Princess Cuddles

Class Action 14-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

“Okay, right, right.” Felix was clearly looking over the map, carefully scanning all the possible paths and comparing it to the details written out on the back. “Hang on, just a second.” 

“Take your time,” I murmured. “I mean, read fast, but read effectively. Read–gonna shut up now.” To distract myself then, I slowly looked around the space we were in. It was pitch-black aside from where my headlight pointed. For a moment, I covered the light with a hand and switched my vision over to see through infrared, checking for any heat signatures. There were a few spots, but nothing that looked like a living creature. Not that that was definitive, since even though I was sure Sinbad would play fair by giving creatures that were supposed to be warm the appropriate heat to give off, there were plenty of things out there that wouldn’t. 

“Hey,” Shiloh started, pointing up toward the corner. “Does that thing look like a camera to you?”

Switching my vision back and looking that way while moving my hand off the light, I saw what she was indicating. A little black dome with a red light darting around. Then it centered on us. I lowered my gaze to look at my own chest, seeing a dot of red there. “No,” I blurted while jerking to the side and lashing out with a foot to kick Shiloh away, “I think it’s a turret!” 

In the background, Felix was saying something about there being no turret on the map. And yet, the very much extant turret had already opened fire. Several literal spears went shooting through the water toward us, passing right through the spot where I had been an instant earlier. With my boost going, I could see that they were dull-tipped, with some kind of electronic thing on the end that would probably alert if they hit someone and how much damage it would’ve done. Whatever the case, the turret was definitely trying to shoot the two of us. 

“Distract it!” Shiloh called out, already swimming to the right to avoid the next spear as it narrowly missed her foot. I wasn’t sure what it would’ve done with her armor, but probably best not to test it if we had any choice in the matter.

Right, so apparently I was supposed to distract the thing, somehow. Thinking quickly, I created a portal between myself and the shielded turret thing. “Hey!” I shouted, as though that would matter to an inanimate object, “over here, stupid!” With that, I drove my staff through the portal to smack into the thing as hard as I could (which wasn’t nearly as hard as usual thanks to being underwater, but I was still pretty damn strong). The staff rebounded off the clearly heavily-reinforced dome while barely leaving a scratch on it. But it did at least make that red light twist over toward me. Quickly, I disabled the portal, just in case the turret got a bright idea to use it. “Uhh, consider its attention got!” I called out, even as the thing fired three incredibly fast spears at me. The first one froze partway to me as I focused on pausing its momentum. The other two kept coming, but I didn’t move out of the way. Instead, I focused on slowing one of them down by using the Fomorian Ape-Croc’s power to increase the amount of force needed to move it. I had frozen the first spear using the Lemevwik’s pause/rewind power, and slowed down the second one with the Ape-Croc’s ability. Which left the third spear. That one was coming full-speed. But I was boosting enough to twist out of the way, catching the thing as it began to shoot past me. My hand caught the shaft, and I twisted back just before the slowed spear managed to reach me. With the captured spear in one hand, I lashed out to knock the new one out of the way. Which came just in time before the pause on the last spear ran out and it came shooting at me again. But by that time, I was already throwing my actual staff that way, enlarging it just enough that the spear rebounded off the end and went spinning away while I recalled the staff back to my grasp. 

The turret was getting ready to fire again, but I’d bought Shiloh enough time to get herself into position. She extended her arm with the computer, sending a beam of silver energy from that to the wall-mounted weapon. There was a brief silver glow from the thing before it stopped. Then the red light flicked around a few times before settling on the nearby wall. 

“Got it, I got it!” Shiloh called, swimming closer. “It’s okay, the thing won’t shoot anymore. Uhh, Felix?” 

The response was immediate, “Yeah, apparently there’s still some unlabeled dangers in there. Sinbad says it’s to simulate reality or whatever. You know, cuz sometimes stuff happens you can’t plan for. That’s what he says, anyway.” 

“Right,” I replied while shaking my head. “So we’ll be even more careful. Did you figure out where we’re going next?” 

“Damn straight I did,” she assured us. “It’s the uhh, one in the floor that’s… nearest to the entrance where you came in. But don’t go yet. You have to go when the sun is behind a cloud. Err, you know, when the artificial sun is behind a cloud, not the sun we’re actually living inside of. Hang on a second. Get close to it and I’ll tell you when to go. Just be fast, and don’t pay attention to the voice that’s gonna be coming from a couple tunnels to the right as you go. No matter what it says.”

Go when the sun was behind a cloud, and ignore a voice coming out of tunnels? I looked at Shiloh and the two of us shrugged before swimming down closer to the right entrance. Yeah, something told me it was going to be a long and eventful journey to get to where this ship was. 

******

I was right. The next twenty minutes or so were pretty damn chock-full. Between all the dangers that Felix could tell us about, and the ones that we just had to find on our own, this exercise definitely wasn’t boring. Sinbad had made sure of that. Maybe a little too sure, but hey. I was enjoying finding ways around his little traps, and just generally stretching my skills in an environment that wasn’t really life or death. It was fun. Truly, genuinely fun. I even let the sharks out a few at a time as we went to let them scout ahead or watch behind us. They had a lot of fun with that, and were clearly taking the exercise very seriously. 

Eventually, we were guided down through the bottom of the maze and into what turned out to be a massive cave system beneath the lake floor. Which raised a few questions about what it was doing there, but I assumed it had been built in for training sequences like this. Or just for underwater-based people to potentially live, maybe? 

Either way, we made it into the huge underwater cavern, and saw the vague outline of what sort of looked like a ship in the distance. Sort of like a ship, but there was something odd about it that I couldn’t put together from here. Seeing that, we stopped and looked at each other before I asked, “Hey Felix, we see the ship. Anything we need to worry about between here and there?” 

“Nah, not that I can see,” came the response. “But there’s plenty of things to worry about on the ship itself. Not that I have any specifics about that, just lots of bad things. So be careful.” 

“Yeah, I figured.” With that, I took the time to release the last of my sharks from their vial so they could all swim out around us. Once they were ready, I nodded to Shiloh so we could set off. With the shiver keeping pace, the two of us descended deeper and deeper toward that vague ship outline. And as we got closer, I gradually realized what had been so odd about it from a distance. 

It wasn’t a ship. Well, it was. It was definitely a ship. But it wasn’t a boat. It was not a water ship. It was a spaceship. Or a mock-up of one. Or maybe just a broken one that didn’t fly anymore anyway. The point was, this was a two-hundred meter long metal spaceship shaped somewhat vaguely like what we’d expect a sailing ship to look like, except the ‘masts’ were actually gun-towers. And, obviously, there was no upper deck for people to stand on. The whole thing was enclosed. It looked sort of like a submarine with those four mast-like guntowers sticking out of the top, and a wide V-shaped ‘glass’ viewing port at the front. It wasn’t really glass, of course. Ships like this had some kind of incredibly strong, yet transparent ‘windows’ that could stand up to just as much damage as the rest of the armor. 

Or rather, it could have stood up to that kind of damage. But as we got closer to the sunken spaceship, I saw that most of that transparent front viewport was gone. There were six large holes punched through the ship at random spots, leaving just a few jagged remains behind. One of those spots was in the viewport. They looked an awful lot like something had taken a few big bites out of it. For a moment, I wondered if the thing had been in the water or in space when that happened. We didn’t know if this thing was a real ship that was damaged this badly in its normal course of operations and repurposed for this exercise, or if it had been specifically broken like that just for what we were doing. Looking at it from up closer, I was pretty certain that Sinbad had not built it from scratch. A wooden sailing ship, maybe. But this? No way. This thing had clearly been a real, flying spaceship at some point. The only question was whether the big bite mark in the side  that had torn through all that thick metal armor had happened in the course of battle, or was added for flavor down here. After all, I had seen and/or heard about plenty of Fomorian ‘ship’ creatures that could probably pull off something like that. Terrifying as it was to think about. But then, literally everything involving the Fomorians was terrifying to think about. 

Right, so we needed to go inside. It felt like the easiest way in would be through the broken viewport at the front, or through one of those six big holes. And I had no doubt that Sinbad had even more tricks and traps in store depending on which entrance we happened to use. But the point of the exercise wasn’t to fight monsters or survive traps. It was to get as much treasure as we could, and bring it back in a couple dimensional-storage bags we’d both been given. So, rather than swim closer, I reached out to touch Shiloh’s arm to make her stop. While she looked at me, I murmured, “Let’s play our own game with this thing, not his.” 

