Professor Carfried

Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Mini-Interlude 48 – Vanessa and Tristan

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“Nessa, how many times are you gonna read that message?” Tristan asked his sister. “It’s less than twenty words long, and you’ve been staring at it for days now. I’d say you have the whole thing memorized, but you know, with your memory you did that the second you glanced at it. At this point, you’ve probably got every possible anagram for the message memorized too.”

The two of them were sitting in the grass just outside of the Pathmaker building, waiting for Professor Carfried and the rest of their Explorer track to show up.

”There has to be a secret code or something,” Vanessa murmured as she continued to stare intently at the paper. “He called himself Uncle Satan, whoever this is. Why would he do that unless it was meant to be a special message we need to to decode?”

Tristan shrugged. “Maybe he’s really Satan,” he offered. “I mean, would that really be the strangest thing that’s ever happened us? And remember, you’re talking to the kid who was pretty much raised by a combination of a race of giant aliens and our long lost great great something grandfather in another dimension.”

The blonde girl squinted at her brother for a moment. “We are not related to Satan,” she insisted. “Satan doesn’t exist. Hell, he was—“ she stopped then, sighing as she watched Tristan try to smother his snickering. “And now you’re laughing because I said Hell when talking about Satan, aren’t you?”

The boy waved his hand, coughing. “I’m good, I’m good. Seriously though, you can’t just dismiss this. Remember the whole thing about how the Seosten act like angels? Well, if there’s angels then maybe there was actually someone who they called Satan.”

Vanessa’s mouth open and then shut, as she watched him. Considering that for a moment, she finally offered, “You know, you’re smart enough to be getting better than C’s in all your classes.”

“Eh.” Tristan gave a vague, dismissive gesture with his hand. “You’re the smart one, I’m the athletic one. Let’s just stay in our lanes.”

“You’re smart too,” Vanessa insisted. “You just don’t care about doing the work, or studying, or really paying that much attention in lectures.”

The boy stretched widely. “That’s because everything you just described is boring as hell,” he announced with an exaggerated yawn.

His sister started to say something else, only to stop while nodding past his shoulder. “They’re coming,” she whispered, her hand already reaching out to take the privacy coin they had been using. Dismissing the spell, she tucked it away in a pocket. The two exchanged brief glances, nodding to each other before picking themselves up and brushing the grass off their legs.

“See?” A Heretic-born boy named Dominic announced while gesturing at the two. “I told you guys they’d be out here already. And you wanted to wait inside or check their rooms.” Scoffing, he addressed the twins. “How long’ve you guys been sitting here, anyway? Hours? Don’t you have anything better to do?” His tone was teasing, but there was also an underlying curiosity.

His roommate, another Heretic-born named Tejas, spoke up dismissively then. “Who cares? They’re right here now, so can we get this show on the road? I’m ready to go to another world.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Sean Gerardo announced while patting the other boy on the back as he slipped by, “I’m sure we’ll get there before all the good restaurants are full. But personally, I’m kinda hoping there’s some Hamilton seats available over there.” He grinned. “I mean, it’s not like taking a portal to another world is the furthest people have gone to get tickets to that thing.”

Vulcan left his partner’s side then, moving over to the twins for some petting and affection. Vanessa gave it to him, smiling a little as she rubbed the mechanical dog’s snout and fed him a handful of mixed copper and steel balls that she had been keeping in her pocket for him.

That, of course, led to a haughty screech from nearby as the cyberform hawk known as Sovereign left Aylen’s shoulder. He flapped twice on his way over before landing on Tristan’s quickly raised arm. The metal bird then proceeded to squint pointedly at Vanessa.

“Sovereign,” Aylen chastised her cyberform companion, “don’t be so rude.” The Native American girl stepped over that way, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she murmured with a slight blush. “He may be a glorious bird of prey. But sometimes, he is also a great spoiled pig.”

Tristan just shook his head with a grin, already producing bits of metal from his own pockets. “Don’t worry, Aylen. We came prepared this time.” He held the gleaming balls up for Sovereign to quickly peck at, seeming completely unconcerned by how close the bird’s razor-sharp beak came to his skin. He knew just how deadly the cyberform could be with it. Yet the boy also knew how accurate Sovereign was. His hand wasn’t in any danger. “There you go, big guy.”

After a moment of looking back and forth between Sovereign and Vulcan as the two ate their treats, Tristan’s eyes widened. “Hey, you know what we should do? He turns into a suit of armor, and he turns into a big gun, right? And Bobbi-Bobbi,” he indicated the chain around his neck that would turn into his own cyberform snake, “makes a big cannon too. We should totally see if we can get some of the Development people to make it so these three can like… combo-transform into one big robot with two giant freaking guns on it. That’d be so badass! Or a tank. They could all combine into a mini-tank. How goddamn awesome would that be?”

“Not a bad plan, Mr. Moon!” The response came from their Track leader, Professor Carfried. The young teacher made his way up through the group, carrying his heavy walking stick in one hand as he moved to the front. “Unfortunately, however, it shall have to wait until after our excursion today! Which, I’m sorry to say, will be to an utterly uninhabited planet. So,” he added with a wink toward Sean, “no Hamilton tickets. Do let me know if you happen to find any though. Of all the perks related to being a trainer of monster-killing heroes, apparently those are not included.”

“So, uh,” Freya Sullivan, a beautiful, red-haired amazon-like girl who almost looked as though she had been carved from marble to be the perfect representative of a warrior goddess spoke up. “Is this one of those Bystander things where we’re all just supposed to smile and nod as we pretend we’ve got the slightest clue what you’re talking about?”

“Pretty much, yes!” Turning on his heel, the man let the walking stick slide down before catching one end of it. He then tapped the other end against the ground. “Everyone, with me. And–” From the point where his stick touched the ground, a narrow glowing red pathway appeared, leading off toward the building. “–stay on the path, please. Let’s not have a repeat of last time. We may be called Explorers, but that does not give us carte blanche to wander off in the Pathmaker building itself and set off half of the alarms in the building, Tejas.

The Indian boy coughed, shrugging a little while he muttered, “I told you, I just got lost.”

Sovereign returned to Aylen’s shoulder then, and the group followed Carfried into the building. They were careful to stay in the path. No one wanted to lose their chance to go to another world by breaking the rules again. And Tejas didn’t really want to deal with everyone (most of whom were already watching him closely) yelling at him if it looked like he was about to wander off.

As they walked, Tristan gave his sister a nod. Whatever happened, they would find their answers about who this ‘Uncle Satan’ really was, and what he actually wanted, very soon.

But whatever happened, he still wasn’t going to give up on that ‘combine the three cyberforms into one awesome tank-robot’ plan. That was a genius idea, and no one was going to convince him otherwise.

******

“Okay, so now what?” Tristan asked Vanessa a while later as the two of them wandered through what looked like the equivalent of a pebble-covered beach. Only in this case, the pebbles were bright pink and green, and all seemed to have been polished to an almost-glowing sheen. Meanwhile, the lake they were walking past was filled with beautiful turquoise water. Occasionally, fountains sprayed up here and there, reaching a hundred feet in the air and creating brief, gorgeous waterfalls on their way back down. The path they were following actually wound its way out across the lake in a sort-of natural land bridge, allowing the twins to watch the occasional fountains on both sides.

Their track had split up shortly after arriving on the planet. Their job was to explore, catalogue anything interesting they found, and meet back in a couple hours. They had ways of calling in if anything happened, or if they wanted to share something particularly important. Basically, the world had been cleared by actual full Heretics of anything too threatening, so it was supposed to be a relatively safe place for them to split up and look around. Safe enough for them not to (hopefully) not stumble across anything too deadly, while still unique and interesting enough to feed the curiosity and sense of wonder for anyone who had signed up for the Explorers track.

“You mean, what do we do now since we managed to get away from everyone else just in time for the meeting that the note mentioned?” Vanessa clarified while leaning down to poke her finger at the water. It shimmered under her touch, the turquoise shifting to a light purple for a moment in an area a few inches around from her finger, while making a soft chiming sound.

“Exactly.” Tristan nodded, reaching down to scratch Bobbi-Bobbi’s head as the mechanical snake arched up toward him. He had released his cyberform partner from her necklace form once they arrived to let the snake stretch her… coils.  “I mean, the note said 2:30 on this planet. But it didn’t say anything else. So how’re we supposed to know where we’re supposed to go to meet this ‘Uncle Satan’?”

“Maybe if you say his name three times real fast while staring into the water, he’ll appear.”

The suggestion came from behind the two, and as they spun, Vanessa and Tristan found themselves looking at a man who stood on top of the water a few feet from the glistening pebble-covered land bridge. He stood around six feet tall, with shaggy light blonde hair and a roguish smile that seemed especially made to melt hearts. With his thin, neatly trimmed mustache and the wink that he gave the two, the man looked like Cary Elwes in his prime.

“Or was that Bloody Mary…?” He trailed off thoughtfully before shaking it off. “I can never keep it straight. But just to be on the safe side, don’t say Biggie Smalls anywhere near a mirror. I have it on good authority that that never turns out well for anyone involved.”

Bobbi-Bobbi had started along with the other two, and now she wound her way around Tristan’s legs, up his waist, and rested her head on his shoulder while staring with beady eyes at the stranger.

“Wh–are you….” Vanessa stared at the man, eyes glancing briefly down to his feet as they continued to treat the surface of the water like it was a solid floor before darting back up once more. “Are you… the one who sent us that note?”  

The man’s head tilted, his smile growing as he gently teased her. “Oh, come on. You can say it. I was really looking forward to hearing you say it.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa glanced to her brother briefly before giving a low sigh as she turned back to the man. “Okay,” she started slowly, reluctantly asking, “Are you Uncle Satan? And… and why don’t you tell us what you want?” Lifting her chin, she added, “We don’t know who you are.”  

The man’s smile immediately changed from teasing, to genuine warmth. “Vanessa,” he spoke the name almost reverently. “I’m sorry for my jokes. There are many times when I fail to know where the line should be, particularly when I am… excited. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you. So long that it almost feels as if we’ve known each other for ages. But you are absolutely correct. You don’t know me at all. And you have no particular reason to trust me.”

“You’re…” Looking the man up and down for a moment, Vanessa bit her lip. “You’re a Seosten.”

“Wait, does that mean you’re actually our uncle?” Tristan quickly asked as his eyes widened. He put a hand on his snake’s head, calming her.  “And are you really Satan? Is our uncle the devil? Oh my God, what does that make our mom?”

“Technically yes, technically no,” the man replied brightly. “Lots of technicalities, I know. I’m not technically your uncle. Your mother and I aren’t related. But we were partners for a very long time, and I considered her a sister. Well, so did a lot of people, really. And, well, there’s a lot more. But we should go somewhere a little more private and safe than this if we’re gonna keep talking. Come on, I’ve got a place prepared.” Turning, he started to walk back over the lake.

“Uh.” Tristan looked to Vanessa before tentatively touching the surface of the lake with his foot. It went right through the water, creating a little splash that sent the sound of chimes into the air once more. “That might be a little harder than you think.”

“Oh!” Spinning on his heel, the man snapped his fingers, conjuring a pair of brightly colored bags. “Right, totally forgot. Here, put these on.” He tossed one of the bags to each of them. “Just consider them one of the many, many birthday and Christmas presents that I owe you.”

The twins opened the bags, only to find a pair of shoes in each in their size. The shoes looked ordinary by almost any respect, save for the symbols that could be found etched into the bottom. With a shrug, they both took off the shoes they were wearing before pulling on the new ones. Tristan shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her necklace form, whispering encouragement to her.

“They’re magic, right?” Vanessa straightened up, wiggling her feet a little. “What do we say to, uh, activate the spell?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was kind of in a Wizard of Oz mood, so all you need to do is click your heels together three times. Click your toes together three times to turn it off.”

The two of them did just that, tapping their heels against one another several times. Then, with a nod to one another, Tristan and Vanessa each stepped out. Their feet came down on the water, and stayed there. It felt solid, yet a little giving, sort of like a trampoline. After testing their balance, the two started to walk out slowly over the top of the lake.

“Holy crap, dude.” Tristan laughed, bouncing a little on the water’s surface. “This is awesome!”

The man nodded as he walked ahead of them. “You think it’s amazing now? It doesn’t just work on water. Acid, lava, mid-air. You can pretty much walk on top of anything with those things on. And yeah, magic can be pretty amazing. It’s something that school of yours could stand to focus on a little more instead of all the killing.”

He led them to the middle of the lake before giving a brief, sharp gesture with one hand. As he did so, the surface of the water itself rose up ahead of them into the shape of a cave mouth, with water falling freely off both sides. As the group got closer, Vanessa and Tristan could see a tunnel beyond. A tunnel that didn’t seem to actually be there within the water itself. It was like some kind of portal or something, though it was unlike any portal either of them had ever seen.

“It’s an invisible tunnel,” the man informed them. “Trust me, it’s safe. No one can find us in there.”

“And are we safe with you?” Vanessa asked a little pointedly, folding her arms as she stood next to her brother in front of the cave. “Why exactly should we trust a Seosten we’ve never met before who wants us to walk right into a secret, invisible cave on another world with him?”

“Yeah, that’s a fair question.” The man met her gaze. “Vanessa. There are no words that I can give you that will make you trust me. But I can say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry you grew up around people who didn’t believe you when you told them what happened. I’m sorry you had to hide how special you are for so long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you really needed me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for both of you, and for your parents. But I swear to you, on my soul, I would never, ever harm you or your brother. As I said, I see your mother as a sister. She is family to me, and so are you. I would die before I hurt you.”

