of safety to one of intense danger was kind of terrifying. I’d seen this place as… well, not completely safe, of course. That would have been blindingly naive, after everything that had happened. But now it was so much worse. The news that Gaia had been… had been arrested (was that even possible?!) and that they were all after us had turned everything on its end. The Committee had lost one of their own, and they were sending their goons to take us in.

Goons who, I had to remind myself, probably mostly thought they were doing the right thing. This wasn’t like fighting the Seosten. The vast majority of the people who were being sent to collect us were almost definitely good guys, at least in their own minds. They didn’t know what was really going on. How would they? Everything was set up for them not to know, and Fossor had taken advantage of that. Just like he’d taken advantage of the fact that everyone was exhausted after everything that had happened before making his move.

How he knew what happened, how he knew anything about it, I didn’t know. Escalan’s… body was long gone, and Gaia had done a thorough sweep of every other faculty member to make sure they were… well, alive. But somehow, Fossor knew enough to make his move right then, and I was positive that wasn’t a coincidence.

Passing every other floor (and a few confused older students who were milling around the halls looking around to see what was going on), we reached the top, where a ladder at the end of the hall led upward. Quickly, the seven of us climbed up, emerging on the roof, where we stayed low as the sound of voices outside calling back and forth reached us.

A sound caught my attention, and we all spun back to see one of the security guys floating up to land on the roof. He saw us at the same time, his mouth opening to shout something.

Then Harper was behind him. Her arm covered his mouth, as she did something with her other hand that made the man’s eyes roll back in his head. She let him fall gently, lowering him down before looking back to us. “Now,” she said sharply, “we have to go.”

“Go?” Aylen started. “Where are we going?”

“We have to get off the island,” I informed her. “It’s too dangerous here right now. If they’re taking Gaia… we have no idea how much they know, or what they’ll find out.”

“What?” the other girl snapped suddenly, eyes widening. “No, no, I’m not going–I’m not leaving the island. I can’t.”

“Aylen,” I started, “if they’re taking Gaia away, we don’t know if… if it’ll be safe for people like you and Shiori. Hybrids. We don’t–”

“We’ll come back for him,” Avalon cut in, watching Aylen. “You can’t free him right now, Aylen. Not with the Committee’s people all over the place.”

Realizing just what they were talking about, my eyes widened as I looked over toward the lighthouse. Aylen was part-Reaper. Actually, she’d said that she was a Reaper’s granddaughter. Did that mean that… Holy shit.

“But I–” Looking distressed, Aylen squirmed on her feet before swallowing. “Okay…” She didn’t look happy about it, but she wasn’t arguing. From the spot where he had perched nearby, Sovereign looked just as upset.

“Right,” Shiori started, “so we grab the boys and… uh oh.”

Looking the way she was, I muttered a curse. Because down below, the boys were right there. Right there being escorted out the back door of the dorm by several armed figures who weren’t dressed as Crossroads security.

“Committee lackeys,” Sands muttered, staring that way alongside us. “How do we get them and get to Scout?”

“Carefully,” I replied, just as a shout went up from below that ‘the girls’ weren’t in their rooms and to spread out to look for us.

“Very goddamn carefully.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about uppercutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done, given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?” Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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