With that, I reached into one of the impossibly-deep pockets in the Seosten bodysuit, producing a small, blank stone. One of Herbie’s brothers. It took me a few seconds to remember the exact spell I was thinking of, but I finally got it, using the instant-inscription power to put a special rune on my rock. Then I triggered the spell and gave the thing a toss through the water toward the sunken ship. 

Shiloh and I both watched as the rock began to glow greenish white. Then it took off, and I kicked after it while calling for Shiloh to follow me. She was clearly curious, but simply followed while the rock led us toward the ship. Not to any of the openings, but more toward the back. 

“You guys okay?” Felix’s voice piped up. 

“All good,” I confirmed. “We’re just… finding our way.” 

As we neared the ship, I saw something move in the nearest of the openings. Even as I was looking that way to see what it was, the thing came rushing out at us. It looked like a scorpion with two bladed tails and four flippers (two on each side) rather than legs. Oh, and it was spitting some sort of gas at us through the water. I was pretty sure it was supposed to be either poisonous or acidic.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about it, because the water scorpion thing didn’t get anywhere near us before Brody and Quint both slammed into the thing from the side, each biting a flipper off. The creature twisted, stinger-tails lashing out. But it never got the chance to hit them before Princess Cuddles rose up from beneath the thing and ate half of it in one gulp. Of course, the thing vanished as soon as it was ‘killed.’ Just like other things we’d faced inside the maze had. And now just as then, even though I’d explained things to my sharks, I had the feeling they were still very confused when that happened. Not to mention hungry. I was going to have to feed them real food soon, because I was pretty sure they were getting tired of delicious-looking meals vanishing.

Belatedly, I noticed that Shiloh had moved closer to the hole in the ship, almost far enough to be out of range of my headlamp. She was staring that way, before kicking her way back. Once close enough, she spoke in a whisper. “There’s more of those things. I think it’s a nest.” 

“Well, thankfully,” I replied, “we’re not going in that way. Or any of those ways. Come on.” Rather than going immediately, however, I took a moment to thank the sharks for jumping in. My hands ran over their sides as I praised all of them for being such good guard sharks. Then I kicked out again, and we continued in the direction of the glowing rock. It had stopped a bit ahead of us once we were far enough away, then resumed moving once we caught up. 

“Dude, what is that spell?” Shiloh asked while swimming alongside me. “Are you sure this is a good idea? We’re not even in the ship yet, and we’re kinda being timed with this whole thing.” 

“Trust me,” I promised her, “just keep following the glowing rock. It won’t let us down.” At least, I really hoped it wouldn’t. I hadn’t exactly done the spell a lot, though I was reasonably confident about it. It was one of the bits of utility magic that Shyel (the Chayyiel copy in my head) had taught me over the past few months. Not exactly a spell that would change the course of a battle (probably), but she had told me that you never knew what little thing could be useful at some point. I wasn’t sure ‘winning a class competition put on by Sinbad’ was what she’d had in mind, but hey. Utilizing what I had available did sound like something she’d want me to do. 

We followed that stone away from the hole where the scorpion-things were lurking, following the intact surface of the ship. Shiloh looked a bit uncertain still, glancing back now and then toward the openings. I was sure she was calculating just how badly we would fail this exercise if I was wrong and we hadn’t even made it into the ship before our time was up. Yet, despite those doubts, she followed me anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure why, given the girl barely knew me.

Whatever the reason, she stayed close while we went after the glowing stone. It had stopped moving by that point, sinking down to attach itself against one specific part of the ship. It didn’t look any different from any other part, just a random section of undamaged hull. But I trusted the spell, swimming down that way while giving a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be ambushed. The coast was clear. Something told me Sinbad was keeping most of the surprises at the entrances or spread through the interior of the ship, not out here. 

Even so, I still looked toward my sharks and told them to patrol and keep an eye out. Which they did, immediately launching into a coordinated system of having one shark near us at all times, switching on and off with the rest, who would go on elaborate paths through the water to watch for anything approaching. They even used the buddy system, every shark constantly in sight of at least one other. It was amazing to see them do all that like it was instinct. 

As soon as I saw what they were doing, my attention returned to the stone. Shiloh was flipping her attention between staring at that, at me, and at the sharks. She clearly wasn’t sure where to look next. Her voice was uncertain. “Okay, so now can you tell me what we’re doing over here?” 

“Yeah,” Felix piped up. “Can you tell me what you guys are doing too?” 

“Just gotta check one thing,” I assured her. “You play a lot of video games, right? You know that thing where people will cheat and skip over most of the level? It’s like that. Or it should be.” Belatedly, I added, “Oh, and uhh, we’re probably about to see a ghost so don’t freak out.” 

That said, while Shiloh was still giving a double-take, I focused for a moment and reached out toward a familiar presence. I had a lot of them in the back of my mind by now, but I extended my attention to one in particular. While doing so, I made sure to make it a gentle touch, a request rather than a demand. One he could refuse if he wanted. I wasn’t forcing anything.

A moment later, I felt a sense of acceptance before Jorsher appeared. After Ahmose had allowed himself to fade away, Jorsher was the most senior of the ghosts that I knew. Well, not counting Rahanvael, but I was going to let her rest. After all, she’d spent an indescribably long time waiting to have a chance to stop her brother’s reign of terror and genocide, culminating in helping to kill him only a few days ago. I wasn’t about to call her out for something like this. 

The humanoid man with the overly large eyes appeared and, despite my warning, Shiloh still jumped a bit. Or jolted, at least. My sharks didn’t seem to care. I wondered if that was because of their connection to me. Huh. Something to look into. 

“You requested assistance, Lady Chambers?” he asked, before looking around. “Do you require aid in returning to the surface?” 

My head shook quickly. “No, I uhh, it’s a school project thing. Could you poke your head down through here and tell us what you see?” 

Yeah, he gave me a brief odd look at that. But, in the end, the ghost offered a minute shrug before following my request. He poked his head through the hull of the ship and was still for a moment. Shiloh used that time to hiss at me, “You really are a strong Necromancer.” 

Coughing (also a strange sensation underwater, just like snorting had been), I nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, if I’m right–” 

At that moment, Jorsher brought his head out and looked at me. “It is a sealed room, protected by various magical traps on the doorway and filled with buckets of gold and jewels.” 

“Yes!” I pumped the air–err, water. “The ‘find gold’ spell worked! Told you I knew what I was doing. Ignore the part just now where I was super-excited at the fact that it worked.” 

“Find–why do you even know that spell? We never learned that in class,” Shiloh blurted.

“Long story,” I replied. “We just need to get that gold out of there. Actually, just in case…” I looked over to my sharks, still diligently patrolling the surrounding water. “Okay, guys, I’m about to go in. Can you watch over Shiloh for me?” 

They obediently moved closer to Shiloh, and the other girl offered Simpson, our current personal guardshark, a hesitant smile before asking me, “Do you have a phase through solid spaceship metal spell too?”  

“Better,” I replied before looking at Jorsher. “Do you mind?” 

“I will require assistance,” was his response. 

He was right, so I summoned another volunteer ghost from among those who were still waiting to be taken to a place where they could say goodbye and fade away on their own terms. This one was an older human guy named Clyde. As soon as he appeared, I produced another stone from my pocket, one that had already been prepared with an enchantment. “Could you guys hold this?” 

The two ghosts each reached out to take the stone, while I used the command word, “Mar’ah.” Immediately, both of them went from being mostly translucent, to being reflective. Clyde floated down through the hull, disappearing into the ship. Then I grabbed my treasure bag, passing it to Shiloh. “Be ready to start stuffing both of those,” I noted, before kicking out. I swam straight into and through Jorsher, using my transport through reflective surfaces power. 

I emerged through Clyde, appearing, as promised, in a smallish room. It looked like some sort of lower-ranked officer’s cabin. Something told me that Sinbad had avoided putting treasure in obvious places like the bridge, or the captain’s quarters, or even in the cargo bay specifically to mess with people making those assumptions. 

I could see some of the spells on the doorway. I had no idea what they did, but not triggering them seemed like a good idea. So, I focused on the other obvious thing in the room. Treasure. There were, as promised, several large buckets filled with treasure. It was just waiting there to be grabbed. But, of course, I did not immediately grab them. Instead, I inspected the buckets and found the trap spells that sneaky sneaky Sinbad had placed, clearly expecting them to be triggered by students who were super-happy to finally be at the treasure, tired from fighting their way through everything, and in a rush to escape. I took the time to carefully disable the spells, using what Shyel, Tabbris, Athena, and more had taught me. 