It was enough. Tristan and Vanessa exchanged nods before following the man into the tunnel. After they walked a few feet further as it sloped sharply downward, the man gestured to make the mouth of the tunnel close once more. Then he led them down the (somehow brightly lit) stone corridor to a wider cave, with several chairs and a table already prepared and waiting.

“Okay,” he announced while turning to face them once more. “Here, we won’t be interrupted, and we can talk freely, about everything.”

Vanessa’s hand instantly shot into the air, waving around until the man blinked and nodded to her. “Um, could you tell us what your name really is? Cuz calling you Uncle Satan is kinda weird.”

Grinning at that, the man nodded sagely. “Well, of course. We can’t have you feeling weird. In that case, you could use my real name.” Letting that hang for a few seconds, he finally finished with, “It’s Lucifer.”

“You gotta admit, Nessa,” Tristan informed his sister as she stared open-mouthed, “you kinda walked right into that one.”

“Yes, yes, Lucifer. That Lucifer,” the man acknowledged with a wave of his hand. “But I assure you, the stories they tell about me are… well, they’re not nearly as interesting as the stories I told about them. I mean honestly, can you point to a single coherent tale of my misdeeds that isn’t logically baffling and incompatible with any other story about me? Honestly, it’s as if they just took a bunch of stories about other villainous creatures and copy-pasted my name in their place no matter how little sense they made. How would you like to piss them off and find the name Tristan Moon filled in as the dark bane of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Twilight Sparkle?”

“They…” Vanessa murmured, blinking up at him. “You mean the other Seosten. They… they made the name Lucifer into humanity’s greatest villain and monster. Why? Because you… because you betrayed them… you pissed them off–you quit. You left, didn’t you? You left a long time ago and it pissed them off so much that they tied your name to the embodiment of evil.”

“Pretty much, yup,” the man nodded. “But I’ve been pretty unfair. Honestly, I just wanted to see your reaction when I told you what my Seosten name was. In truth, I haven’t gone by that in a long time. I prefer the name I took here on Earth a few thousand years ago.” He winked then. “So I’d much rather you call me Apollo.”

“Apollo?” Vanessa echoed, head tilting. “Wait, like, Apollo-Apollo? As in–”

“Sesenev ble’de uvun!” Tristan blurted unthinkingly, eyes widening. “If you’re supposed to be Apollo, does that mean our mom is–am I the son of Artemis?! Oh my God, that is so fucking awesome!”

Apollo dropped his head back to laugh. “Now that’s the reaction I was looking for. Though, I don’t know who exactly taught you Nereid curse words, but you have got a serious potty mouth there.” Shaking his head in wonder, the man finally added, “And yes, that’s right. Your mother was the one they called Artemis. Though, sadly, she stopped using that name when the others did.” There was a moment where the man looked regretful, sighing a little before he shook it off. “Anyway, that’s your mom. We were all part of the initial Seosten infiltration of Earth. Puriel, you saw him when he showed up at your house, he was Zeus.”

“Zeus? Zeus is that piece of shit who showed up at our–Zeus is a bad guy?! Are you seri–” Tristan started to gasp before correcting himself with a nonchalant, “Actually, no, that kinda makes sense. Yeah, I’m on board with that. Carry on.”

‘You…” Vanessa hesitated, swallowing a lump in her throat. “Do you know where our mom is?”

Face softening, Apollo shook his head. “I swear, kid, if I knew where she was, I’d already be beating down their door.”

“So why did you want us to come meet you now?” Tristan asked. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am totally up for having freaking Olympian gods in our family tree. That’s like the coolest thing ever. That’s even cooler than Grandpa Petan on our dad’s side of the family. But seriously, why now? Why here?”

“I have been a very… absent uncle,” Apollo acknowledged with a wince. “So that’s a fair question. Trust me, there are reasons for it. But right now, I needed to meet with you because of you, Vanessa.” He looked that way. “You’ve started to awaken into your Seosten gift. You can’t fully possess people yet, but you–”

The blonde girl straightened with a little gasp. “You know? You know that I’ve been getting… visions of our dad? But… but how could you possibly know that?”

“Hey,” Apollo pointed out, “you don’t get to be three thousand years old without having a few tricks up your sleeve. Especially when your entire interuniversal empire-running race wants you dead. I’ve got my ways. But the point is, you’ve been seeing through your father’s eyes. You’ve been projecting to him. Which means that you can communicate with him.”

“But… but I can’t,” Vanessa pointed out with a slight whimper. “I’ve been trying, and it doesn’t work.”

The man’s expression softened. “You can,” he assured her. “You just need a little help. That’s why I’m here. Because I can teach you everything you need to know about how to use that gift.”

Heart beating hard and fast, Vanessa stared at him. “Y-you can? You can… you can teach me to… to talk to our father in my dreams?”

Apollo smiled at that. “Kid, I’ll teach you to do it when you’re awake, any time you want to. And Tristan too, as soon as he starts developing that part. Which should happen any day now,” he added with a glance that way. “I’ll teach you both how to use it.”

“We… “ Tristan bit his lip, exchanging a look with his sister. “We want to talk to our dad, send a message to him because our friends, they’re–”

“Stuck in Seosten space,” Apollo finished for him. “Yeah. Yeah, I know about that. One of them used a secret spell that I set up a long time ago to deal with a… really nasty piece of shit that works out there. The only way they could have known about it is if I told them, or your mother did. And I never told them. Which only leaves your mom… somehow.”

Both of the twins stared at him, Vanessa blurting, “But how could Mom tell them a secret spell? She never–they never–if they–”

“Yeah, I know,” the man confirmed, “I’m confused too. Trust me, I don’t know everything. Which is kind of annoying sometimes, let me tell you. But the only way that we are going to find out the answer to that is by getting them back here. Which we can do by contacting your dad through your connection to him, so we can point them in the right direction.”

“Too bad we don’t know exactly where to send them,” Tristan lamented. “I mean, we’re probably working with a really short time frame here, and it’s a big universe.”

“Oh,” Apollo smiled then. “Don’t you worry about that. I have a ahh, certain connection to one of those kids out there. Not enough to project myself to them, but let’s just say I can tell where they are. We’ll be able to tell your dad exactly where to go. And,” he added thoughtfully, “a little birdie told me that they might want to pack a pretty powerful teleportation spell.”

“How powerful?” Vanessa asked, curiously.

The man met her gaze. “Powerful enough to move a spaceship.”

“M-magic can do that?” Vanessa blurted, mouth falling open in amazement.

“My girl,” Apollo started with a wink, “magic can do more wondrous things than you can imagine in a thousand lifetimes. I’ll help you learn as much as I can. But first, why don’t we start with contacting your dad so we can pass along that message?”

“You can really teach me just like this?” Vanessa hesitated before adding, “We don’t really have a lot of time before they’ll notice us missing. And believe me, they really aren’t in the mood to have more students go missing.”

“Actually,” the man corrected her, “we’ve pretty much got as much time as we need. Well, not all the time we need. But at least, I’d say, most of a month.”

“A month?” Tristan shook his head. “Dude, we’re supposed to meet up with the rest of our group in like… twenty minutes.”

“Remember how I told you that magic is wondrous?” Apollo asked, before gesturing toward the top of the cave they were in. As his hand moved that way, the lighting rose until they could see some of the most elaborate, intricate runework they had ever laid eyes on. There must have been over a thousand symbols, most of them carefully interconnecting with one another, lining the ceiling of the cave.

“What… what is this?” Vanessa asked in wonderment as she turned in a circle to stare at the beautiful spellforms. “It must’ve taken… years to get this all done.”

“This,” Apollo informed them, “is my planning room. It’s kind of how I come up with all my ideas without taking forever. See, with those spells up there, for every day that passes in here, about a minute passes out there. So you say you have to meet up with your group in twenty minutes? That leaves us almost three weeks to teach you everything I can. Yeah, I call this place my–”

“Hyperbolic Time Chamber!” Both Apollo and Tristan blurted. The latter kept going. “Oh my God, oh fuck! You have a Hyperbolic Time Cham–” Interrupting himself, the boy lunged that way to hug onto the man. “Best uncle ever! You are the best freaking uncle in the universe!”

“What… what…” Vanessa was staring at them, mouth working. “What are you talking about? How do you–what’s a–”

“Don’t you worry, Vanessa,” Apollo informed her while returning Tristan’s embrace. “We’ve got all the time we need to catch you up to speed, and teach you everything you need to know about contacting your dad so you can get that message to them.

“Or,” he added with a gesture. “You can leave. I want… I want to be part of your life. I want to help you. But I’m not going to force anything. If you want to walk out of here, you’re free to do so any time. I don’t… I don’t want you to feel trapped. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped, or forced into this. I want to be a part of your lives, but… but if you don’t want me around you, I understand. Especially after I was gone for so long.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Vanessa hesitated before slowly asking, “While you’re teaching us, could you… could you tell us more about our mother, about what she’s really like?”

The man smiled at that, bowing his head. “Of course, Vanessa. I’ll tell you guys anything you want to know, everything I can. Like I said, I may have been a pretty absent uncle before, but I’m here now. And I’ll teach you everything I know. And what I don’t have time to teach, you can pick up from the collection of manuscripts that I’ve picked up over the past couple millennia.” He gestured toward a corner of the chamber, and a rock wall lifted away to reveal a room about ten times larger than the one they were in, filled to the brim with full bookshelves. “After all, all these belong to you too. You’re family.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Vanessa slowly walked that way. Making a noise of  shock and wonderment, she stared at the ancient books and scrolls for a few long seconds. The girl was whimpering at the very thought of being able to look through all of them. There had to be thousands of books from the past several thousand years all lining the shelves. It was an even better collection than Crossroads had.

“Damn, Uncle Satan,” Tristan stage-whispered. “I think you broke Nessa.”  

Pivoting, the girl quickly took two steps that way before embracing the man alongside her brother. Hugging him tightly, she announced, “Tristan’s right, you’re the best uncle ever.”

Apollo returned their embraces firmly. “Guys,” he started through an obvious lump in his throat, “you…” He swallowed hard. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to meet you, how long I thought about… all of this. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there before.”

“You’re here now,” Vanessa pointed out, lifting her chin as she met the man’s gaze. “And you’re… you’re really ready to teach us everything?”

The man nodded. “Everything I can. Which means it’s gonna be a long three weeks.

“So let’s get started then, shall we?”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Haiden and Sariel posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. 

“Two months!” Professor Carfried’s excitable voice filled the Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom two days later. Friday. Like most schools, Crossroads came back from break with only a couple days of classes to go before the weekend so that students could ease back into the workload.

“For two months,” the man continued while standing in the center of our circle of tables, “you’ve been able to practice the spell that we started back in November. I gave you that extra time because the spell itself is hard to pull off. But by this point, you all should have been able to manage it. So.” Clapping his hands together, he smiled broadly. “How many of you think you’ve got the hang of the Kevlar spell?”

About half the class raised their hands, including me. I’d had plenty of other things to do, of course. But a spell to turn clothes bulletproof was too useful to ignore. Knowing that Carfried was going to bring it up, I spent some of the day before working on it before class today. The first two times, it pretty much fizzled, but after the third, I managed to pull it off. Repeating the success twice more convinced me.

Sitting there with my hand up, I snuck a look toward Avalon. We still hadn’t talked that much over the past couple days. Not about—well, what had happened before the winter break, anyway. I had the feeling that she wanted to talk about it a couple times, but always brought up something else instead.

Yeah, we needed to talk about it. And I needed to talk to Shiori, to both of them. Preferably together, because that was the only fair way to do it. I wanted all of us to be on the same page. Tonight was the first Hunter track meeting. But tomorrow was Saturday. Tomorrow, I’d get them together and talk then.

“Only half of you?” Carfried shook his head with obvious disappointment, looking around at the class. “Are you sure? You can pull it off, right? Just a little spell, not that hard.” He watched with open eagerness and encouragement, gesturing for more people to raise their hands.

However, once a few people gave in to the encouragement and lifted their hands, the man slammed his hand down hard on the nearest table. The resulting bang made everyone jump, as he bellowed, “No!”

Straightening, he strode around the circle, eyes watching all of us as we jolted in our seats and stared at him. “No,” he repeated, a bit quieter but with just as much force. “Do not do that. Never do that. If you don’t think you’re ready for something, don’t let me or anyone else guilt or pressure you into it. This is magic class, not Crocheting 101. Magic. It is dangerous. If you’re not ready, speak up and say so.”

Stopping with his back to where my table was, the man slowly turned in a circle to take all of us in once more before continuing. “That goes for many other things, not just magic. If you’re not ready, speak up. I don’t care if it’s a classmate, an older student, an adult Heretic, or another teacher. If they ask you to do something dangerous and you’re not ready, say something. Your lives are valuable. You are valuable. And there is no shame in saying you’re not ready. There is shame in endangering your lives and the lives of people around you just because you let yourself be pressured into something.”

After letting that sit for a few moments, Carfried spoke again in a much calmer and more gentle voice. “Now, one more time. Which of you are sure that you are ready to try this spell?” He watched as some of our hands returned to the air, smiling faintly that time. “Good. Okay, let’s start with… Rebecca?”

The tiny, dark-haired girl (who at full height still stood a couple inches less than five feet tall) straightened up in her seat while lowering her hand along with the rest of us. “Yes, sir?”

Carfried stepped back to his own table in the very middle of the circle, gesturing. “Come on down here. Don’t worry, I’ll walk through it with you and we’ll see how it goes. Everyone else pay close attention.”

Rebecca hopped out of her seat and squeezed through one of the openings between tables, joining Carfried as the man began to lay out an old army jacket. From a pocket, he produced a black marker identical to the one that Dare had given me before the winter break. “Do you know what this is?”

Her head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. It’s a field-engraver. It lets you write on things that are hard to write on, or if you don’t want it to be permanent. Once the spell activates, the writing disappears.”

“Correct!” the young teacher grinned, holding it up. “Or, if you turn the part at the top, it will turn the engraver into erase mode, so that you can take off the spell. Or to fix a mistake.” To demonstrate, he put his fingers at the top of the marker. “Twist to the left and it’s in writing mode. Draw any spell you’d like. Twist just a little to the right and it’s in erase mode. It will erase any mark it’s made on anything.

“Now,” he added while holding the field-engraver out to to the small girl. “Would you be so kind, Rebecca, as to draw the Kevlar spell onto this jacket? Do you remember the exact way it goes?”

Taking the engraver, Rebecca hesitated. For a moment, it looked like she was about to go for it, but then she shook her head. “Can I… get the book from my bag and look at it again, sir? Just to be sure.”

Carfried’s smile broadened, and he gestured for her to go ahead. “Yes. Remember, spells are complicated. If you need to look them up just to be sure, don’t hesitate. Most Heretics who use spells carry around cheat sheets of their most-used spells. There’s no shame in being careful with magic.”

Using her notebook, Rebecca etched the design of the spell onto the back of the jacket that Carfried had provided. It took about ten minutes for her to get the whole thing just right and to put enough energy into it. In the end, she put her hands against the spellform and murmured the trigger for the spell. As she finished speaking, the runes that she had drawn briefly glowed bright red before fading entirely.

Carfried thanked her profusely before plucking the jacket off the table. Walking it across the room, he waved for us to get up from our seats and follow as he led the class to the other end of the room.

Glancing toward Sean as we got up, I whispered, “Speaking of this spell, if we run into too many bulletproof things out there, your little buddy’s gonna need some more tricks up his sleeves. Err, paws.”

“Ehh,” Sean replied with a grin while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “Don’t you worry about that. He’s already got special bullets to get around stuff like that. Plus, we’ve got plans. Don’t we, boy?”

Vulcan gave a little woof of agreement before trotting along beside his master as we joined the others.

“Now,” Carfried announced while hanging the jacket on a mannequin that stood there. “Let’s see how well she did, shall we?” As he spoke, the man reached into his own jacket, producing what looked like a simple nine millimeter pistol. “This is a Bystander weapon. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.” He held it up, turning so that we could all see, before turning back to face the mannequin while taking up a shooting stance. “The only difference with this weapon from anything a Bystander would use,” Carfried explained, “is that I’ve used a spell on the barrel to make it much quieter. Other than that, it will fire with just as much force and destructive capability as an ordinary gun. But, before we go any further, can anyone tell me how this spell is supposed to work? Will the bullets just ricochet off and go shooting into one of you, or any other innocent bystander? Capital b or lower case.”

He nodded toward Vanessa, who shook her head before reciting, “If performed correctly, the so-called Kevlar spell will drain the kinetic energy from the bullets or any other fast moving object that reaches the enchanted item. Essentially, they’ll lose all their momentum and bounce off as if they were just tossed gently. The previous version of the spell did what you said, make the bullets ricochet like, um–”

“Like Superman!” Tristan cut in. “Or Colossus when he’s got his metal skin, or the Thing, or–”

“Yes, thank you, Tristan,” Carfried interrupted with a chuckle. “And thank you, Vanessa. Correct. The old version of the spell simply made things bulletproof by repelling the incoming objects. Unfortunately, that proved to be too dangerous to civilians and other Heretics. So it was updated.”

He asked a couple more questions about the way the spell worked, focusing not just on Vanessa, but on everyone else as well. As young and new at this as he may have been, Carfried was a decent teacher.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s enough talk, don’t you think? Let’s see how this works.”

Taking careful aim, the man fired six shots, one after another. Thanks to the muting spell he’d used, each one sounded more like a handclap than the terrifying bang that would have left us all deafened.

Once he was finished, the man holstered the gun before walking over to the jacket. Once he reached it, Carfried turned to face us while gesturing to the floor. “Would everyone take a close look down here?”

We didn’t have to look that close. All six bullets were lying scattered around the floor at the feet of the mannequin. And as the man tugged the jacket off the dummy, he turned it around to show that there was no damage either to the jacket itself, or to the mannequin. “As you can see, Rebecca performed the spell just right. Anyone shot in the jacket with the spell active would be just fine. Well done, Rebecca. Very well done.” Setting the jacket back in place, he grinned and clapped a couple times encouragingly.

Once that was done, however, the man paused. “Now, of course, this spell won’t last forever. Rebecca here put enough power into it to make it last… oh, probably about ten minutes. Naturally, the longer you work and the more power you put into it, the longer the spell will remain active. But ten minutes should be enough for most normal encounters, so there’s no need to kill yourself by preparing a version that’ll last an entire hour. Just use the trigger spell when when you’re about to get into trouble. Then, of course,” he added, “there are other ways to extend the time of the spell. But we’ll get into those later. For now, let’s split up into groups. If you think you can cast this spell, group up with one or two people who don’t. We’ll have you work together until everyone can pull it off. Then we’ll shoot some more rounds and see just how much metal we can cover the floor with, all right? All right, let’s do it.”

******

Several hours later, as I was walking across the lawn, Shiori caught up with me. “Hey, Flick!” she called happily before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Did you get to talk to you-know-who yet?”

With a set-up like that, I couldn’t help it. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, Voldemort’s still obsessed with that other magic school. He hasn’t even bothered to return my letters. Can you believe that?”

Rewarding me with a giggle that made me shiver (and reminded me of my promise to myself that I would talk to her and Avalon the next day), Shiori shook her head. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But the other you-know-who. You know, a certain older student that might know something about a certain ring?”

Chuckling softly, I snapped my fingers. In my pocket, I carefully touched one of the privacy coins. We were alone, but it never hurt to be extra-careful. “Ohhh, you mean Namid. No, I haven’t. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find an excuse to walk up to a third-year and say, ‘oh hey, can I talk to you about an ancient magical artifact that your ancestor might’ve had before your other ancestor, who happens to be on the Committee, betrayed him and got him killed? Oh, but don’t tell her about any of this, kay?’”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Shiori coughed. “How are you gonna talk to her about it?”

Shrugging helplessly, I admitted, “I’m not sure yet. But something’ll come to me. It has to.” Glancing around carefully, I lowered my voice. Yeah, we had the coin, but still. “Roxa needs that necklace, or the ring, or whatever it is now. And Namid’s the only actual lead we have about it besides Pace herself.”

“Yeah…” Shiori murmured, looking down briefly before glancing to me. “If you wanna talk to her together, we can. I mean, at least there’s a slightly better chance of getting her to stand still and listen?”

“I can’t just tell her everything,” I pointed out. “I’ve gotten really lucky so far. I’d rather not push that by expecting a third-year student to suddenly believe everything I say that happens to completely destroy their world-view. Especially when she’s got a great-great-grandmother or whatever on the Committee. I need an excuse to ask her about it. Maybe… an assignment? Hey, maybe we can get Professor Dare to give a project for ancient magic items and I can make up a trail leading to that thing.”

“Do you think Professor Dare would do that?” Shiori asked, head tilting. “And can you make up a believable trail that could lead you to Namid and that ring when there’s nothing in the library about it?”

I thought about it for another moment before nodding. “I’m pretty sure Dare’ll do it if I ask her, as long as I tell her why. She wants to help Roxa too. And it’s not like making an excuse to talk to Namid is that dangerous. You know, compared to other things I could be doing. As for the rest of it… yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. It’ll take time to set up, and I’ll probably need help, but I can make a trail leading to her.”

Shiori’s head bobbed. “If you need help talking to her, I’m there. I could be the muscle to your brains.”

“I think I’ll need your brain too,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can take turns being muscle and brains.”

She gave me a thumbs up, then grinned that familiar Shiori-grin. “Whatever happens, we should take her to the bank when we talk to her. That way, she won’t ignore us and go running off.”

“The bank?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How would taking her to a bank make her pay attention?”

“Because it’ll be sure to keep her interest!” Shiori blurted before doubling over on herself, snickering.

It was terrible. And yet somehow, I still giggled. Just hearing the other girl laugh at her own corny joke, as bad as it was, made me want to laugh too.

Finally, I shook my head. “Okay, okay. We’ll see. But now, uhh–” I paused, looking down at my new uniform with its green trim before looking back up to Shiori’s own matching one. “Think you could show me where we’re supposed to meet up for the track class?”

“Oh!” Shiori straightened, glancing to my uniform as if just noticing the color and what it meant. “Right, we’re in the same track now. We–” She paused, glancing to me briefly as if trying to figure out if I’d done that on purpose.

I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that Shiori was in the Hunter track, honestly. But I also wasn’t going to complain.

She shook that off without comment, though her smile did brighten a little. “Yeah, c’mon. I’ll show you.”

As she started to walk, the girl added, “I wonder what Professor Hisao is like.”

“I only met him once,” I admitted, “But from what I saw, he jokes around a lot and doesn’t take much seriously. But, you know, he’s one of their big investigators, so he’s gotta be really good at his job. Oh,” I paused before adding, “And I’m pretty sure he and Professor Dare are… you know.”

Her eyes went wide as she looked at me. “Are you sure?” When I nodded, she smiled broadly. “Oh my god, that is so… so… Dare and Hisao—wow.”

“Yeah, just… don’t say anything,” I coached her. “Dare really doesn’t want it getting out there. You know, because of the whole Crossroads-Garden rivalry thing.”

Shiori mimed locking her lips with a key before tossing it away. Then she giggled. “Still, it is pretty romantic.”

For a few seconds, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. The word ‘romantic’ lay between us, and I felt myself blush before clearing my throat. “We—um, we’re gonna be late for the track if we…”

Visibly shaking herself, Shiori quickly nodded. “Right, yeah. C’mon, we usually meet down on the beach.”

She set off, and after a moment, I followed.

Yeah, I needed to talk to both her and Avalon. We needed to sort this whole thing out before someone ended up getting hurt. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would deal with it head-on. No more excuses. No more delaying. I was going to talk to Shiori and Avalon.

But tonight, well, tonight it was time to see just how this Hunter track was going to work with Hisao in charge. And how some of the more… loyal Crossroads students would take being taught by a substitute from Eden’s Garden.

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting for a long time, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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Medical Leave 15-01

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“I swear to Prosser, Chambers,” Avalon’s grumpy voice insisted as the two of us walked down the hallway, “if you ask me one more time if I’m all right, I’m going to be forced to hurt you very, very badly.”

It was about a week after the events of Thanksgiving. Friday morning, to be specific. Breakfast was over, and we were both on our way to our first class of the day: Introduction to Heretical Magic.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I held up both hands apologetically while walking backwards so I could face the other girl. “It’s just that, well… you know.” Trailing off weakly, I looked up to see her glaring at me.

“Just what?” She leaned on her crutches (yeah, crutches) and squinted at me pointedly. “Even with these things, I could still kick your ass up and down this corridor. You want me to prove it?” In spite of her actual words, I could tell she was just lashing out at the very idea of feeling weak in any way.

Because as it turned out, things back at Crossroads didn’t completely freeze while I wasn’t there to see them. Apparently, someone had tried to kill Avalon again while we were gone. This time, it had happened while she and Scout were on their way along the beach to feed Choo. Someone had knocked out Scout before hitting Avalon with some kind of… of drug or poison. The drug had completely paralyzed the girl’s limbs. She could move her head, but her arms and legs were helpless. Then that person had dragged her to the last few feet to the ocean and shoved her head under the water.

Thinking about how that must have felt, how terrifying it had to have been, made me feel sick to my stomach. No matter how okay Avalon pretended she was, I knew how much taking care of herself, defending herself, meant to her. The fact that someone had managed to paralyze her limbs so she couldn’t, and then tried to drown her… I thought of how I would feel with my head forced under the water and held there while I remained completely incapable of moving my arms or legs in any way.

With that in mind, was it any big surprise that I had really wanted to hug the other girl all week long?

Anyway, whoever had tried to kill Avalon might have finished the job if the protection spell (the one that I now knew Wyatt had put on her) hadn’t done its job. Professor Kohaku and Gaia had both shown up within seconds of each other. But as soon as they had arrived, the shadowy figure had vanished.

They had pulled the nearly drowned Avalon out of the water and took her to medical. She recovered, of course. But apparently whatever magic poison she’d been hit with was going to take time to completely flush out of her system. Which meant that she’d be walking with crutches for a few more days, since her legs weren’t responsive enough to walk normally. Needless to say, she was even more grumpy than usual over the situation, especially since certain people (like me) kept asking if she was okay.

Now, I shook my head. “No, no. That’s okay. You don’t have to prove it. I get it, you’re still a complete badass. If anything, you’re even tougher now because you’re already holding a couple things you can beat me with.” I gestured to the crutches before reaching out to open the door that led to the classroom.