Finally, I started passing the buckets out through my ghost-mirror portals, telling Shiloh to hurry up and dump the contents in the bags while I kept one eye on the door into the room just in case there were roving ‘creatures.’ 

But it was all clear, and before long we had everything in the room. I came back out through the ghosts, thanked both of them profusely while again promising that I would help them get closure as soon as I’d had a chance to rest and regroup for a little while, then dismissed them. 

That done, Shiloh and I looked at each other. She gave me a thumbs up, holding the bags, which looked just as empty as before but were actually packed with treasure. “Ready to get out of here?” Her hand hovered over the badge with the teleport spell attached to it. 

In answer, I recalled my sharks before nodding as I put my own hand near my badge. “Yeah. Let’s go, before Sinbad has a bunch of holographic ghost pirates start crewing that ship to come after us.” 

I could hear the man himself shouting about what a good idea that was all the way through Felix’s communicator. 

Previous Chapter

Class Action 14-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Pushing aside all those thoughts about how amazing this not being a life or death situation was, I focused on activating my air-production and water communication spells. And boy was it still weird to breathe water. Seriously, it was one thing to hold my breath for a long time, but magically breathing in the water itself? Yeah, it was just… a hard thing to accept reflexively. I had to stop holding my breath and just… let the water flow in and out. Somehow, it provided oxygen without drowning me. Magic was weird. 

At the same time, I looked around. My shiver was already on their way over, and I greeted them cheerfully. For a minute, I took the time to say good morning to them all, giving each shark the rubs and kisses they deserved. Then I got them to line up in a circle and explained what was going on. To be fair, I still wasn’t exactly sure how intelligent they were, but they tended to do what I asked, and they were definitely smarter than, say, a dog. I just wasn’t sure where the line was between their actual intelligence and them simply doing what I wanted. It was a little blurry there. 

In either case, whether because they understood or because me putting what I wanted into words helped my power direct them subconsciously, explaining things to my sharks tended to help. So I spent a couple of minutes doing that, making as certain as I could that they knew this was all a game and nothing was really going to hurt them, before sending the whole shiver scattering away from me. They would come when called. And in what was, in my opinion, incredibly adorable, all of them made sure to swim away from the place where the sunken boat was supposed to be so they wouldn’t accidentally cheat by seeing it too soon. 

Smiling to myself when I realized what they were doing, I shook my head before speaking to Felix and Shiloh through the badge. Letting them know I was on my way, I struck out, swimming around the ship underwater until I saw the marked off (with buoys) area near the bow where we were supposed to wait. Then I rose up, breaking the surface just in time to meet up with Shiloh as the other girl dove in next to me. She wasn’t wearing a swimming suit. Instead, her body was covered from toes to throat with what looked like pristine crystal armor. It was very thin, looking more like a second skin, and gleamed in the artificial sunlight. I could see various rainbow designs flickering through bits of it. 

“Wow,” I remarked once she had surfaced and was treading water next to me. “Shiny.” 

Shaking that shaggy hair out of her eyes now that it was wet, Shiloh grinned. “Thanks. It absorbs energy and redirects it. I think you have a power like that.” 

“Yeah, but I didn’t get the spiffy armor to go with,” I replied. “And something tells me you don’t have to focus on it every time you want it to work.” 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “The armor can only take so much, but it’s set and forget.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sinbad leaned out over the railing to look down at us. “You two ready?!” When we called that we were and gave him a pair of thumbs up, he looked over to where Felix was perched on the railing, map in hand. “You ready?” 

“Now that you showed me which way was up on this thing, yup!” she cheerfully replied before waving down at us. “We’re all good!” 

“Excellent!” Sinbad offered that gold, silver, and ruby smile once more. “Dive, for treasure and glory!” 

Looking at one another, Shiloh and I each shrugged before doing exactly as he requested. We dove under the water and set off together. Time to get through the maze, find the ship, and bring back any of the treasure we could find. 

There obviously wasn’t enough time in the two hour class for everyone to have a turn, even in three-person groups and six different mazes/ships. But anyone who didn’t get to go today would get a chance next time. Sinbad had, of course, made it clear he would be changing the mazes and the ships enough that asking those of us who went today for hints wouldn’t help at all. And might even hinder, if it made people go in with certain expectations. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he’d cackled maniacally while saying it, so I was fairly confident he almost wanted someone to try cheating that way.

In any case, Shiloh and I swam toward the giant stone structure. We were next to each other,  just far enough apart that we wouldn’t smack one another while going deeper. On the way, my sharks came swimming in on all sides. I had a feeling their presence made Shiloh a little nervous, so I turned a bit to her and began to gesture at each shark, introducing them by name. That seemed to make her feel a little bit better. But I was pretty sure she still wasn’t exactly completely at ease. Not yet, anyway. I had confidence in my sharks’ ability to charm the girl before this was over. 

The sharks formed an honor guard around us, keeping an eye out for anything dangerous. Or, well, ‘dangerous’ as far as the exercise went. And so we continued like that, flanked on all sides by my sharks while heading down to where we could see the vague outline of the enormous building that held the maze we were supposed to work our way through. 

It was just like the others I’d caught a glimpse of on the opposite side, and I very briefly wondered why Sinbad would make a point of not wanting me to see this ahead of time when all I would see was the giant walls. Then I remembered, duh, people with vision powers who could see through those walls. 

Even once we’d reached the building, we had to dive deeper to get to the entrance itself. Those were the rules that Sinbad had been quite firm on. No going into the maze through some other way. Everyone had to start at the entrance. And once you left the building going back toward the ship, you were done. So no going in through the door just to fulfill the letter of the rule, then going back out and finding a shortcut. 

Yeah, I had a feeling Sinbad had a lot of practice with that sort of cheating. And every other kind.

On the way down, I glanced back over my shoulder, past the sharks bringing up the rear and toward the shape of the ship on the surface. “You hear us, Felix?” 

“Yup!” came the response. “Crystal clear. You guys just keep heading down. Oh, when you get to the entrance, don’t go right inside. There’s bad things that could happen if you do. Eesh, right at the start?” Her voice rose, and I realized she was calling out to the man himself. “Dude, you really don’t take it easy with this stuff!” 

Shiloh and I glanced at one another, both smirking a little. Up here, it was light enough that we could still see each other unaided. That was at about a hundred feet, which was already deep enough that a normal SCUBA diver would have to deal with something called the bends if they went up too fast. Basically, the pressure underwater was high enough that if you went back up out of that pressure too fast, it made bubbles of nitrogen and other gases build up and cause a lot of problems. Even fatal ones. So you had to stop for a little bit at certain depths and stay there until your body adjusted before going higher. 

Thankfully, in our case, a mix of the water-breathing spell we were already using, our own general regeneration/healing powers, and an extra spell coin Sinbad had handed over at the start of class for us to activate on our way up, we wouldn’t have to deal with that. Not that I really would have objected to staying down longer with my sharks, but I did have another class to go to after this. Calculus, which was gonna be a weird thing to jump to. 

As we got deeper, the light began to fade. It got dark enough that I called out through the water for Shiloh to stop. As the girl looked at me, I reached into one of the nearly-invisible pockets on the bodysuit, my fingers slipping into the much-larger-on-the-inside space. Fumbling a bit until I found what I was looking for, I came out with a headband. While the other girl looked at me curiously, I touched my fingers against the band and created a simple light spell rune. Activating it made a powerful flashlight-like beam project outward from that spot of the headband, and I put it on. Now it functioned like a headlamp, and I could see Shiloh’s eyes widen with realization. 

“You want one?” I asked, indicating my pouch. Thanks to everything that had already happened, I’d spent a couple hours the night before filling up my bags and pouches with all sorts of stuff I might need. It really paid to be prepared.

Shiloh, however, shook her head before pointing at her eyes. As I watched, they began to glow faintly purple. “Dark vision!” she called. “It’s as bright as the park at noon down here.”  

Grinning, I gave her a thumbs up. “Useful! All I’ve got for that is infrared, which doesn’t really help navigate underwater where everything’s equally wet and cool.”  

“Still pretty great,” she assured me. Then a brief pause before the girl added, “You’ve got a lot of powers, you know?” 