“Damn straight,” she assured me before making her way past and into the room. I heard the murmur of conversation beyond dip a bit as the people noticed her before gradually picking up again. Still, as I followed her, I saw several other students still staring at my roommate as the two of us made our way across the miniature auditorium-like room to the table where our team was set up. And that, of course, was another source of Avalon’s annoyance. People wouldn’t stop staring at her. I mean, people stared at Avalon all the time. Especially when she was running or working out. Because duh, look at her. But this was different. Now they were either looking at her with pity because she’d almost died, or with suspicion because yet again she had (supposedly) been responsible for bringing a threat to the school.

It was annoying. I was annoyed, so I couldn’t even begin to guess how Avalon felt about the situation. But she mostly ignored people unless they actually confronted her. Zeke Leven’s nose had already been broken once (it healed quickly, of course) from one of the nasty comments that he had made. After that, most of the other students had backed off and limited themselves to staring and obviously talking behind her back. Which was still annoying and stupid, but at least they weren’t pushing her further.

On the way to the table, I noticed Koren looking at us as well. When she saw me glance that way, the other girl held her hand close to her chest to make her motions less obvious before extending her pinkie and thumb out in the pantomime of a phone. Then she formed a circle with her thumb and index finger, with her other fingers raised above it. The ‘okay’ sign. She’d called her mom and things were still okay.

The sign made me let out a breath of relief. Of course, Koren was calling several times a day, but she always let me know when she’d checked in. She was using the phone that I’d gotten from Gaia to check in. I’d let her borrow it over the week since, to be completely fair, Abigail was her mother. She deserved to be able to check on her any time she wanted to. Anything to make her feel better about not being able to be there with her constantly. I had a pretty good idea of how that felt, and it sucked.

Obviously, Abigail was too old to be one of the normal Eden’s Garden students (though Seller had said he was going to work with her on at least basic knowledge of how to protect herself). Fortunately, this apparently wasn’t a completely unheard of situation. There had been older people made Heretics before, both accidentally or purposefully. So they had other plans of what to do in those situations. In this particular case, Seller had taken her on as essentially an apprentice. In addition to teaching her to protect herself, he was going to help her find another job within the Garden itself. Abigail had several choices. There was taking care of the various Alter-animals that they kept around, being a teacher of one of the Bystander-type subjects, taking care of the kids that were too young to be students, and a few other possibilities. Apparently Abigail hadn’t actually decided which one of them she was going to do.

Well, to be completely accurate, Abigail did know what she wanted to do. She wanted to change everything about Heretical society. She wanted to free all the Alters that the Garden was basically keeping as slaves, rewrite their laws, and essentially bitch-slap everyone involved in perpetuating the ‘every Alter is an evil abomination that needed to be massacred’ lie. So yeah, she knew what she wanted to do. But it was taking time to figure out what she would do for the moment.

When Avalon and I reached the spot where most of the rest of our team was (Sean hadn’t arrived yet), we found Shiori there as well. She was perched on the end of the table, talking to her brother. As the two of us approached, the cute little Asian girl glanced up before blushing just a little bit. “Oh, uh, hey, Flick. Hi, Avalon.” Her gaze lingered slightly before she flinched and looked away. I knew she felt guilty about the fact that Scout had been hurt and Avalon almost killed on their way to feed her little friend. Both of the girls had told her repeatedly not to worry about it, that they could’ve been out for any reason and the attack could have happened at any time. But it clearly didn’t stop all of her guilt.

In spite of that, she still smiled a little bit after taking a moment to collect herself. Returning her gaze to me, the other girl asked with that entirely too innocent tone that came whenever she was trying to tell one of her jokes, “Hey, Flick. What kind of coffee do incredibly pregnant cows like to drink?”

Despite groans from the others, I willingly took the bait. “I dunno, what kind of coffee do they like?”

Her frankly adorable smile widened even more then, and Shiori promptly answered, “Decalf.”

Our giggles were drowned out by the chorus of groans from Columbus, Avalon, and Sands. Scout just sat there smiling quietly to herself. Then another voice spoke up. “Hey, what’d I miss this time?” Sean was there, with Vulcan in tow. The boy stood at the other side of the table, already pulling out his chair.

Rather than explain the joke, or even say it again like she usually would have, Shiori just looked at Sean for a moment. Her face flushed a little for an entirely different reason before she pushed herself off the table. “I’ll—uh, I’ll see you guys later,” the girl spoke a little awkwardly before walking away.

I sighed inwardly in spite of myself, noticing the way Sean winced. Yeah, Shiori wasn’t exactly happy with him. Actually, she was kind of pissed. Apparently, he’d unthinkingly mentioned her little secret to his uncle and the man’s boyfriend, the one who had come to help Roxa. Both of them were fine with it, of course. But the fact remained that Sean had spilled her secret without actually asking her first. And as scared as the other girl was about the wrong people finding out about her, she hadn’t taken the news well. Ever since the initial scene where she’d pretty much laid into him about telling people things that weren’t his to tell, Shiori hadn’t really spoken more than a couple words directly to the boy all week.

Sighing, Sean took his seat before looking at his roommate. “Sorry, man. I deserve it. I should’ve asked her if it was okay before I went to see my uncle. I just thought it was okay since, well, you know.”

We did. His uncle was dating a werewolf. Obviously he wasn’t going to start blabbing about Shiori’s half-vampire state. But I also knew why Shiori was upset. Trustworthy or not, it was a big secret. And it was hers. It was her life. She should be the one who had control of it, who got to decide who knew. Sean had told two men that Shiori herself had never met. I didn’t blame her for being upset about it.

But I did hope that the two of them worked it out soon. I really didn’t like it when people I cared about were mad at each other. It made me feel sick inside despite myself. Which I guessed stemmed mostly from a childhood of believing that my mother had willingly and maliciously abandoned Dad and me.

Meanwhile, Columbus just shook his head at Sean. “Hey, it’s between you and her. Don’t worry though, I think she’ll be okay. Just apologize whenever she gives you a chance, and leave her alone until then.”

Sean was nodding while the door to the class opened and Professor Carfried entered. The young teacher was carrying a bag over one shoulder, whistling as he headed for the middle of the little pit area. “Good morning, class!” the man announced once he’d reached the center of the room, next to some kind of huge empty fish tank that had already been sitting there. Holding the bag up, he let his gaze pass over the students quickly to make sure we were all present and accounted for. “Everyone here? No one missing in action or still asleep in their breakfast? Perfect, let’s get started then, because we’ve got a lot to go over today.” He grinned at us. “It’s time to learn a brand new spell!”

With that, Carfried opened up the bag and dumped it out on the nearby table. Several dozen silvery metal collars fell into view, scattering over the surface. Necklaces, I realized after a second.

“All right, one person from each team come up and get necklaces for the rest of your group,” Carfried announced. “Don’t be shy, there’s one for everyone. And yes, boys, you’ll be wearing them too.”

Sands went up for us, and I let my gaze flick over toward another of the tables, where there were only five people instead of six. Paul, Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and Isaac. Roxa’s team. As far as the five of them knew, Roxa had had some kind of family emergency that required her to take a leave of absence from the school. Gaia was trying to make it easier for Roxa to rejoin the school if (no, when, I sternly reminded myself) we managed to get that necklace from Pace so that her werewolf-side would be hidden. Her team wasn’t happy about losing her, but at least it would be safe for Roxa to come back.

As I glanced that way, I saw that one of them, Douglas, was staring at me. He was a skinny little guy that I had never seen without his black baseball cap with the New York Rangers logo. As far as I knew, he was Heretic-born, so I was curious about how he’d become a fan of them. Then again, Scout really liked the Minnesota Twins, so I supposed it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary or anything.

At the moment, the boy was kind of staring at me. I met his gaze, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Then it seemed like he thought better of it and looked away, returning his attention to the rest of his table just as Paul, the tall, charismatic boy from Kentucky, came back to their table with a handful of the necklaces and started to hand them out. Doug took one and ignored me.

“What was that all about?” Columbus asked, drawing my attention back to them. He was looking between me and the other table where Douglas was, his eyebrows raised with obvious curiosity.

I shrugged. “Beats me. I don’t think I’ve said more than three words to Doug all year while we weren’t in class. Maybe he wants to ask me what it’s like being the roommate of the most gorgeous girl in school.”

A sharp pain in my ankle then reminded me that while Avalon didn’t have full use of her legs or feet, she did have a pair of crutches that she could use quite well. She was squinting at me, though I could see a slight pink color to her cheeks. “Knock it off, Chambers,” she muttered before shifting in her seat.

“Yeah.” Columbus grinned. “Besides, it doesn’t have to be her he’s interested in. I mean, you’re the one he’s staring at, and you’re not exactly an ugly hag yoursel–” That was as far as the boy got before I saw Avalon make a jerking motion under the table with her crutch, and his words turned into a yelp.

Thankfully for both my embarrassment and Columbus’s shins, Sands returned with the necklaces then and spread them over the table. I picked one up, trying once more to actually focus on class.

“Everyone have their chokers?” Carfried asked, glancing around the room curiously before nodding in satisfaction. “Excellent. Now, we’re going to turn them into not-chokers.” The man smiled at his own joke before clearing his throat. “Ah, what I mean is, we are going to use magic that will allow you to use the choker to breathe, even if you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If you’re wearing one of these after they have the appropriate spells on them and you activate it, you will be able to breathe through poison gas, under water, or in any environment where oxygen is unavailable. With your skill and strength levels as far as magic goes, you should all be able to make a necklace that lasts about one hour after activation.”

Around the room, I saw several students glance toward our table. Specifically, toward Avalon. And I heard Zeke mutter sarcastically, “Gee, I wonder what prompted this lesson.”

“Well,” Professor Carfried spoke up clearly and loudly, addressing the boy. “I was going to ask for a volunteer to demonstrate, but it seems like we already have one. Thank you, Mr. Leven. Come on down here.” He gestured with a hand. “Come on, come on. Don’t be shy all of a sudden. And don’t worry, I’m not going to choke you. We’ll start with something much safer: terrible smells.”

With that, Carfried pointed a hand to the nearby empty fish tank that I’d noticed earlier. From his pocket, he withdrew two stones with writing on them. “Smell of rotting eggs,” he announced before dropping the stone in the tank. “And smell of full baby diapers.” Then he dropped the second stone.

“Come then, Mr. Leven. We’ll start by letting you poke your head in the tank to take a nice big sniff. See how long you can last. Then we’ll see how very helpful the oxygen spell actually is.”

Zeke looked like he wanted to do absolutely anything else, including possibly punching the teacher. But he did what he was told anyway, despite his disgust. I almost felt a little sorry for him.

Class went on that way, and we all learned to make the magic collars. Personally, I was actually really happy about the lesson. Because it meant that I’d be able to spend more time with my sharks and really get down where they liked to swim.

Still, throughout the class and the rest of the day, one thing stayed on my mind. Tomorrow was Saturday, which meant we would be going to the hospital to see Tangle.

Hopefully, we’d find actual answers there about why she or someone was so obsessed with killing Avalon.

One way or another.

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The Next Step 8-01

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“Miss Chambers!” The loud voice of Professor Carfried filled the auditorium-like Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom a few days later. “Without consulting your book or any of your peers, can you tell me what the three primary categories of the energy used to create Heretical Magic are?”

The energy used to create Heretical Magic. I knew this one. Considering how much extra time I had for studying in the middle of the night while most people were sleeping, it would have been pretty bad if I didn’t. “Yes, sir, it’s uhh, Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” I recited the names without looking away.

The young teacher, who was still filling in for Professor Tangle (seriously, how badly had she been injured in that giant shark attack?), gave me a broad smile. “Indeed! Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” Turning his attention away from me and toward Rudolph across the room, he asked, “Mr. Parsons!”

Jolting in his seat, the pale, slightly chubby boy’s eyes widened. “Uhh, yes, sir?” A slightly guilty look crossed his face, and it was obvious that whatever he’d been doing, paying attention wasn’t part of it.

“Honestly, Mr. Parsons,” Professor Carfried shook his head. “I could walk into any Bystander classroom in the world, ask who wants to learn some real magic, and do you think they’d be bored?”

Flushing visibly, the boy sank a little in his seat before shaking his head. “No, sir. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“The three categories of magic,” Professor Carfried pressed on after nodding his acceptance of the apology. “Shapeless, Directed, and Forged. I want you to tell me which one we’re learning this year.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Rudolph seemed obviously uncomfortable, but slowly answered. “Um, the magic you’re teaching us right now is Forged. The second years learn Directed magic, and the third years learn Shapeless magic. Seniors, umm, they pretty much know it all by then and just sort of use every kind.”

“Yes, because seniors are essentially active Heretics by that point, and are far more involved in field work than classroom study,” Professor Carfried agreed before turning his attention to someone else again. Koren this time. “Miss Fellows. What exactly are the differences between the three categories?”

The brunette was obviously ready for the question. She promptly replied, “Forged magic is the easiest kind. They’re the spells where you say the exact same specific, established word everyone else does, make the same established gesture everyone else does, and end up with the same established effect.”

Carfried gave a short, pleased nod. “Precisely! Forged Magic, in this case, is like a dog. You teach the dog a trick, and from then on, if it hears the command, it does the trick. Speak the command, add the power, the magic performs the enchantment. Very good. Now, what about the other two categories?” When Koren started to answer, he shook his head. “Actually, let’s hear from… Mr. Levin.” His gaze moved to Zeke. “Since we’ve heard about Forged magic, can you tell us what Directed magic is?”