“Dude, doesn’t she, though?” That was Felix, sounding like she was lounging back somewhere. Probably lying on the railing of the ship, holding the map up. “How do you even keep them straight? Between all the powers and those spells you know right off the top of your head without even thinking about it…” 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s not a big deal. The stuff you have to do to get that kind of boost…” Pausing, I grimaced before gesturing to the ship we were supposed to be heading for. “Let’s just get in there, find the ship, and see what we can grab.”  

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Shiloh wanted to say something more about all that. But she just nodded finally before starting to swim that way once more. Something told me the subject would come up later. If not with her, then with others. They were really curious about what sort of things I’d been through, especially if they weren’t really close to me and didn’t know the whole story. I could only imagine what they were going to think when word about Persephone started to spread. I just… yeah, maybe that whole newspaper article thing I’d come up with earlier was an even better idea than I’d thought. I needed to get my story out there in my own words. 

We reached the entrance soon enough after that. My earlier impression was holding up. This place was like a skyscraper that had been turned on its side, and the door we were going through was directly on what would have been the bottom if it was rightside up. 

The two of us began to tread water right by the entrance while Shiloh told Felix we were there. The cat-girl, in turn, promptly told us to look toward the top left of the doorway. We were supposed to be careful though, and not touch it, or go through the doorway. So, we got closer and peered over the doorway until we found a marking that looked like a four-leaf clover with squiggles coming out of each ‘leaf.’ Once we reported that, Felix very deliberately led us through the instructions on disarming that spell. Apparently, the deal was that she had a list of spells on the back, with pictures and instructions of how to disarm them. On the front of the map, all she had was markings of ‘dangerous spell here.’ She had to get us to describe the spells we found correctly to her so she could find the right one on the back. And there were some that were really similar, but had very different disarming methods. So yeah, we had to be very specific. It was all about telling her exactly what we saw and testing the way we all communicated. Not to mention making sure none of us acted too quickly. 

So, we disarmed the rune fairly easily once it was described properly for Felix. Just to be on the safe side, Shiloh and I double checked the rest of the doorway. Even though the map said it was clear, we didn’t want to take any chances. But sure enough, we couldn’t find anything. Shiloh even used one of her own powers, which made her fingers light up with a faint white glow, while running them along the doorway. Apparently if there was any active hostile magic within a couple feet of them, they would change colors based on what type of magic it was. But her fingers remained white. Between that and Felix’s map, I was satisfied. 

There was, however, one more thing I had to deal with. Turning toward my sharks, I announced, “Okay guys, I know this isn’t fair, but you’ve got to go inside for a little while. There’s no room in this part for you, and we don’t want you to end up being claustrophobic. I promise, I’ll bring you out soon.” With that, I recalled them to their private pool area in my special vial, before nodding to Shiloh so we could move on. 

We passed through the doorway together and were finally inside the maze. It was, as advertised… a maze. Yeah, shocking. Wait, no, amazing. Shiori would kill me if I didn’t jump for that pun, even in my own head. 

We were swimming in a narrow corridor. It was just wide enough for the two of us to swim side by side without hitting one another, and about eight feet from the floor to the ceiling. This first entrance area ran ahead about ten feet before reaching a T-junction with a split to the left and right. The left went straight that way, while the right sort of curved a bit. 

“Okay!” Felix was saying, “Don’t go forward yet. Do not go near that intersection unless you want the Kyerekeunk to use you for lunch.” 

“What’s a Kyerekeunk?” I asked while curiously glancing around. I didn’t see anything, or detect anything with any other sense, for that matter. 

“No idea!” the girl back on the ship replied. “But the picture has a lot of tentacles and teeth, so maybe that squid thing from before? I dunno. Just don’t go forward yet. This thing says that you have to pass through that area when it’s sleeping, and it only sleeps for about ten seconds out of every minute.”  

“Boy,” I noted, “I thought I got away with a weird sleep schedule. Oh, and I hope those are consecutive seconds.” 

While Shiloh snickered, Felix was murmuring to herself, obviously distracted as she focused on deciphering her map and instructions. “Okay, hold on. Right, got it. Okay, I got it. Look to your right. Do you see a thin vertical blue line partway up the corridor?” When we acknowledged that we did, she explained, “The timing starts as soon as any part of you passes that line. After that, it’s fifty seconds of danger. If you’re within the area between that blue line and another one further in, you get a free trip to pain town with the Kyerekeunk. Then you’ve got ten seconds to get through before the thing resets.” 

“Okay,” I murmured with a look to Shiloh. “Guess we need to be careful then.” 

She gave a nod of agreement, swimming past me to get close to the blue line without crossing it. “Felix, which way are we going once we get through here, left or right? And please, please make sure you’re looking at it the right way.” 

There was a brief pause while the other girl triple-checked that before answering. “You want to go to the right. And when I say that, I mean the one that curves. It should curve. You see that?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “we definitely see it.” 

“Great! Good, fantastic, super.” Felix was clearly excited, but composed herself quickly. “So you definitely wanna go to the right, the direction that curves. Oh, and stay to the inside of the curve. I mean stay against the right wall when you do that. There’s a pretty nasty stinger spell along the left-hand side of that. It just makes you itch badly if you get in range, but that’d slow you down so you don’t get out of there before the Kyerekeunk wakes up. If you hug the right wall before you start into the curve, you should be safe. Oh, and you’ll know you’re safe when you hit an open area with pathways leading up, down, and forward. Stop in that area and don’t go anywhere. Seriously, just get to that spot and stop. You do not want to find out what bad things you could run into if you swim through the wrong doorway.” 

“Go to the right, stay against the right wall, stop when we get to the open area with paths up, down, and forward,” Shiloh repeated. “Got it. Okay, hold on.” With a glance toward me, she held her hand out until it was right next to the blue line. “Sadie, put up a stopwatch, ready to start on my mark.” 

Apparently Sadie was her wrist computer thing, because a holographic stopwatch appeared in the water, clearly projected from that. Shiloh, in turn, took a breath before simultaneously dropping her hand past the line and saying, “Mark!” Then she yanked her hand back while the holographic display began to count off the time. 

“At least we don’t have to try to get the shiver through here in those ten seconds too,” I cheerfully noted while watching the seconds. “You wanna go first or second?” 

She hesitated before gesturing. “I’ll bring up the rear, you’re probably better on the front line if we run into anything unexpected.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably fair,” Felix put in, clearly not insulted in the least, “I might’ve missed something. I mean, I’m really trying not to, but this Sinbad guy is intense.” 

Snorting a bit (a weird sensation underwater) I put in, “It’s okay, he’s trying to make sure we’re ready for the unexpected. And probably having a lot of fun while he does it.” 

By that point, we had about ten seconds before it was time for the actual ten seconds. Shiloh and I both braced ourselves. Just as the counter reached fifty, I kicked off and started swimming as fast as I could. The other girl was right behind me. Briefly, I thought about using the Seosten boost, but I didn’t want to leave her behind. Besides, I could make it the old-fashioned way. At least, I hoped I could. 

We swam hard, making the turn and heading around that curve while staying close to the right wall. No way did I want to get hit by that itching spell. I had no idea how much time had passed, and didn’t want to glance back to see the clock. We just had to keep going.  

As soon as I saw the slightly more open area ahead I swam even harder, using a little bit of boost to get there. Finally, I emerged into that open foyer space, seeing three dark doorways up in the ceiling, two below, and one big one straight ahead. I didn’t take the time to look too closely, however, spinning around to look back the way I’d come. Shiloh was there, still back a little bit with only three seconds left. So, I summoned my staff, enlarged it to twice its size, and extended the thing that way. The other girl grabbed on, before I yanked hard to pull her all the way into the open area. 

She was through. We were both through. And not even a second later, the timer hit sixty. 

“Whew,” I managed. “That was a little close.” 

“Thanks,” she gasped out, breathing hard. “I got a little close to the wall and got caught up.” 

Felix quickly put in, “Close, but still good, right? You’re both good? I don’t hear any tentacle thrashing.” 

With a little smile, I confirmed. “We’re good. Thanks for the directions, Felix.” Turning, I looked over the area we’d made it to, with multiple paths up, down, and forward. “And speaking of directions, oh mighty navigator…

“Which way now?” 

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Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Interlude 5C – Tabbris, Virginia, and Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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The beam of a flashlight swept across the beach of the ocean located deep within the star-station housing the Fusion School. It flickered across a few small waves lapping gently against the shore before eventually coming to a stop as the beam illuminated a small figure out in the water. The figure was blonde, laying on something that floated just under the lake’s surface. 

As the light found her, Tabbris murmured something to Princess Cuddles, the Great White shark she was laying on, and sat up to look that way. Her eyes looked bloodshot within the glare from the flashlight, stained with tears that didn’t have time to fade before more joined them. She was soaked through to the bone, her entire body drenched from drifting in the man-made ocean.  

Lincoln Chambers stepped into the water, walking out until it was up a little past his waist. Without saying anything, the man extended a hand that way. Without any particular order being given, Princess Cuddles (and the other sharks, who had been drifting around) came close enough for Tabbris to be within arms reach. But for a moment, the small Seosten girl simply sat there, trembling and shivering as she stared at the man. Her mouth opened to say something, but all that came out was a helpless whimper, words utterly failing her. 

So, Lincoln took the last two steps that way. Reaching out with one arm, he scooped the girl off the shark and brought her up to his chest before turning on his heel to walk up out of the water. He brought the arm with the flashlight in to keep her tight against him, until they were finally on the beach. There, he dropped to his knees while setting the girl down, letting the flashlight fall to the side so that it illuminated both of them as well as part of the water. 

Through those first few long seconds, Tabbris stood in front of him, her head down and shoulders hunched. Her hands were clenched together, one squeezing the other so tightly she was hurting her own knuckles. Her eyes were squeezed almost all the way shut, staring through the blurry slits that remained at the ground, too ashamed to even look at the man. Her shivering was a mix of being cold from the water that she had spent far too long in, and her clear and evident terror about the reaction of the man who knelt right in front of her. 

Lincoln, for that moment, just watched her. His face betrayed a rush of emotions before he reached up with one hand. It found the side of the young girl’s face, tilting her head up a bit to look at him. She did so reluctantly, bloodshot eyes barely able to focus on the man. The shame, already well-written across her entire face and through her body, came through clearly in her broken voice. “I… I’m… sorry, Mr… Chambers,” she barely managed, almost inaudibly. “I’m…. I’m… s….” The last word wouldn’t come out again, the girl unable to force it out past the thick knot in her throat. 

“Tabbris,” Lincoln began in a quiet, but firm voice. His hand cupped the side of her face, fingers brushing through her hair. As his thumb gently slid down the girl’s cheek to take up the tears there, the man reminded her, “Not Mr. Chambers. Not to you. You know what I am. You know who you are to me.” 

That overwhelming shame told Tabbris to flinch away from the hand on her face. She didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve that kind of comfort at all, let alone from… from Flick’s… Yet despite her shame, she leaned into it desperately, disgust at her own weakness twisting her expression as well as her stomach. “But… but… F-Flick… “ Her voice cracked. “I didn’t–I let her–I w-wasn’t…” 

In answer, Lincoln reached in. His arms wrapped around the girl and he lifted her from the ground while standing up. He felt her legs wrap around him as well as her arms, while he held her tightly. “Listen to me, Tabbris. We are getting her back. You hear me? And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. Nothing. None of us stopped that–none of us stopped him from taking her. We were all… everyone was… it wasn’t you. It was not you.” His hand rubbed her hair, pressing her face against his shoulder as he insisted, “None of that was your fault, Tabbris. He took everyone by surprise. Athena, your mother, all those people. They’re older, stronger, bigger, they were all surprised. This wasn’t your fault. You listen to me. I don’t blame you. I will never blame you. Now, if you were missing, would Flick give up on you?” 

Without hesitation, Tabbris shook her head, sniffling a little before managing a weak, “No…” 

“Damn right, she wouldn’t,” Lincoln confirmed. “She’d never give up on you. And we’re not giving up on her. You hear me? Whatever it takes, we’re getting her back.” He betrayed none of his own terror and grief in that moment, needing to be the rock for her. “Felicity and Joselyn. We’ll get them both back. Say it for me, Tabbris. What are we going to do?”

Swallowing hard, the girl hesitated, clinging to him before taking in a breath. “… Save Flick. We… we’re going to save Flick.” She said it one more time, voice still cracking, but a bit stronger. “We’re going to save Flick. And Mrs. Chambers.” 

Turning his head a bit to kiss her hair, Lincoln quietly whispered, “We are. We’ll get her back. Come on, let’s get you some dry clothes. I told your mom I’d bring you up. She thought you were asleep, you know.” 

“I woke up,” the little girl murmured a bit plaintively. Her body shook once more. “The sharks, I didn’t w-want them to be lonely. I didn’t–” She stopped, squeezing her eyes shut helplessly as she dropped her head against his shoulder and let out a weak little sob. 

Holding her close, Lincoln promised, “We’ll take care of the sharks too. I promise. Come on, you need to get dry.” He started to walk off the beach and toward the elevator. 

On the way, Tabbris managed a barely audible, “You don’t… hate me…?” 

Immediately, Lincoln squeezed her tighter, hugging the girl firmly to him. “Never. Never, my hidden girl. I’ll never hate you. Not in a million years. You’re my girl. No matter what happens, you’ll always be my daughter. Listen to me. I didn’t call you my daughter because of Felicity. I called you my daughter because of you. I am proud of you every time I see you. You are my daughter. Nothing is going to change that, ever.” 

“I’m sorry,” came the whispered response. “I’m really sorry.” 

All Lincoln said to that, the only thing he could say, was, “I love you, Tabbris.” 

“I… I love you, Dad.” 

*******

Losing people was a way of life for the woman known as Virginia Dare. Born as the first English child on the American continent, cursed from birth by a mysterious and unnamed great evil that was convinced her blood would end the world, Virginia had experienced loss after loss throughout her life. Her family had died, her colony had been destroyed, she had abandoned her mentor and father-figure, the Akharu named Tiras, to save his life from the monsters who continued to chase after her. Again and again, people she cared about had to be left behind or simply died. 

Eventually, she fell in love with Joshua Atherby, and the two of them had a daughter, Joselyn. And the three had been happy, until the Fomorians came. Until the Fomorians presented such a monstrous, world-ending threat that the only choice to stop them had been for Virginia’s family to make the ultimate sacrifice. Joshua had given his life, while Virginia had given everyone’s memories of her. She had been forced to sacrifice her ability to be a mother to her daughter. She lost her husband’s life, and the memories of everyone who could have been there for her, who could have helped her, were wiped away. She couldn’t be with her friends. She couldn’t be with her daughter, the child she had made with the man she loved. There was no way at that time for her to be in Joselyn’s life. Being there, being around those people, was too much of a risk. For the sake of the world, for the safety of the spell that kept the Fomorians blocked from Earth, she had to stay away from them. Away from everyone who cared about her, everyone who could have helped her deal with her loss. 

She was forced to deal with her grief alone, entirely and completely alone. 

Until Gaia had come to find her. Even with her specific memories about those events erased, Gaia had still wondered about the whereabouts of her student and essentially adopted daughter enough to come looking for her. And, eventually, she had put the rest of it together. 

Joselyn ran her rebellion, had children, was captured, imprisoned, and eventually erased from all memories. Just as Virginia had been, save for the fact that her own memory was erased as well. And through all of that, Virginia could not comfort her daughter. For the sake of the entire world, she could not be there for her the way she wanted to be. She could not be there for her when that evil bastard took her. And the only person in that world whom she could talk to about any of it was Gaia. 

But now Gaia was gone. Which meant that Virginia had next to no one who knew what Felicity being taken by the same monster who had taken Joselyn meant to her. Almost no one who would have any idea what she was feeling. With Gaia imprisoned and Felicity taken by Fossor, only one other person in the world knew who Virginia really was. 

“Professor?” Even as Virginia had that thought, Koren Fellows spoke up from behind her. She’d known the girl was coming, had sensed her approach while she came to the house that Virginia was using as her own and used a wood-manipulation power to open the door for her. Then she’d followed the girl’s approach through the house as Koren sought her out before finding her here on the rear balcony overlooking the rest of the staff housing area. 

“It’s alright, Koren,” Virginia assured her, finally turning away from the railing to see the young woman. “There are a dozen privacy enchantments here. No one can hear us. Or see us,” she added after a brief consideration.  