The boy gave a thin, humorless smile. Which wasn’t anything new. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen the guy act amused or even happy about anything all semester. “Yes, Professor. Directed magic is not quite as open as Shapeless magic, yet it is still more free than Forged. Essentially, a Directed Spell is simply a category of effect. For example, the spell you taught us that turns rocks into flash-bang grenades is Forged magic. The exact same effect every time you cast it. But if you were to alter that effect, such as… for example, making the rock recite the Gettysburg Address while throwing around strobe lights, that would be a Directed spell. You are taking a Forged spell and altering it for your own purposes.”

“A good answer, Mr. Levin, thank you.” Professor Carfried looked around the room one more time, clearly choosing carefully before his eyes settled on Shiori. “Miss Porter, what is the final category?”

Poor Shiori, who looked even paler than the last time I’d seen her, wasn’t looking at the man. Her gaze was fixed elsewhere, and I could see her lips moving a little as if she was mouthing words to herself.

When it was obvious that no answer was coming, Professor Carfried raised his voice. “Miss Porter!”

The response was instantaneous. Shiori bolted to her feet. Her hands caught hold of the table that her team was seated behind, and she gave it a hard shove that sent the table crashing onto its side loudly. Her voice was raised into a near shriek. “Shut up! Just shut up and leave me alone, leave me alone!”

Only then did Shiori seem to realize where she was and what was going on. Her eyes flicked around the room, and I saw the dawning comprehension and horror on her face. “I—I–I mean…” Tears sprang up.

Mutters had broken out all over the room, and Columbus was already on his feet, but Professor Carfried held a hand up, his voice commanding. “Silence, or detention.” The muttering stopped, and he stepped over to where Shiori was. His voice softened. “Miss Porter, can you look at me, please?”

Clearly reluctantly, Shiori slowly lifted her gaze to the man. I could see her trembling openly. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and clearly emotional. “I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Professor Carfried’s voice was calm and soothing. “We’re asking a lot of all of you, and if it wasn’t too much sometimes, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me when I say that I have been exactly where you are. You aren’t the first student to yell at a teacher because you were stressed out and you won’t be the last. So take a couple of breaths. Are you all right now?”

Breathing in and then out, Shiori gave a slight, unconvincing nod. She didn’t speak or move otherwise.

“All right, let’s have a little chat in the hall.” Carfried set a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you are not in that much trouble. As I said, we understand. But I’d still like to talk to you in the hallway.”

The two of them stepped out of the room, while Shiori’s male teammates Stephen and Gavin moved to pick up the table she had knocked over, replacing it back where it had been. They’d just maneuvered the thing into place when Zeke, seated across the way, twirled his finger by his head. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Hey!” Columbus was back on his feet and halfway around the table in what had to be record time. His hand pointed toward the Heretic-born boy. “You’re gonna want to shut up, right fucking now, Zeke.”

Clearly unimpressed, the other boy shrugged dismissively. “Hey, if she can’t handle the stress, maybe she should just go back home. Maybe get an easier job. I bet she’d fit right in at a laundromat.”

Sean leapt up, hooking an arm around Columbus. “He’s not worth it, man.” He kept his voice low and controlled, easily stopping the other boy from lunging across the room at the jerk. “He’s just an ass.”

“At least I can do the job we were brought here to do,” Zeke retorted derisively. “I don’t freak out like some people.”

Next to me, Sands was already starting to stand up, and I could see Avalon opening her mouth.Before either of them could say anything, however, the boy was interrupted by a sharp, scree-noise as Sovereign, Aylen’s metallic bird, flew across the room to land on the table in front of Zeke. As the boy jerked backward, the bird made a loud, angry noise, puffing itself up to look larger while several metallic ‘feathers’ pointed outward, their sharp ends looking an awful lot like daggers.

“Get this piece of shit away from me, damn it!” Zeke demanded, bolting to his feet.

Aylen was frowning at him. “Then stop pissing him off.”

“Fuck you,” Zeke retorted, his eyes locked on the mechanical bird. “I’m just telling the truth. Some people can’t handle the stuff going on here. Your wuss of a teammate obviously doesn’t belong here.”

That brought the rest of Shiori’s team to their feet, their anger obvious. But the person who actually spoke up was still a surprise.

“Oh my god, would you shut the fuck up?” Koren. It was Koren talking. “They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill monsters. Real monsters, the kind that eat people. If that doesn’t mess you up at least a little bit, if that doesn’t make you wanna freak out, then you’re the one with the problem. Not her.”

The fact that it was Koren of all people saying it seemed to surprise everyone into silence for a few seconds, and I thought about the reaction she’d had when we were examining the murder at that gas station (Ammon’s work, I reminded myself. That much had been clear after I spoke to Asenath about what had actually made her start tracking the little psychopath). She’d been pretty messed up by the sight of what happened there. Even if she tended to talk without thinking about what she was saying, and more times than not came off as a gossiping bitch, apparently even she had her layers and limits.

The door opened again before anyone else could say anything, and Mr. Carfried stepped back inside. His gaze took in everyone in the room before he directed his attention to Columbus. “Mr. Porter, would you mind escorting your sister up to the counselor’s office? I think she could use a chat with Mr. Roe.”

Columbus reached down to grab his bag, then stepped over to take Shiori’s too, as Aylen held it out to him. Then he gave the rest of us a quick look before heading out into the hall where I could see Shiori sitting down against the wall with her face buried in her hands. She still didn’t look very good.

“All right,” Professor Carfried began once the door was closed. “We’ll be moving on now, and if I hear about anyone saying a word against Miss Porter, you’ll have detention every Saturday for a month.” Looking toward Zeke, he added, “Mr. Levin, since I hadn’t actually stated that rule yet before leaving the room, we’ll only make it two weeks, starting tomorrow. You still should have known better.” As Zeke’s mouth fell open to protest, the professor pushed on, ignoring him. “One more time then. Where were we… oh yes, let’s see… Miss Moon, explain the last category of magic, if you would?”

“Yes, sir.” Vanessa answered promptly. “The last category of magic is Shapeless. Those are enchantments that are made up on the spot. The Heretic determines the effect they want, and imbues the item with that effect without using any previously designed spell. Shapeless magic is the most powerful kind, and the most prone to mistakes and backfiring. Only the best spellcasters, usually in the Development track, use Shapeless magic regularly. Most get by using Directed and Forged spells. A Shapeless spell can become Directed and then Forged after being cast the same way often enough.”

“Excellent,” Professor Carfried smiled then. “Now then, with that in mind, let’s chat about the next spell we’re going to be learning. A long time ago it was called the Cloth of Steel spell. But when I was in school… which, to be fair, was about a year ago, we called it the Kevlar spell. You will learn to enchant your clothing with a temporary spell that will allow them to resist most bullet impacts.

“So, let’s get started.”

******

Later that afternoon, after our final class of the day, I was on my way to Mr. Roe’s office. It was time for my own weekly visit to the school therapist, which was supposed to continue for at least for a couple of months. The school staff wanted to make sure that I was getting past what happened back home (or at least, what they knew of it). Sean and Columbus were walking alongside me. Vulcan, of course, was trotting a little bit ahead of us, his mechanical head twisting eagerly this way and that.

“How’s she doing?” I asked the dark-skinned boy, glancing toward him.

Columbus’s response was a long, heavy sigh. “I don’t know. She said she was just tired. I know she’s not sleeping much, but she won’t talk about what’s wrong. I… I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to sit her down and make her talk to me, but I’m afraid that’ll just make her clam up more. But it’s obvious that this isn’t working, so…” Gesturing vaguely, he shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know.”

Biting my lip, I offered, “Maybe try making it clear that you’re not going to just let it go, but let her tell it on her own time? Be there for her, show her that you’re there and you’re not leaving, but you’re also going to let her talk when she’s ready to. Try just… doing other things with her. Spend time with her. Be around her. Show her that she’s not alone without outright demanding answers. I mean, maybe that’s the wrong advice, I’m not an expert. But you know, it’s the best I can think of.”

Sean agreed, and the three of us continued on for a few minutes before the other boy changed the subject. “So I think it’s safe to say that Deveron’s roommate doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s up with him,” Sean reported, keeping his voice low as we passed by a couple of senior students in the hall.

I glanced sidelong toward him. “I take it you gave him a, ahh, thorough interrogation?” Try as I might, I couldn’t help the little smirk that came along with the words. Which, of course, was followed by a blush as my brain caught up with what I was implying and transferred the mental image back to me.

From the look on Sean’s face, he knew exactly what I was thinking and winked back at me as we continued to walk. “Let’s just say, if he knew something, he would’ve shared. Well, okay, he did know some stuff, but nothing useful. Just that Deveron’s different this year. Lazy. Stuff we already knew. Apparently he’s put in for a roommate transfer, but they keep refusing. So yeah, not a happy guy.”

“You think Deveron knows something about who your brother and sister are?” Columbus asked.

I shrugged at the boy, feeling helpless. “I dunno. Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell us.”

Sean just blinked at me a bit blankly. “Won’t tell us what—oh god damn it, are you talking about the security room stuff again?” He demanded, looking toward Columbus and then back to me.

Yeah, that had been fun to figure out. Since Sean and Avalon hadn’t been in the security room with us when we read those files, we weren’t able to actually talk about anything that was in them with the two of them. They weren’t protected from the secret-keeping magic, or whatever it was called. So when we talked about it, their brains just… skipped over it or something. We’d managed to be vague enough to explain what was going on, but any specifics were out of the question. We’d tried writing it down, and they just saw the paper or the screen as blank. We tried sign language, charades, none of it worked.

“Okay,” I announced. “I have a new plan. Let’s try this. Every twenty seconds, I’m going to say a word. You remember every word, then put them in order when we’re done. All right? First word, I.”

“Right, got it.” Sean nodded once easily. “First word is I. God, I hope this shit works. Avalon says she’s got some kind of plan for getting around this, but seriously, this magic secret stuff is getting old.”

We kept walking, as I counted down the seconds before speaking again. “Have. Second word.”

“I have, got it. Got that much.” Sean brightened a little more, clearly encouraged. “Closest so far.”

After another twenty seconds, and as we neared the school therapist’s office, I spoke again. “More. Third word.”

“More,” Sean repeated dutifully. “So far you’ve said ‘I have more’. Shit, this might actually work.”

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I counted down once more and glanced toward Columbus before speaking again. “One more word. Here it comes. Siblings. The last word is siblings.”

Sean met my gaze, started to nod automatically, then asked, “Okay, what is it?”

My heart sank. “Siblings. I just told you. The last word is siblings. Did you get it? Tell me you got it.”

“Get what?” Sean was shaking his head. “You’ve gotta tell me the last word before you can—wait, what was the first—okay, it was I… I have… wait, it was you have… wait, was the first word I?”

Columbus groaned out loud. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. As soon as the sentence is complete, not only do they not hear the last word, but they forget the part of the sentence they already knew? Damn it!”

“Something wrong, Columbus?” The question came from the doorway, as Klassin Roe poked his head out.

The therapist for Crossroads Academy looked… well, as far as I knew, he didn’t look like any therapist I’d ever seen or heard of. For one thing, he looked like he belonged to one of those 50’s greaser gangs. His black hair was always slicked back, he had those high cheekbones, and he actually wore a dark leather jacket along with jeans and a gray tee shirt. I’d seen a tattoo of a sword on his arm once, during our first discussion in his office.

Jumping a bit at the interruption, Columbus finally managed a shrug after a moment. “Nah, just talking about something else. Uhh, wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure do,” Klassin drawled in that simple, casual way he had. “I try to make it a point to know who all the new kids are. Makes it easier if they ever wanna come chat.”

“You mean all the new bystander-kin?” Columbus asked. “Shiori, she came to see you today, right?”

“She did,” the man confirmed without saying anything else about it. “But nah, I mean every student. Bystander-kin ain’t the only ones with problems. Anyone wants to chat without it being some formal thing, my office is open from six to eight on Tuesday and three to six on Sunday. I don’t make appointments then, so if you drop by and the door isn’t closed, feel free to come in and talk about anything that’s on your mind.”

To me, he gestured. “You wanna head on in? Oh, and grab that notebook off the chair there. Shiori left it. Figure Columbus here can take it back. You don’t mind, right?”

Columbus shook his head, and I moved into the simple office, stepping over to one of the padded armchairs. Sure enough, there was a small black notebook sitting there with a pen in the spiral binding, and Shiori’s name written in marker across the front in neat cursive.

As I picked up the notebook, a piece of loose paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I bent to grab it, and started to slip the paper back into the notebook while straightening up when the words on it caught my eye. Or rather, the word on it. There was only one word, and it was written several dozen times. Sometimes it was printed, other times it was in cursive. Sometimes the letters were small, other times they were large and bold. A couple of times there were underlines under the word. One of them had several circles drawn around it. Over and over again the word was written, all across the paper from every angle. Every inch of space on the page was taken up by the single word.

Except it wasn’t a word. It was a name. A single name.

Asenath.

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Basic Training 7-08

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In the end, it was Sands who spoke up first. “What are we doing in here?” She echoed the question while stepping forward. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl reached up to tug the masker off. Which was fair, since the fact that we were all holding our weapons made the disguises pointless. “You wanna know what we’re doing here? We’re looking for answers, that’s what. Answers about Deveron.”

Professor Kohaku’s eyebrows went up noticeably. Her eyes shifted fractionally toward the silent headmistress before she responded. “Exactly what questions regarding your team mentor did you believe you were going to find inside the security control room, if you wouldn’t mind elaborating?”

“He’s useless,” I put in while taking my own masker off and smoothing out my ponytail with one hand. “He’s a joke, and you guys know it. But you won’t take him off our team. We wanted to know why.”