Once she said that, Koren took a step that way to embrace her tightly. She didn’t say anything, but Virginia could sense the… anger in her. The tension held tight in her arms and shoulders, the way she held herself and set her jaw. Many of the people close to Flick were sad, devastated, morose, determined… and more. But Koren… She put a hand on the back of the girl’s head and brushed fingers through her hair. “It’s okay to be mad.” 

Drawing back after squeezing even more firmly for a moment, Koren took a step away and turned to face the railing, gripping it tightly while shaking her head. “No… no it’s not. Because I’m not just mad at Fossor. I should be! I should be, I know, I just… it’s not…” 

“You feel as though you’re angry with Felicity too,” Virginia calmly noted. 

“I don’t want to be!” Koren blurted plaintively, her voice clearly louder than she intended. Sighing then, she gripped the railing even more tightly, turning her knuckles white while dropping her head and slumping her shoulders. “I don’t… want to be. I know it’s not her fault. I know it’s not her fault!” 

Stepping over that way, Virginia put a hand on the girl’s back. “Do you really think it’s her you’re angry at?” she asked gently, watching the reaction. 

“Yes, but I don’t–I mean… I…” Stopping after her initial reaction, Koren hesitated, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I… no. I mean, I’m not… Flick’s just… gone. Flick’s gone and I don’t–I can’t do anything about it. I can’t help her. Fossor is… Fossor. Look at him. You guys, all you adults couldn’t stop him. They did this whole huge spell to banish him from Earth and all it did was make him walk on ashes. And piss him off. You all couldn’t really stop him, so what the hell am I gonna do? What could I even… you know… I don’t have a chance. I might as well throw rocks at a mountain trying to make it fall down. And Mom won’t let me go anywhere now. She thinks Fossor’s gonna try to grab me next, so I can’t even leave the station. I can’t really beat Fossor, I can’t help save Flick, and now I can’t even go on any missions to try to help people I’m capable of helping!” The last bit came out in a blurted shout before she sighed. “I’m not really mad at Flick. But I am mad at Flick.” 

Smiling faintly, Virginia squeezed the girl’s back, rubbing her hand in circles. “You’re mad that she was taken. You’re angry and you feel helpless to direct that anger anywhere useful. Which makes you even more angry.” 

Sighing, Koren turned her head to look that way. “Man, how mad are you? I mean, everyone’s paying attention to Mom, Uncle Wyatt, and me, but not… you. No one knows to pay attention to you. No one…” She flinched, turning fully to embrace Virginia once more. “I’m sorry, Great-Grandma.” Belatedly, the girl added, “I know we’re not supposed to risk saying that out loud very much, but… but right now, I don’t care.” 

“It’s okay,” Virginia assured her, returning the embrace. 

“Right now, I don’t particularly care either.” 

*******

For over ten years, Joselyn had dreaded this day. Throughout the decade between the moment she had left her beloved husband and daughter to come live with the… monster who had restored her memories, she had lived in fear. Fear of his abuses, yes. Fear of the things he made her do, the people he made her hurt. Fear of what he was turning her into. But above all, fear of the day that he would set his gaze firmly on her daughter. The terror and helplessness she felt when it came to that psychopath’s intentions for Felicity were worse than every single thing he had done or could have done to Joselyn herself throughout all those years. The fear, the unknowing dread, the… certainty that he would work to twist her daughter the way he had their son…

Ammon. He had destroyed that sweet, sensitive, wonderful little boy, had twisted him into the ugly, evil creature that he wanted. Not for any purpose other than to serve as an experiment. Fossor had barely cared when the boy was… when he was killed. He had been annoyed about something that belonged to him being taken away, of course. But not–he had not truly cared about Ammon. He had never cared about Ammon the way a father should. And the thought of Felicity having that kind of… of treatment turned to her, the thought of Fossor putting his filthy, evil hands to work hurting her, twisting her…

Joselyn would rather die. If given the choice, she would have died before allowing that to happen. But she had no choice. Fossor wanted her alive and he wanted Felicity. What he wanted them both for, what… evil, psychotic plan he was cooking up–had been cooking up for at least the past ten years, she didn’t know. But it was bad, that much she was certain of. 

But Joselyn had done more than live in fear of this day. She had done more than simply long for things to be different. Because wishing things were different wasn’t something she did. That wasn’t who she was. She didn’t wish they were different, she made them different. And despite the situation she was in, despite everything she’d been forced to do, she was still that person. 

She couldn’t do much, and not quickly. Everything she ever did had to be painstakingly slow and careful. An inch at a time. But an inch at a time over ten years could be quite a distance indeed. 

First, of course, she had needed privacy. It took years for Fossor to lower his guard even a little bit around her. But eventually, it came. He had other things to focus on. And Joselyn, despite being stripped of all the Committee’s powers, retained the magic she had learned throughout her time in the rebellion. Part of that included the sort of privacy spell that allowed their people to act right under the noses of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. Or at least allowed them to know if they were being spied on. She had those spells on her constantly. She knew when she was being observed. And she knew that her rooms were mostly left alone. Which allowed her to make her own preparations, slight as they might have been.

So long as she obeyed Fossor’s given orders, he didn’t particularly care what she did in her own time. Even his order that she be naked in her own rooms was about controlling her, not about… anything else. The man barely had anything resembling those kinds of urges. He had wanted to have a child with her, so he had a child with her. Ammon had been an experiment, nothing more. 

As long as he believed he was in control, he left Joselyn alone a decent amount of the time. She was an old toy that he didn’t like to constantly play with anymore, but would occasionally take out with him. Mostly, he made sure she was still fighting, still killing, still getting powers from his arena. Fossor wanted her to be strong. What… exactly for, she didn’t know. But it was nothing good. Nothing that she wanted herself or Felicity to be involved with. 

But she didn’t feel lost or broken when Fossor announced what he had done, when he revealed his ‘surprise’ about bringing Felicity here through a time travel spell. She didn’t feel despair, because she had felt despair a decade ago. She had felt all of that, and worked through it. Despair didn’t accomplish anything useful. It wouldn’t save herself or her daughter. It wouldn’t stop Fossor. 

Yes, she was afraid of what the future would bring. Yes, she was worried about Felicity and herself. She was afraid of what Fossor wanted. And, of course, sad that he had accomplished his goal of bringing her daughter here. But she would not allow that fear or sadness to rule her. She would not fall into the trap of wishing things were different, of regretting what was to the point of fantasizing about a better life and a better world. She would work to make those things a reality. 

She would protect her daughter as best as she could. She would keep Felicity alive, and the two of them would find a way out of this. Fossor had won a battle, not the war. And as long as his goals included keeping herself and Felicity alive, the war itself would continue. 

That was what Joselyn intended to win. Let the man have his victory for now. Let him revel in winning the battle, in dragging Felicity into this. 

Because what Fossor had never understood, even as he capitalized on that fact, was that Joselyn would do anything for her children. She had surrendered herself to the Committee and been imprisoned for decades to save her twins. She’d had her memories erased, her powers removed, her very identity taken away. She’d given herself to this monster to save Felicity. She would do anything for her children. Fossor understood that enough to know that she would swear an oath to obey him to protect Felicity. But he still thought that bringing Felicity here would break Joselyn, that it would rip her soul to see her daughter brought here after all she had done to protect her from this. 

Rising from the bed where she had been sitting, contemplating all of that, Joselyn turned to the mirror. She saw herself and stared for a moment at the tears that had soaked her face. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, straightening up. The cowed hunch that had come as she had sat on that bed and folded in on herself left her figure, the haunted look left her gaze. The tears dried up. Then she opened her eyes once more and saw herself as Felicity had to, if she was going to spare her daughter any feelings of guilt. 

Because the thing that Fossor had never truly understood was that Joselyn’s true strength came from those she cared about, those she was determined to protect. In bringing Felicity here, in putting Joselyn’s daughter right in front of her, he wasn’t breaking her. He was giving her strength back. He was reminding Joselyn of exactly who she was. 

“Okay,” she announced into the mirror. 

“It’s time to work.”

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Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Family Reunion 12-08

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“You know,” Sands started after a solid ten seconds of silence (at least from our table), “I’m honestly not sure which I’m more surprised by: the fact that Vanessa is Tristan’s sister, or that Gaia clearly didn’t know about it. I mean, obviously she would’ve pulled her in first to talk in private if she knew, right?”

“Right,” I agreed as the others just nodded while staring at the reunion going on right in front of us. There were murmurs from the surrounding tables, and I could hear a few people asking each other where this kid had been if he was related to Vanessa. This, of course, was met with other people authoritatively declaring that of course they weren’t siblings. Obviously, Vanessa and this boy were long-lost friends. Maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend. Sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds and some of my classmates were already shipping the two of them together over a freaking hug. Just… wow.

“She definitely didn’t know,” Columbus muttered before nodding toward the front. “Look at them.”

Glancing that way, I saw Gaia standing there while Professor Dare and Andressa McKay, the elderly Head of Admissions, spoke quietly to her in either ear. Behind them, a couple of the third-year professors were standing nearby, clearly waiting impatiently to talk. There was definitely a quick meeting going on. But it stopped abruptly as the headmistress spoke a single quiet word. Then she spoke up louder, interrupting the flurry of whispering that had been filling the large room. “Never allow it to be said that you will ever be so old and experienced that nothing will ever surprise you again.”

A broad smile crossed the woman’s mature, yet beautiful face then. “And never allow it to be said that Crossroads does not appreciate a good, old fashioned family reunion. As… unexpected as it may be.”

With that, she began to clap a few times, prompting others to join in. I could tell that Vanessa was already embarrassed by her outburst. But I could also tell that she didn’t really care all that much. The girl was clinging to her brother while people applauded, and a few of those nearer to the siblings offered their own congratulations. Obviously, there were some hold-outs. More than a few people simply sat there, looking around at the ones who were clapping like we should be embarrassed. But for the most part, it was now taken for what it was: a brother and sister being miraculously reunited.

Gaia didn’t let that sit for long before crossing the distance to where Vanessa and Tristan were. After a few words about giving them an opportunity to catch up, she left the room with the two in tow. Most likely, I assumed, to have a private discussion about what she knew about Vanessa’s… special situation.

Slumping back in his seat, Sean muttered in obvious amazement. “Vanessa’s half-Seosten. I guess that sort of explains her super special memory power. But… damn. That’s just… wow.” He was still stunned. Which, for someone who obviously prided himself on taking everything casually, probably said a lot.

“Yeah…” Deveron started slowly, shifting a little in his seat. “Okay, so one of the first things you should probably know. This… might be confusing, but that girl, that half-Alter. She’s actually not the–”

“–not the only only one,” I interrupted. “Yeah, we sort of know that part already. Thanks though.”

The guy stared at me for a few seconds, clearly taking that in before sitting back with a stunned expression on his face. “You already know one. You’ve already met one of the half-breeds here.”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I snarked, “Gee, you know what you could’ve done to find out what we knew and when? It’s this brand fangled new invention. Now, I know you’re old so you might not be quite as hip, but bear with me cuz I think you’ll like this one. They call it talking. It’s where you know something that someone else needs to know, and the two of you communicate that information with words.” Putting my hand against the side of my face, I adopted a shocked expression at the very idea.

Wincing, Deveron shook his head regretfully. “You’re not gonna let that go any time soon, are you?”

“Not planning on it,” I confirmed before frowning. “But how do you know about the half-breed thing?”

He smiled easily then. “Because I’m the one that recruited the Djinni who altered the Edge to allow half-breeds to become Heretics. They were actually technically the first half-Alter Crossroads Heretic. And no, I’m not going to tell you who they are. Not because I still want to keep secrets, but because that’s not my secret to tell. It’s theirs. I can say that Gaia was involved in making sure that happened.”

I sat back at that, blinking a couple times. In the end, Columbus was the first to find his voice. “So, Gaia knew that the Edge would accept half-Alters after… whoever changed it. She knew that she made a plan with someone to make that happen. But she just forgot that it was you she was working with?”

Deveron dipped his head in confirmation. “Joselyn’s allies made that happen. They—we didn’t know who to trust. Not when it came to Jos’s life. Gaia didn’t do anything to stop them from erasing her, so I didn’t know if I could trust her with this, with my family. I… didn’t know about the blood plague.”

Setting my fork down, I straightened up. “Look, I… I need to go. It’s been a long day, and I just need to… I just need to think. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Looking to Deveron until he nodded, I pushed myself up from the table and started to walk away after murmuring an apology to the others.

I just needed to get out of there. It was too much. The meeting with him, Koren, and Wyatt, Tristan falling out of the sky, finding out he was Vanessa’s brother and that she was half-Seosten as well, I needed to clear my head. I needed to take a walk out in the fresh air and just… think for awhile.

******

“And you two look pretty alike except for this mark on your nose, so I’ll call you Brody and Quint.”

It was about an hour later, and I was treading water in the ocean. The sharks that had saved Shiori and me earlier were surrounding me. I honestly wasn’t sure how I knew they were the exact same ones, but somehow I was just certain. The six sharks were swimming in circles around where I was, occasionally coming up to bump their noses against me. They were like cats rubbing up against a leg for attention.

My attention (and by extension, that of the sharks as well) was drawn then toward the girl who was standing in the shallows, watching us. Smiling a little in spite of myself, I swam that way. Or at least, I started to. After two strokes, the nearest shark bumped up against me until I put a hand on his top fin. Then he began to cut through the water much faster than I could have gone, bringing me right up to the shallows. Once we were there, I gave him a pat before straightening up. “Hey, Shiori.”

“Hey, Flick,” she returned the greeting with a casual wave. “Water you doin’?”

Knowing the other girl as I did, all I had to do was look at her expression. “Did you—yeah you did.” Snorting while she giggled, I said, “You seem to be doing okay with the water after what happened. Not the pun. That was bad. But with the whole being in it part. I thought you’d avoid it for longer.”

Her head shook. “Actually, I was planning on coming out there, not just standing here. But I chickened out. I guess I’m just gonna be a big baby when it comes to water for awhile. I just make bad puns when I’m nervous. Well, okay, I sort of always make bad puns. But they’re usually worse when I’m scared.”

“You have every right to be a big baby about it,” I assured her. “Besides, you’re standing in the water almost to your hips. You’re not being that much of a baby. Actually, you’re being braver than I would.”

“That’s doubtful,” she snorted before looking toward the sharks. “You were naming them, weren’t you? I heard a little bit of it. Could I umm, know their names so I can thank them for saving us earlier?”

“Oh, sure.” Smiling, I gestured to the two who looked alike. “I looked them up online too, so I could know what they were. Those two are Mako sharks. I called them Brody and Quint. That yellow one over there, it’s a Lemon shark. I called her Simpson. The one right, aww, hi buddy.” Leaning down, I reached out to pet the one who had just swum closer. “This one’s a Bull shark. His name is Sherman.”

“What about that sleek blue one over there?” Shiori asked, pointing. “He looks pretty.”

Grinning, I nodded. “Oh he’s definitely pretty, and he knows it too. His name is Jabberjaw. You know, cuz he’s blue on top and white on the bottom.” Raising my hand to wave at the circling shark, I called, “Yeah, you know we’re talking about you, don’t you, Mr. Vanity? You know you love all the attention.”

Shiori giggled (still an incredibly adorable sound) before waving to Jabberjaw. Then her attention turned to the final shark. The biggest, who couldn’t come as close as the others. “What about the big guy out there?” she asked, still swallowing a little nervously at the sight of him. “What’s his name?”

“That,” I announced while taking another step into the water and waving my hand under it toward the one in question, “is a female Great White.” Smiling broadly, I looked over my shoulder. “Her name is Princess Cuddles.”

“Princess Cuddles,” the other girl echoed slowly while staring at me with a slowly widening smile of her own. “You actually named the enormous Great White shark… a relentless underwater killing machine who happens to be one of the biggest non-Stranger predators that are still alive on the Earth today… Princess Cuddles.”

Laughing, I nodded while swimming out a little bit, just far enough that Princess Cuddles could come up to get her side rubbed. God, she was enormous. My best guess was that she was over two thousand pounds and around twenty feet long. “What can I say? She’s just too adorable. Aren’t you, pretty girl? Yes you are, yes you are.” I clung to the massive shark, letting her take me under the water and around in a brief circle before surfacing once more. I was sitting atop Cuddles by that point, grinning at the other girl.

“So,” Shiori went back over them. “Brody and Quint, Simpson, Sherman, Jabberjaw, and Princess Cuddles.”

“That’s right,” I looked back in the water before asking, “Or just Cuddles, for those that are familiar with her. She’s not too hung up on royal qualifiers for her friends.” Grinning, I added, “I umm, I know you had a bad experience. But do you wanna stay awhile anyway and play with these guys? They won’t let anything happen. Neither will I.”