Yes, my mother’s note had said to trust Gaia. But she hadn’t said a word about trusting Gaia, the security chief, two of her subordinates, the replacement Heretical Magic instructor, and the brand new Stranger Truths teacher. Now wasn’t the time to start confiding. Especially when we still had no idea who had sent those zombies after us.

Columbus, a little bit slower on the uptake, managed to get his own masker off while nodding emphatically. “Seriously, you want us to do all this dangerous stuff, which is hard enough with a real mentor who actually helps out, but with Deveron? You’ve gotta be kidding. He’s the worst mentor ever. Do you wanna know how many times he’s even worked with us outside of your official tests? Zero.”

For the first time, the headmistress spoke. Her voice was calm where Professor Kohaku’s had been suspicious. “Your dissatisfaction with Deveron Adams led you to sneak out of your dorms after hours so that you could break into the security control room? What did you hope to find in there, exactly?”

“The reason for why you won’t demote him or change our mentor,” Sands answered immediately.

I nodded along with Scout (who had already taken her own masker off when her sister had) and Columbus. “Yeah, maybe this was stupid, but what else could we do? Every time we complain about how he doesn’t work with us, it just gets ignored. We thought if we saw his security record, it might explain… why he’s acting this way, or at least why you want him to stay on as our mentor so much.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” one of the security guards muttered under his breath before falling silent as several pairs of eyes looked his way. Closing his mouth, he resorted to staring at us disbelievingly.

Nevada, who had stowed her massive chain-sword by that point and had returned the bracelet to her wrist, bounced up and down a little. “Aww, can you really be that mad at them? Three of them are in the investigation track! They’re supposed to be investigating things that don’t make sense. And you’ve gotta admit, training them to fight monsters and then leaving them with a crappy mentor doesn’t make sense. Are they just supposed to turn off that urge to find answers because it’s inconvenient for us?”

“You have a point,” Gaia conceded with a nod before turning her gaze to us. Her eyes were soft, the concern in her voice obvious. “Before we say anything else, are all of you all right? No one is hurt?”

“Tired,” I replied after glancing toward the others. “Sore. Dirty. But no, we’re not hurt.” The cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries from the zombies that had gotten hold of me were already clearing up.

The red-haired woman gave a soft smile of genuine relief. “Good. Your safety is more important than any wrong you might have done. Yes, you have violated the rules, but we have failed to maintain your safety the way we should have. That is our fault, one that has been repeated more than once this year. For that, and for the lack of a proper response to your ongoing mentor issues, I am very sorry.”

“The headmistress is correct,” Professor Kohaku agreed. “You were where you should not have been, but the fact that someone was able to summon zombies into the school to attack you is much worse. You could have been hurt or… worse.” Her expression darkened a little bit. “I promise you, we will find the person or people responsible for these attacks. But if you know anything about who they might be, we need you to tell us. We cannot do our jobs properly if the people we are trying to protect lie to us.”

Before I could say anything, Columbus spoke up. “Why were the zombies here?” When everyone’s attention turned to him, the boy went on. “I mean, everyone said that those other attacks were focused on Avalon. The peridles in the training room and those guys from Eden’s Garden, they were after her. But she’s obviously not here, so why were the zombies attacking us? Are there two different people or, you know, groups that can summon monsters past your security screens and all that?”

“You were not the target,” Professor Kohaku answered. “There were six other incursions of zombies throughout the grounds at the same time in addition to this one. We were attending to those areas, which is why it took time to get here. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Or someone wanted to make sure it’d take you awhile to get to us so they summoned a bunch of others to distract you while siccing a group on us,” I pointed out without taking my eyes off of Gaia.

It was Professor Carfried’s turn to finally speak up. The magic instructor had been silent up to that point, but now shook his head. “The method with which these creatures were summoned past the security screens is… without going into detail, complicated. It required a good deal of forethought and preparation, including carefully selecting the locations of the incursions far ahead of time. Hours would have been required, at least. If the zombies were meant to attack any of you directly, they would have appeared in your dorm buildings, not here where no one was supposed to be. As Risa said, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever did this was likely attempting to test our security responses and see how many creatures they could push through our defenses at once.”

“Unfortunately for them,” Gaia spoke again, “they have shown their hand. Our security enchantments will be updated and we will strive to ensure this does not happen again. That, however, does not excuse the fact that the four of you were in real danger due to our failure, both in maintaining your safety and in providing adequate response to your mentor situation. You never should have been put in a position where you believed that this sort of behavior was the only way to properly protect yourselves.”

Professor Kohaku was nodding before she spoke. “However, that does not excuse your actions entirely. You could have come directly to one of us and made your position clear. You could have gone through several other avenues to voice your concern that did not involve this level of rule breaking. We failed to keep you safe, but at least part of that responsibility falls to you as well for being where you should not have been. We have failed, but you have compounded that failure through your own actions.”

The urge to speak up was almost irresistible, but I pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time to argue. Especially since most of the things I wanted to say weren’t things that should be blurted out in public.

“For being out of your dorms after hours,” the security head continued, “I believe the standard punishment is two weeks of Saturday detention. For extenuating circumstances, one week is probably sufficient. For breaking into the main building, I believe the last offender received one month of Saturday detention. Again, we will halve that for your reasoning which, while not perfect, does provide you with some excuse. Three weeks of detention. Does that sound fair, Headmistress?”

Gaia nodded. “You cannot simply be left without punishment. The rules exist for a reason, and if they are not enforced, others will believe that going around them is in their best interest. We are here to help you, to educate you, and to protect you. But we can’t do that if our students continue to go around us.”

“Then you will all come to the security office at nine in the morning for the next three Saturdays,” Professor Kohaku informed us. “From there you will be assigned your jobs for the rest of that day.”

Obviously we weren’t going to get a better deal than that, so the four of us mumbled our acknowledgment. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly, what amounted to three days of detention wasn’t bad. It did, however, remind me of just how different this school was than any others I knew from the Bystander world. They were so accustomed to having students fight for their lives, kill, and generally be involved with violence that being attacked by zombies in the hallway barely seemed to faze them.

“With that in mind,” Gaia interrupted my thoughts. “We will take your concern about Deveron into advisement. If he is not performing his job properly, then you deserve a mentor who will.”

Well, at least some good had come out of this whole situation, if it would get us a real mentor.

“I’ll take them back to their dorms,” Nevada cut in, still smiling broadly. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do, Headmistress, Professor.” She nodded to each of the other women in turn. “I’ll take the maskers back too. Might as well get them back to the lab before any of them get… lost again.”

“Indeed,” Professor Carfried agreed. “You take the girls, I’ll make sure Columbus makes it back to his room.”

“Oh,” Professor Kohaku added as we were starting out. “Flick, Columbus, when you get back to your roommates, tell them that they can join you in detention. We wouldn’t want them to feel left out.”

******

“So it could’ve been worse,” I finished giving Avalon my summary of what had happened a short while later. The two of us were alone in our room, though I hadn’t sat down yet. I wasn’t going to until I had a chance to take a long, thoroughly hot shower to get every trace of zombie stuff off me. “I think your mom’s hands were pretty tied. I mean, with all those other people there, she couldn’t just let us off.”

“We broke the rules,” Avalon acknowledged flatly. “She has to maintain her authority or the Committee will find out about it. Believe me, the last thing you want is to give Ruthers an excuse to shove more of his own stooges in here. I’ve heard about how it was before Gaia took over. You… wouldn’t like it.”

“Oh!” I flinched at a sudden realization. “Damn it, we probably should’ve mentioned that our communications were blocked right when the zombies appeared. I was trying to keep you and Sean out of it. Which was obviously pointless, but we should’ve told them that the pins stopped working.”

“That’s probably relevant information,” the other girl agreed. Her expression softened slightly then more than I was accustomed to seeing from Avalon. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you. I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought someone would actually summon zombies on top of you.”

“Hey,” I shrugged, trying to maintain a casual air. “We killed them pretty good. If you were there, we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to do anything. You would’ve been all, ‘yow chop suey fwapow!’” I mimed a few goofy karate chops. “While the rest of us just stood there basking in your awesome.”

Rolling her eyes, Avalon turned back to the bed. By that point, I knew her well enough to realize that she was using the movement as an excuse to hide her blush until she had her expression under control again. “Take your shower, Chambers. And get some sleep. Even you must need it after all that.”

Grabbing my phone off the desk, I nodded. “I’ll call the security office too. Might as well tell them what happened with the pins. Maybe it’ll help them figure out how assface summoned those monsters.”

Avalon turned back to me, hand on the controls for her privacy screen. “I’m glad you’re all right, Chambers. You’re not the worst roommate I could’ve been assigned.”

“Aww,” I held my arms open wide, beckoning with my hands. “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. Come on, bring it in. Have a zombie-gunk covered hug, you know you want one.”

To my surprise, Avalon took a step toward me, then another. She crossed the room slowly, never breaking eye contact. As she approached, I felt my own heartbeat start to pick up as heat spread over my skin. She was getting closer with each step, staring directly into my eyes the whole time. My teasing voice faltered, and I felt tongue-tied. Further words died in my throat while my arms remained raised and open mostly because I was too distracted to lower them. My mouth felt dry.

Coming straight up to me, Avalon stopped so close I could smell the peach shampoo that she used in her luxurious hair. She stood there, directly in front of me, and cocked her head to the side a little while regarding me with what looked like a curious expression. “You want me to hug you, Chambers?” Her voice was soft, the tone sending a little thrill through me in spite of myself.

My mouth opened and then shut, words failing me entirely. I saw the slight smile, barely noticeable, appear at the edges of Avalon’s mouth as she lifted a finger very gradually. My eyes followed the finger as she raised it… to push against my forehead. Her tone turned abruptly casual, dropping the… whatever she had been doing with her voice a moment earlier. “Too bad you’re covered in zombie guts.” Winking, she stepped back. “Go take your shower. Some of us actually need a full night’s sleep.”

Feeling like a bucket of cold water had been tossed in my face, I stared as she walked back to her side of the room and flicked on the privacy screen, disappearing into the resulting darkness.

Physically shaking myself, I picked out my bed clothes and walked into the hallway while dialing the number for the security office. I’d memorized it after getting back from my house, considering how much help that would have been while everything with Ammon had been going on.

By the time I reached the showers, Professor Kohaku had answered and took the information about the pins. I had the feeling she was restraining herself from dressing me down for not saying anything earlier, but in the end she promised that they would look into it and thanked me for the information. Then she reminded me to show up for detention on time and not to get into any more trouble before hanging up.

Which left me standing alone in the shower room, thinking about how crazy my life had become in the past couple of months that something like a zombie attack seemed so relatively normal. It was practically just another day at Crossroads Academy, a place where you could have legitimate debates about whether nearly being killed by monsters was a targeted attack or just bad luck.

And then there was my roommate. As I raised my hand toward the shower to turn on the hot water, my thoughts went back to what had happened in the room a couple minutes earlier, and I felt another flush cross over my face. Swallowing hard, I moved my hand from away from the H-labeled knob to its C-labeled neighbor.

I’d take a cold shower first.

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Basic Training 7-07

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A couple of months earlier, I’d thought that the size of the corridors in this school was excessive. As I’d seen it through that portal doorway in the middle of that mostly empty field, a hallway large enough to drive the bus I’d been stranded with through it had seemed totally extravagant. Now I was finding myself wishing that the hallway was even bigger. Preferably the size of an airplane hangar if it meant keeping these things away from us even longer. Bonus if the airplane itself was included.

We’d learned in Nevada’s class that despite the titular ‘slow zombies’ generally being, well, slow, they could still move quickly in very short bursts. They’d shamble gradually toward their targets, then lunge and sprint forward the last couple of yards to take their prey by surprise with the sudden speed.

And the nearest one to us was within that couple of yards. With a sudden screeching noise that came from somewhere in the back of his throat, the upright corpse abruptly flung himself toward me.

In mid-leap, however, a blast of silver-blue concussive energy shot over my shoulder and plowed into the zombie. It was sent hurtling backward down the hall, crashing into the nearest of its companions.

“Thanks!” I called to Columbus while pulling my staff the rest of the way out of its case. Behind me, I could hear Sands free her mace while my finger found the button to start charging the staff’s kinetic energy. “Avalon, Sean, we need help. There’s—hello? Avalon, are you there? Sean, hell—crap.”

There was no response, and the rest of the zombies were approaching. Hearing a thud, I chanced a quick glance back and found that the hallway behind us was covered in a wooden wall, courtesy of Sands’ mace. The girl herself was quickly making a second wall while the zombies pounded at the first.

Scout, meanwhile, had her rifle out and was pointing it toward the ceiling. She pulled the trigger, and the bullet leapt from the gun. Rather than hit the ceiling, however, it vanished and I heard the loud squelch of a zombie on the other side of the wall getting their head blown in. Obviously, the quiet girl had managed to set one of her bullet portals on the other side of the wall before Sands put it up. Now she could shoot at a portal on this side and hit the monsters on the other without exposing herself.

By that point, the nearest of the zombies on this side had come back within leaping range. I glanced toward Columbus and the two of us nodded at each other before moving to meet them. Two months ago I would have frozen in terror at the sight of this. Now, after such a short time, I launched myself forward into a leap that turned into a dive to carry myself beneath the flailing arms of the nearest zombie. An instant later, while it was still turning to try to grab me, Columbus caught it with a blast.