“I know…” the other girl spoke quietly before smiling a bit more. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with you.

“Let’s play with the sharks.”

******

So we spent some time out there with my new not-so-little friends. There were some other students in the water, but none of them wanted to come very close even after I assured them that they were safe.

That was okay though, it gave me time to just play with the sharks and Shiori. Though I did get tongue-tied a bit at the sight of the thoroughly soaked cute Asian girl. Especially when she came up out of the water and shook her hair out before laughing because Simpson poked her in the back. It was… wow.

Eventually, the two of us left the sharks so we could dry off, pull our clothes on over damp swimsuits, and head back inside. As we went, Shiori asked, “Do you think they’ll be okay? I mean, do you think they’ll start fighting as soon as you’re not in a certain radius?”

“You mean because they’re different species?” I asked as we passed a group of second years playing frisbee. When the other girl nodded, I shook my head. “I’m not sure how I know… but I know they won’t do that. I think… I think this power, whatever it is, it sort of… changes them? They’re a pack now. Or a frenzy, or a school… or a shiver, whatever, there’s lots of names for groups of sharks. They’re different species, but they’re also my shiver, my pack. So they’ll stay together, look after each other.”

Shiori was staring at me, eyes widened a bit. “Really? Holy carp, that’s cool. I mean, kind of terrifying in a way, but also really cool. Do you think they’ll recruit more sharks while they’re out there?”

My head shook again. “I’m pretty sure I have to actually be out there. This… shark summoning and taming power or whatever you call it has to do its thing while I’m there.” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced my extra-special little rock buddy. “And I didn’t forget about you! Thanks for watching over my stuff, Herbie.”

Glancing sideways toward her then, I added, “Speaking of awesome pets–” Giving the rock in my hand a guilty look, I amended, “–ahem, and partners, of course, did you manage to get out there to feed Choo?”

“Yup!” she chirped, grinning back at me. “I took a whole plate out there for him. You should’ve seen the little guy chow down. And he was a little lonely, so I played with him for a few minutes.”

Then she sobered, pausing a little. “Vanessa…” Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before pushing on in a much quieter voice. “She’s… like me, isn’t she? I mean, not just like me, but she’s… you know…”

I nodded. “Tristan is, so she must be too. It explains the super memory, I guess. Though I don’t know if Tristan has anything like that. He didn’t say.. but it could be different for each offspring or something.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly thinking about something before speaking up slowly. “Someone should probably talk to her.” Shifting on her feet, Shiori hesitated, glancing to me. “Right?”

“I think that’s what the headmistress is doing,” I pointed out. “At least, part of what she’s doing, anyway. But if you mean someone like her, yeah. It might help if someone else talked to both of them.”

Again, she paused. For a few long seconds, Shiori looked indecisive. Then her head bobbed once more. “I’ll do it. I’ll talk to them.” Offering me a little smile, she added, “Talking to you, before, it really helped me. And if I can help her the same way, just… let her know there’s others that are… like her and her brother, I think I should.”

Before I could say anything to that, a figure came running up out of the shadows, pointing at me. “Aha! There you are! I knew I’d find you!”

“Hey, Wyatt,” I gave him a little wave. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

He coughed, straightening a little. “Ahem, ahh, I think you should come with me, Miss uhh, Chambers. There’s a few things about your record that we need to address.” His eyes glanced toward my companion.

“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I assured him before looking that way as well. “Shiori’s a… friend. She knows everything. You can talk in front of her.”

He blinked at that, squinting at the girl a little while looking her up and down. His voice was cautious. “Are you sure about that?”

Shiori, for her part, returned his uncertain look for a couple seconds before seeming to come to a decision. Her voice was quiet. “You can trust me, Mr. Rendell. I know you’re probably nervous about me knowing your secrets. I know I would be. So… “ Taking in a breath before letting it out, she met his gaze evenly, her voice very low, so quiet I could barely hear her. “My real mother is a vampire. So… now you know my secret too.”

Wyatt reeled backward at that, eyes widening as he looked from me to her and back again. When I nodded, he made a noise of confusion before returning his stare to the girl. Scanning her up and down, he managed a weak, “Well, do you… does that mean that you…” He opened his mouth as if showing off fangs and hissed a little. It looked kind of ridiculous and silly.

Shiori flushed hotly, head shaking incredibly fast. “No,” she blurted. “I don’t…drink blood or anything.”

“Well,” Wyatt straightened, looking her up and down. “In that case, Miss Porter, consider your secret safe. I will do everything I can to protect the friends of my… family.” As he said the last word, the man made this goofy, endearing grin that made me want to hug him.

Then he turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Come along then,” the man ordered in what was obviously his best approximation of a stern voice, clearly for the benefit of anyone that might notice him talking to us. “I need to have a nice long discussion with the two of you about appropriate use of school facilities.”

We looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed after him. The short, lanky man led us up across the grounds and into the main building. Guiding us through a confusing maze of turns down various corridors, we eventually reached a simple-looking, unlabeled wooden door. Taking a key out of his pocket, Wyatt tapped it against the side of the door three times in what looked like specific locations. Then he turned the knob and opened the door. Instead of going in, however, he immediately shut the door, tapped the key three more times in different locations. Then he opened it again and gestured for us to go in.

We did so, crossing the threshold to move into what turned out to be a tiny office whose space was mostly taken up by a large rickety desk. There were two simple folding chairs in front of it that took up all the room before the door, and a somewhat nicer chair on the other side. The desk itself was covered with papers and an ancient computer that looked like it belonged to the early 80’s. I couldn’t see any way for Wyatt to actually get to the other side of the desk without crawling under or over it.

“Oh,” the man spoke quickly. “Before you sit down, turn in a quick circle and say, ‘The mice are meesing out.’”

Shiori and I looked at each other before following his instructions. I felt silly, but I wasn’t going to question it at this point. For her part, my companion giggled at the meesing out part.

Finally, Wyatt shut the door behind himself before squeezing past us. He went right through the desk, passing through the solid object like he was a ghost before turning to collapse in his seat. Once there, the man waved eagerly to the folding chairs. “Sit, sit. Oh, you’re not in trouble, by the way. I just had to say that in case of spies.”

“I uh, I got that,” I confirmed before taking one of the chairs. “Are you okay, Wyatt? Nothing… umm, nothing happened, did it?”

His head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing. I mean yes, but… but no, I just wanted to give you something. Or somethings.”

Before I could ask what he meant, the man leaned over in his chair, fishing around on the floor before coming up with a box about a foot across. It was covered in white wrapping paper with rocket ships on it. Plopping it down on the desk, he slid it to me. “Open it,” he requested, smiling eagerly.

“Oh, um, okay, sure.” Taking the present (it wasn’t very heavy), I carefully tugged the wrapping paper off. There was a cardboard box underneath, and when I opened that up, I found a little stuffed frog.

“What… aww.” Taking the toy out, I stared at it. The thing was adorable. It had this cute smile on its face and the bottom of its feet were yellow. “Wyatt, you… is… is this a late birthday present?”

“One of them,” he confirmed. When I blinked up at that while hugging the frog to my chest, he gestured. “Look at the card.”

There was indeed a card inside the box as well. Taking it out without letting go of the frog, I opened it up and read aloud. “Dear Felicity—hey that’s me. Dear Felicity, I hope you have a hopping good first birthday. Love, Wyatt. Wait… first… birthday?”

In answer, Wyatt reached down again, taking out a second box which he plopped down on the desk again while taking the first box away. “I missed them,” he announced. “That’s bad. So I’m making up for it.”

Slowly, I opened the box, reaching in to take out an enormous coloring book and large box of crayons. The card read, “Dear Felicity, happy… they say the two’s are terrible, but I bet yours are going to be colorful. Happy second birthday.”

“Oh my god.” Covering my mouth, I stared at the card, then up to the man. “Wyatt, did you…” I was blinking tears out of my eyes. “Did you get me a… a birthday present for every year that you missed?”

“We should hurry,” he urged with a quick nod. “There’s still fifteen more to get through, you know.”

“Wyatt, I… I…” Words failed me. I didn’t care anymore. Standing from the chair, I pushed the box aside and climbed onto the desk. Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around the man… my brother, as tight as I could.

Yeah, it looked silly. But you know what? At that point, I really didn’t care.

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