Hitting the floor, I rolled and came to my feet, swinging my staff in a wide arc while triggering the kinetic charge that it had been building. The wide-angle wave of force crashed into the approaching figures. It wasn’t enough to knock them all the way to the floor, but the force did make them all stumble and lose their footing. I used that time to close the distance to the nearest zombie and spun myself around into a wide swing to build up momentum while simultaneously charging up the weapon again.

Generally speaking, attacking the traditional zombie with a blunt weapon is a pretty bad idea, unless you happen to be strong enough to pulverize the head in a swing or two. Being a girl of ordinary physical strength (though in much better shape than I had been at the start of the year, to be fair), me hitting a zombie with a normal staff would have been about as effective as throwing marbles at the Empire State Building in order to knock it over. Thankfully, my staff wasn’t normal. As I came out of the spin, an instant before the weapon connected with the undead monster’s head, I released the charge on the staff. It collided with the zombie with so much force that the head exploded like a watermelon being hit by Gallagher. Blood, bits of skull, and… other stuff went spraying in every direction. Some even splattered across my face even as I was turning my head away, which, god damn it, eww.

On the plus side, at least I wasn’t distracted in the midst of battle by another unbelievable rush of pleasure when I blew that walking corpse’s head off. As we’d learned in Nevada’s class, killing one of the first two types of zombie (the ones like these who were brought back by magic after their death and were generally slow, or the ones that were prepared before their deaths and were generally fast) didn’t transfer any kind of power upgrade to a Heretic. Because the actual power came from the person who raised and controlled them. They were just mindless tools following magical commands. Strangely, they did still give off that mind-clouding Stranger fog, which was a subject I wanted to look into at some future point when a bunch of the damn things weren’t right in the middle of trying to eat me.

So the minus side was that killing these things wasn’t going to make us any stronger. The plus side was that I wasn’t going to end up being that… distracted right in the middle of a horde of monsters.

Another blast from Columbus caught the legs of the next zombie, knocking them out from under it. As the thing fell to the floor, I brought my staff down as hard as possible on its exposed head, triggering another kinetic burst that popped the damn thing like a giant zit. Gross. Just… seriously gross.

Two were down, and Columbus had managed to knock back another one that tried to lunge forward while I was bent over with my staff buried in the collapsed skull of the second. But that was nothing. Lifting my gaze, I saw at least a dozen others and probably more than that. And that was just the ones coming from this direction. Behind us, Sands was working to keep the wooden walls up while Scout fired again and again. Yet they both had to keep backpedaling, because the zombies were breaking through every barrier Sands put up. It was a gradual retreat, but these things were strong enough to punch and claw their way right through those wooden walls within a few seconds of them going up. I could hear them on the other side of the barrier, pounding and tearing violently at the wood.

“I’m fine, help the twins!” I called over my shoulder to Columbus. “Make the horde back off long enough for Sands to find something stronger to make a barrier out of. Buy them some time to think!”

With that said (and hoping that I wouldn’t regret sending away the person watching my back), I pointed my staff behind me and used a burst from it to launch myself up into the air and over the heads of the approaching zombies on this side. The staff-aided leap carried me right into the space between the ones that were already up in this hall and the ones that were still eagerly climbing the stairs to get at us.

As I landed there with my staff already charging up again, I looked to the left at the stair-climbing zombies, then to the right at the ones that were shuffling and turning to face me once more now that I was behind them. “You guys really wanna play, huh?” I asked flatly. “All right then, let’s play.”

Spinning to the stairs, I shoved my staff down, quickly depositing two kinetic mines on the top step. Then I spun back the other way just as the nearest of the zombies that were already up here reached me, swinging out with his hands. The bottom of my staff came up to smack his incoming arms out of the way. While it spent a couple seconds charging up, I did a quick lunge-turn to put myself beside the flailing zombie rather than directly in front of it. Another groping zombie was there, but the front of my staff came up and around with my turn to hit the thing across the face hard enough that it stumbled.

The one behind me was turning back, another one behind the one that I’d just smacked was lunging past his stumbling companion, and two more were coming around his other side. All of them lunged for me.

Swinging backwards with my staff, I felt the blunt end collide with the eye of the creature behind me. As soon as it connected, I triggered the charge. The kinetic force exploded through that end and into the zombie’s eye as if it had been struck point blank by a shotgun. But I wasn’t done. Without slowing down, I set the staff to charge again before lashing out with it. The staff hooked around the back of the stumbling zombie’s neck, and I gave a hard jerk. He was yanked forward and down, throwing himself into the path of the two that were coming in from the side. The three zombies were tangled up with each other. Meanwhile, the remaining one that had been coming in went right up and over the other three, mouth open while he let out a wild moan, mindlessly intent on eating me. Not just my brain, but all of me. These kind of zombies were essentially undead cannibals. According to Nevada, certain ancient necromancers had used them as garbage disposals for corpses, easy ways to simultaneously get rid of all those pesky dead bodies without having to bury them, and provide food for their troops. It was win-win. Every person they killed either became food for their army, or part of the army itself. Apparently the most successful necromancers weren’t necessarily always the most powerful, but the ones who most effectively managed the whole ‘army-food’ balance properly. Most tended to get carried away with making their horde as large as possible, and forgot that they needed to actually feed the resulting army with some of those corpses that they were turning into more soldiers. And a zombie horde that wasn’t fed properly quickly turned into an uncontrolled zombie horde that attacked everyone in sight, even each other. More necromancer armies were taken apart by their own starving forces turning on one another for nourishment than any great army of light and good or whatever.

All of that went through my head in a quick rush while the leaping zombie came at me, a vision that would have terrified me into complete inaction not that long earlier. Now, however, I just sidestepped the mindlesssly flailing monster and smacked his grasping arm away before turning myself in a kick that put my foot against the back of the thing’s knee. He was strong and didn’t feel pain, but the human body was still the human body, and the kick knocked his leg out from under him. He fell into the pile.

In the background, I heard both of my planted mines go off as the zombies on the stairs reached them. At the same time, I raised the staff above my head and brought it down into the pile of fallen figures that were still trying to extricate themselves from each other. As the weapon came down, I triggered the charge that had been building. The staff struck the nearest head and the kinetic force went off like a bomb, propelling the weapon down through the rest of them as easily as a spoon going through ice cream. Which was a mental image and connection that I really, really wished my brain hadn’t made.

Extricating myself from the pile of corpses, I quickly planted three more bombs along the top of the stairs that time. Unfortunately, before I could turn back around, a hand grabbed my arm and nearly yanked it out of socket as the nearest zombie hauled me toward him. I felt his fingers claw into my skin hard enough to draw blood (and thanked every conceivable deity in every conceivable existence that real zombies didn’t ‘transfer’ their condition to people the way the movies portrayed it, real zombies had to be specifically created) before I was yanked off my feet and toward his wide open mouth. He was intent on getting those teeth around my exposed throat so that he could bite and tear through it.

I made him eat my staff instead. Rather than panic, I shoved the weapon into that open mouth. The force knocked him back a bit, and I started charging it up while taking a few running steps. My own momentum shoved the choking zombie backwards and into the one behind him. Just as they collided, the staff had charged enough to go off again. I triggered it while still shoving, and the resulting blast took off not only the head of my attacker, but the one I’d shoved him backwards into as well.

From there, I was right in the middle of the rush of them. I stopped thinking and just reacted. A hand reached for my face and I smacked it aside. Another hand raked sharp claws down my back, sending a spasm of pain through me and I ignored it while putting my staff into the stomach of the offender to double him over, then spun into a wide swing while setting off my charged weapon to take off his head. A face came into view and I smacked it once, twice, three times to drive the mindless creature back while desperately flinging myself out of range of another corpse that tried to latch onto my leg.

Every target I saw, I attacked. Here a face, there a hand, a stomach, a throat. I swung over and over again, triggering the kinetic burst from the staff every time it was ready. More and more gore surrounded and covered me while I was fighting. I was at war, and my enemies were everything I could see. Even then, I took damage. I got hurt. They clawed and scraped at me from all sides, and I couldn’t turn or attack fast enough to keep all of them off me. It was all I could do to keep myself vaguely upright as more and more of them kept coming. Every one I killed seemed to be replaced by two more. Everything I’d learned from Katarin, everything that Avalon had taught me beyond that, all that we’d practiced these past months was on full display in a way that I’d never previously managed in training. I was a whirling dervish of death that literally exploded her enemies into little gooey bits every few seconds, and yet it wasn’t enough. I was going to collapse under the sheer weight of their numbers.

Then, just as I was on the breaking point, bleeding from several open wounds that hadn’t yet had a chance to heal, the head of the zombie nearest to me exploded into a fine mist right on the heels of a gunshot. A second later, a mace crashed into the face of the next zombie, just before a beam of concussive energy plowed into two more of them, clearing out a little space. A hand caught my arm, this time belonging to my friends, and yanked me away from the pile of corpses. Columbus pulled me clear, then fired another wide-angle shot into the monsters while calling out, “Need some help?”

I chanced a look back the other way. Sands had used the time to construct another wall. This one was made of some kind of metal that was apparently enough to slow the zombies on that side much more than the wood had. She’d also added some kind of bracer support system to hold it steady against their attacks.

Another shot from Scout exploded the head of the next zombie, and Sands had put herself where I had been. Her mace couldn’t charge up kinetic force and blow them apart the way my weapon could, but the spikes on it meant she could actually do more damage on each normal blow than I’d been able to.

Working together, the four of us cleared out the zombies on this side. Now that I had help, we could herd the ones on the stairs up a bit at a time, use mines to choke off the top of the stairs once more each time a small group had made it up, then deal with those ones before the next group made it. Every time we had a big enough collection of zombies to fight, I simply put more mines down to slow the rest of the group. Slowly, yet inevitably, we took them down.

Unfortunately, by the time we managed that, even I was tired and panting. All of us were doubled over to catch our breath when the barrier that Sands had created simply vanished.

Right. Her walls were temporary. Shit. We were… well, kind of screwed. There were just as many zombies on that side of the wall as had been on this side, and they were coming at us all at the same time. Plus there was the fact that we were exhausted.

“Fuck it,” Sands muttered beside me before readying herself. Her voice betrayed her exhaustion, yet she still shouted, “Come on then, you stupid bastards! Come get me!”

They didn’t have a chance. Before the zombies could take more than a single step closer, a new voice spoke up from behind us. “Oh, Mister Zombies! Excuse me.”

Nevada. She was standing at the top of the stairs, wearing a curious expression along with a pair of pink hotpants and a white shirt with a purple bunny on the front with the word ‘YAY’ written under it in bright glitter. She was also barefoot.

“Yeah, hi there!” She waved at the horde of monsters, smiling perkily. “Here’s the thing. Those are my students you’re trying to eat.” As cheerfully as ever, she asked, “Do ya wanna know why that’s a bad idea?” Abruptly, the cheerful smile dropped and her voice was hard. “Lemme show you.”

She moved so fast in the next instant that she almost seemed to teleport. I could barely track her motion as she closed the distance between herself and the nearest zombie in a single second. Her fist lashed out, punching straight through the monster’s head like it was tissue paper. I’d seen that kind of speed and strength not long before, when I met Asenath.

That was just the start of it. With her left fist still buried in the remains of the collapsing zombie’s skull, Nevada pointed with her right hand. A half dozen small flickering flames appeared in midair before shooting straight at six respective zombies. As each tiny, candle-sized flame connected with its target, they were literally engulfed with fire, going up in a miniature explosion that left nothing but ash behind. Seven zombies were dead, and roughly four seconds had passed. And she hadn’t even drawn her weapon.

Things just got worse for the zombies from there, because Nevada finally did take out her weapon. Her hand moved to the silver bracelet that she wore on her left wrist, and she tugged it off before tossing the thing beside her. As it fell, the bracelet expanded and transformed into a tall metal crate that had a bunch of odds and ends sticking out of it. An entire supply closet worth of equipment, and she had been wearing it on her wrist.

Her hand dipped into the crate while the remaining zombies shambled that way, too stupid to know when they should retreat. And a second later, the perky blonde retrieved what she had been looking for: a massive sword that was so enormous it would have made one of those Japanese RPG characters cry with envy. The blade on its own was almost as tall as the woman herself, and was wide enough to use as a shield.

But it wasn’t even just a normal (if enormous) sword. Rather than a simple blade, the weapon had jagged edges all along its edge. And as Nevada’s hand tightened around the hilt, those jagged teeth began to move, rotating around and around along the massive weapon. It was a giant, ludicrously sized great sword that had been crossed with a literal chainsaw.

“Okay, boys.” Nevada flipped the sword around in a single hand like she was twirling a simple baton. “Now we can dance.”

With the chainsaw-sword combined with a vampire’s speed and strength, the zombies stood literally no chance. Nevada went through them like a wheat thresher. A half dozen more were dead and on the ground by the time they actually started to react. She was a blur of motion, graceful and perfect. Exhausted as I was, all I could do was stand there with the rest of the group and stare at the sight.

“Is it wrong that I’m kind of aroused right now?” Columbus asked in an awed voice.

“If it is, we’re both in reaaaaally deep trouble,” I replied without thinking.

That made the other three turn to look at me, and I realized what I’d said just as Nevada took the head off the last of the zombies, saving me from having to say anything else.

She faced us then, standing over the carnage. “Well then! I guess they get the point now. You guys okay?”

“Ummm…” It took me a few seconds to find my voice, blushing in spite of myself. “Uhh, y-yes…”

Nevada was staring at us. “Thank gods. But what were you doing up here anyway? Why weren’t you in your dorms?”

“Yes,” another voice spoke, and we turned to find Professor Kohaku standing there, along with two of her security personnel, the headmistress, and Professor Carfried.

“I believe we’d all like to know the answer to that.”

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Basic Training 7-04

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“Could I ask you a few questions, Pro—errr, umm, Nevada?”

It was a couple hours later. After our cross-country field trip (and how amazing would it be if every school could just walk through a door and end up on whole new continent for an hourly field trip like it was nothing?), we’d gone on through Introduction to Heretical Magic and Stranger Truths 101. Now that class was over, but I’d told the others to go on to lunch without me while I talked to the teacher.

Nevada, looking as bubbly as ever, perked up even more. “A question? Oooh, I do love answering questions!” She stood from the desk, looking like she could barely restrain the urge to clap. Instead, the woman (who still looked like she was barely older than me), asked, “What can I do for you, Flick?”

I’d spent most of the class hour rehearsing what I wanted to ask her and in what order. “Professor Ross took us to ‘s-Hertogenbosch.” I was careful to pronounce the name of the city the way the teacher had.

Nevada’s thousand watt smile brightened even further at that. “Oh! I bet that was fun and interesting. I remember my first time there. Did you get a chance to have one of the Bossche bollen?” When I shook my head, she gasped. “No? Aww, you have to go back and get one. They’re these chocolate pastry balls with whipped cream inside. Seriously, Flick, they’re almost as big as a baseball. You’ve gotta try them.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before pressing on. “But why do they leave that rope just sitting there? I mean, why do they leave the hangman demon’s rope hanging from that tree like that? It seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it?” I had other questions, but the feeling that rope had given me made it the first on my mind. And I wanted to work my way up to the others after seeing how she reacted to this.

Nevada paused, a slight flinch marring that perfectly cheerful expression for a split second before she let out a long breath. “You wanna know why that rope is still there, huh? Well, because it’s cursed.”

“Cursed?” I echoed, frowning in spite of myself. “What do you mean, cursed? Like an enchantment?”

She cocked her head to the side a bit, considering. “A little, only this one’s permanent. You see—okay, we don’t have time for a full lesson, so I’ll give you the… what do bystanders call it, Clifford’s Notes?”

“Cliff’s notes,” I replied. “Close enough. Thank you, Pro—Nevada, I just really need to know.”

“Aww, darn.” Nevada shook her head slowly. “I thought it was Clifford’s notes and I liked picturing that big red dog telling short versions of all these books.” She gave a brief wistful sigh before shaking it off as she continued. “Okay, so here’s the short truth. The hangman demon is a sub-group of what we call Reapers. You know, as in the Grim? Reapers are these demons that are attracted to death. Like, super-attracted, they basically feed off of death. Most people think they actually absorb part of the dead person’s… soul or essence or whatever. They take in their memories, their past, their whole lives and add all those thoughts to their own collection. They’re like hoarders who collect people’s memories.”

I couldn’t help the slight shudder that came. “So what’s the difference between them and Hangmen?”

Nevada hesitated, drumming her fingers a little before she finally answered me. “The difference is that Reapers are willing to wait. They go where death happens to be and feeding when opportunity presents itself. Hangmen actually make those opportunities happen. See, the way the story goes, it started in Britain back in the fifth century, when the Germanic tribes introduced hanging to them. There was a public execution, and a man tried to stop it from happening. He was killed on the spot, and his death attracted a Reaper, who was feeding off of his, you know, memories while the actual execution happened. According to the story, the combination of seeing bystanders execute a healthy human being and absorbing the already dead man’s memories of, you know, how unjust and wrong that was actually changed the Reaper. It made him understand that he didn’t have to wait for death to happen.

“So the demon took the rope of the man who had been executed and used it to murder the executioner and three others. For the first time, the reaper made his own food. He became the first Hangman. And from there, he made more of it. He went from place to place recreating what had led to his change. Whether it was a personal choice or one magically enforced because of the exact situation that led to his change from Reaper to Hangman, well, people still debate that. But what we know is that he killed a lot of people, and every time he killed someone, that rope of his took in some of the… energy of their deaths, the same way the Hangman himself did. With every death, the rope grew more powerful. And as the Reaper introduced more of his own to these changes and more became Hangmen, they too took the ropes of the execution that they first witnessed and used them as their preferred tools of death.”

I swallowed hard in spite of myself. “Are other Strangers like that? Do they change because of things that humanity does, or concepts that humans introduce them to? Is that a common thing?”

“More common than you’d think,” Nevada admitted before sighing. “Anyway, to the point of your question, a Hangman’s rope is cursed. Anyone who takes it is infused with a completely irresistible urge to kill, to murder everyone they can in order to give the rope more power. No one can resist it.”

I almost exploded at that, “So why the hell is it just sitting out in the middle of nowhere tied to a tree?!”

Rather than chastise me for the outburst, Nevada replied simply, “Because we can’t move it, Flick. Like I said, anyone who takes it becomes a vicious murderer. That includes any method of transportation. Any attempt to move it makes the rope consider that person its new owner, and the urge to kill overwhelms them. Do you want someone like the Headmistress to risk moving it? As powerful as she is, if she was taken over by the rope’s murderous energy, how many of us would it take to stop her? How many of her own students would she kill to appease its hunger? It’s not worth the risk. So Bosch and the old Heretics did the best they could. They erected a magical barrier around the whole area that keeps Bystanders from noticing the rope, and prevents them from building up the land. You might’ve noticed that that whole area is still undeveloped. That’s because of the magic that makes them ignore it. Beyond that, there are the same enchantments around the rope itself that are around the Pathmaker building. So anyone approaching it anyway, like a student who can see through the first spell, or a Heretic that completely loses their mind, shouldn’t make it more than a few steps toward it. And if they do, there are at least two more lines of magic protecting the rope that I won’t detail to you right now.

“No one can move the rope without being seen as its new master and thus end up a murderous psychopath. So they did the best they could by making sure that no one could get close enough to take it.”

I almost asked her about the feeling I’d had, the sensation that had come over me when I looked at the rope back in that grove. But no one else had said anything about it. Avalon had even said that she hadn’t felt anything when she looked at it. Which meant that whatever the feeling was, it wasn’t normal.

“What about Stranger breeding?” I forced myself to change the subject, even as the very thought of the rope made me want to continue talking about it, almost like a compulsion. It took effort to push on to a different subject. “One time Sands said that one of the reasons people hate Eden’s Garden here is that they supposedly experiment in Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments. Why would you need to experiment? I mean, we’re practically Strangers ourselves, aren’t we? The Edge changes our genetics so that we can see Strangers, so that we can absorb their powers, so we can… do everything we do. Why wouldn’t we be able to procreate with certain Strangers anyway, at that point?”

Nevada winced once more, her bubbly expression dampened a bit. “Careful, Flick. Some people are really sensitive about that line of thought. They say that we use the demon magic, but we’re not overtaken by it. The idea that we’re so far not human that a Stranger could breed with us is a… a very harsh topic. There’s dangerous people on both sides of that debate. But the gist of the argument isn’t that breeding a Stranger and a Heretic is impossible, it’s that the offspring won’t be viable. The problem isn’t making an actual genetic match, it’s that, according to one side, any offspring will die shortly after being born. The experiments that Eden’s Garden gets into are to make those offspring live after birth.”

I thought about Ammon, about how dangerous he was, and couldn’t help the little shiver that came. But before I could say anything else, there was a short knock at the door and Professor Carfried poked his head in. “Hey, I was wondering if you had a chance to—oooh, sorry, am I interrupting something?”

Realizing that any other questions I had would have to wait, I shook my head. “No, sir. I should probably get to lunch anyway.” To Nevada, I managed a weak smile. “Thanks, that’s… helpful.”

“Of course, Flick,” she replied. “Let me know if you have any other questions, okay?”

Nodding slowly, I made my way past Professor Carfried and out the door. I had a couple of answers now, though not nearly enough to really do anything with. And I still had no idea why the rope had given me the feeling it had when nobody else had experienced it. Questions were still piling up.

And if I wanted to start really answering them, I needed to get busy.

******

Later that same night, I was making the first step of that effort by standing outside of the twins’ room about an hour before the three of us were supposed to report to track training (I’d missed the last one for my birthday visit). Forcing my nerves down, I raised a hand to knock on the door.

Scout was the one who opened the door. Her eyes flicked up to me and then the girl hesitated before nodding once. She stepped back out of the way a bit, gesturing for me to come into their room.

“Who is–” Sands started to ask before falling silent as I stepped into the room. She was sitting on her bed, looking at a box that was in her lap. When she saw me, the girl closed the lid of the box, setting it aside on the nearby dresser. “Oh, uhh, hi, Flick.” Her voice betrayed her own confused feelings.

“Hi,” I replied, pausing slightly before looking toward her sister. “Scout, umm, could I have a minute?” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock. “Herbie can keep you company.”

The quiet girl nodded quickly and shot her sister a brief glance before taking the little guy out of my hand as she stepped out to the hall. She closed the door after herself, leaving Sands and me alone in the suddenly very quiet room.

In the end, it was Sands who broke the silence. Without looking up, she asked, “Are you mad at me?”

The question made me blink. “Wha—mad? Why would—I was going to ask you the same thing.”

That actually made the girl look toward me. Her face was pensive. “I thought you’d be mad because you thought I didn’t care about saving your mother, that my—that I didn’t want to help.”

I was quiet for a moment, thinking that through before stepping over to sit down on the bed beside her. “I guess part of me did hope that you’d just… get over this reaction. But that’s not very fair, is it?”

Emotion twisted the girl’s face before she turned away again, shoulders hunching up. “They’re supposed to be monsters. Vicious, evil, irredeemable monsters. And we’re supposed to be heroes.”

Before I could say anything, she looked back to me. There were tears in her eyes. “You’re asking me to throw away everything I’ve been taught since I was born. You’re asking me to change… to change everything. I’ve been waiting for this year my whole life, Flick. Do you have any idea how many times I had to sit and watch everybody else get to learn this stuff? I grew up here, on this island, with these people. I watched class after class go through, all of them going on to do… amazing things. They went on quests, they saved people, they protected everyone. I just wanted that. I just wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s what I’m asking you to be, Sands.” My voice was soft as I met the girl’s gaze. “Because, as far as I know, being a hero isn’t about killing something because someone tells you it’s bad. It’s about doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is or how many people tell not to. It’s about saving someone, protecting someone, even if everyone you know says it’s wrong, because you know it’s right.”

Her gaze flickered a little, and I went on. “I’m not trying to tell you that every Stranger is good, or that everything you know is wrong. I’m telling you that the vampire I met was not evil. I’m telling you that if it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead, or worse. Without her, my father would be dead, or in prison. Without her, an awful lot of innocent people would have been killed by the deputies that Ammon took control of. She saved me, she saved my father, she saved Rose, and she saved all those people.

“I’m asking you to believe that evil is something we do, not something we are. If someone is evil just because they exist, then what’s the point? How can you judge someone or something that doesn’t have a choice? That’s not evil. That’s just… programming. Real evil requires having a choice. And even if ninety-five percent of them choose evil, that means there are five percent who don’t. Five percent that might be able to help. Five percent who wouldn’t hurt an innocent, who are innocent. Five percent for whom we are the monsters, Sands. Not heroes, not champions, monsters. We are the creatures under the bed that they scare their children with. Children who grow up hating us, who might not have if we gave them a chance. If we could find those five percent, help them, grow with them… well then it might actually turn into more than five percent.

“But for now, for now we’re killing all of them that we find. We are killing them, Sands. No trial, no jury, no chance to defend themselves. And that’s not heroic. That’s murder. And it’s wrong.”

Reaching out then, I took the girl’s limp hand and squeezed it with both of mine. “Listen. I want you to think about this. A human is altered by a Stranger’s blood and becomes a powerful being who can live for a very long time and gains strength by fighting others. Think about that and then tell me if I’m talking about vampires or heretics, Sands. Because I don’t see that much of a difference.

“What I want… is for you to believe that it’s possible for a Stranger to make a choice. Call it mutation, call it random, call it whatever you want. I just want you to… believe that the girl who saved my life and helped me save my father isn’t evil. Don’t look at what she is, look at what she does, what she did.

“I’m not asking you not to be a hero, Sands. I’m asking you to be a real one. Make the hard choice.”

My hands squeezed both of hers. “I need your help, Sands. I need my team. I refuse to be a victim. I will not just sit around and cry for a year until that son of a bitch comes after me again. I will train. I will work my ass off. I will be ready. Most of all, I will save my mother. But if I don’t have you guys… I… I won’t make it. A year isn’t enough time. I need you. Please. If I’m going to have any chance, I need help. I can’t do it by myself.”

For the first time, Sands actually returned the squeeze against my hands. She took a breath and let it out before looking up. I could still see the doubt in her eyes, but she gave a tiny little nod. “I’ll try. I’ll… think about what you said, I promise. All of it. I still think they’re mostly evil, but maybe there’s…” She trailed off before shrugging. “I dunno. But I’ll help you save your mom. Of course I will. We’re teammates. As long as you want to be, I… I’ll be there. I’ll help.”

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t known I was holding, I managed a weak smile. “Oh, good. Because you’re probably not going to like the first thing we need to do.”

“Less than I like everything else you’ve said?” Sands managed an even weaker smile to meet mine. “I find that pretty hard to believe.”

I gave a weak shrug at that. “Well, that depends on how you feel about sneaking around your own father.

“Because I’m pretty sure he’s the one who took my mother’s weapons.”

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