Professor Katarin

Rendezvous 30-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focused on Jophiel and Elisabet (with a lot of information about the Seosten in general) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“You what?” The words accompanied a sudden rush of movement as I was yanked up from the ground. Professor Katarin had me by both arms, holding up to his eye level. Which, considering how tall he was, left my feet dangling in open air. “Would you mind repeating that?” he rumbled, the eagerness in his voice making him sound almost more like a kid in a candy store than the giant drill sergeant-like combat instructor I knew him as.

It was later that same day, and I was taking the chance to talk to Katarin about what had happened, as well as try to get past that damn memory spell.

“Um.” Dangling there, I gave as much of a shrug as I could with my arms held like that. “It was really Columbus blasting her when he did. That was what really made the difference. I just…”

“You followed up,” the man finished for me. “You took the opening and didn’t let her get away. Say it, Chambers. Let me hear those words one more time.”

“I… killed Charmeine?” I managed, blushing a little. “But like I said, I–hhhrrrk.” That last bit was because the man was hugging me. Hugging me so tightly I couldn’t breathe for a second.

“You followed instructions!” he announced after finally relenting a bit. Holding me out in front of him once more, he beamed the same way my own father had the day I’d first managed to ride a bike without training wheels. “You didn’t let up, you saw an opening and you took it! You see? You see? Doesn’t matter how strong they are, you wait for the right opening, don’t hesitate, and…” He just smiled broadly and proudly.

“Like… like I said,” I mumbled self-consciously, “Columbus deserves most of the credit. So, make sure you talk to him as soon as we get back, okay?”

Finally setting me down on the deck of the cargo bay (we were on the far end from where the refugee Alter camp was, for some privacy), Professor Katarin winked. “Oh, believe me, I’ll make sure Porter gets all the accolades he deserves, if it hasn’t happened yet. But you keep that up. You see these openings, you go for them. Got it, Chambers?”

Biting my lip, I nodded before hesitantly asking, “I… I never really got to ask you what you thought of my… my mother.”

His expression softened then. “I… didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Joselyn, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t a teacher when she was a student. So I don’t have a lot of personal anecdotes or anything. What I can tell you is that, from everything I know, your mom’s an incredible woman. And I knew her parents. Or at least… I think I did.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I met her father, Joshua, before the Fomorians were kicked off Earth. And I’m pretty sure I met her mother too, but…”

“The censor spell thing,” I finished for him. “The one that erased my grandmother from everyone’s memory?”

He nodded. “Kind of makes everything fuzzy. I’m almost positive that we met. I think she was one of the people who saved me. But…” His head shook. “Sorry. It’s just not there.”

“It’s okay,” I replied. “But speaking of things being hard to remember…”

“Right.” Straightening up, Professor Katarin cracked his neck twice before nodding to me. “Disabled the possession defense a few minutes ago. Which, let me tell you, makes me feel really uncomfortable out here. So let’s get this done, huh?”

Yeah, we were going to try to bypass that memory-erasure spell that was stopping us from remembering what Katarin knew about Manakel’s host by having me possess him and look for the memory that way. He didn’t know about Tabbris (As much as I trusted him, I was still keeping her existence as secret as humanly possible), but she would be quietly helping too.  

“Yes, sir,” I replied quickly. “And um, I promise to be as quick as possible and… not to go rummaging too much. Thanks for trusting me with this.”

With that, I took the man’s hand and focused on possessing him. A moment later, I felt much taller and a lot stronger. Seeing through Professor Katarin’s eyes, I took a second to collect myself from the disorienting feeling.

“Chambers?” He spoke out loud. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, Professor,” the man’s voice spoke again, and I belatedly realized that I had made him reply out loud. “Err–”

Sorry, sir, I switched to internal conversation. You can think at me if you want. I mean, I can kind of hear your thoughts too, but you can make it a conversation if you just sort of purposefully think in my direction.

I’m going to think the identity of Manakel’s host to you, the big man’s voice came into my head. Ready? And…

I waited. Waited another moment. Then, out of pure desperate hope, I waited a little more. But in the end, all I could do was sigh. Well, that didn’t work. Um. Let me try looking for it myself. What were you doing when you found out?

Walking through the jungle, he replied. I thought that I saw….

You thought that you saw what? I–oh. I sighed inwardly. It won’t let me know who you thought you saw, because that’s the person that’s possessed. Great. This memory spell is seriously annoying, Professor.

We kept going like that for another twenty minutes, trying to come after it from every angle we could think of. We tried getting me to see his memory, and even tried having Professor Katarin think about every person it wasn’t so that I could fill in the blanks. It didn’t work. Even Tabbris couldn’t figure out how to get past it. The moment I had the idea of who it could be, the spell erased everything. Basically, Katarin would think every wrong name at me, and the second it was obvious who he wasn’t thinking about, every name he’d already thought at me would disappear. The spell would not allow us to get the name even indirectly.

It was, as I had already said, seriously annoying.

Finally, I stepped out of the man, shaking my head. “Sorry, Professor,” I mumbled.

“Not your fault,” he assured me, rolling his arms back and forth now that he had control of them once more. “And like we said, don’t count us out yet. Dries has some idea about breaking through it with help.

“Yeah…” I mumbled, glancing down while frowning. “I just hope it works.

“I really, really hope it works.”


“You really have no idea what this anti-possession thing that your wife put into her vault was?”

It was the next day, and I couldn’t quite keep the disappointment out of my voice as I stood next to Dries on the Liberty Bell, watching the Alter camp through the open hatch.

In the distance, I could see most of them sitting attentively in a large circle, watching Katarin as the man led them through some basic self-defense instructions. He’d basically jumped right back into teaching just like before. Not only was the man offering to help any of the Alters here learn how to protect themselves, he’d also insisted on having all of us students run through regular exercises and combat training as if we were still at Crossroads. Avalon would approve.

Dries gave a slight shake of his head at my question. The thin man’s voice was still rough and hoarse. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I think Liesje started her work after I was imprisoned.” As he spoke, the fingers of his left hand scratched at his beard while the fingers of his right hand rubbed his left wrist. Occasionally, he would bite his knuckles or look around suddenly.

Biting my lip, I hesitated before starting slowly, “I know this might be a little, um, forward, but–”

“–Why did I kill Hieronymus?” Dries finished for me. He was looking away, watching the Alters with Katarin. Rather than answer, he said, “They told me about you, about your mother and what she did. What she tried to do. They told me about the rebellion and everything that happened.”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I just watched the man silently, letting him go on at his own pace.

Eventually, he did, lowering his head a little to look at the floor while speaking quietly. “Liesje and… and I, we knew something was wrong with her father. We knew something was wrong with Hieronymus. Eventually, we found out he was–” Swallowing hard, Dries jerked a little, twitching to look over his shoulder as if he had heard something. He stared at the empty ship behind us for a long moment before continuing. “We found out he was possessed, that… that he wasn’t this genius inventor, that it was really a Seosten behind everything.

“Liesje, she confronted him. Tried to force the Seosten out of her father. It–” Again, he hesitated. This was clearly hard for him to remember, let alone talk about. “It didn’t go well. The Seosten would have killed her, would have killed her with her own father’s hand. I couldn’t–I didn’t have a choice. I had to save her. I had to save her, so I just- there was so much blood and–and I…”

Quickly, I shook my head. “It’s–it’s okay, you don’t have to go on. I get the picture. But why did they keep you alive after that? Larissa said that they found you imprisoned in a tower and had to go through all this stuff to break the spell that was holding you there. Why did the Seosten go through all that instead of just killing you, or possessing you for their war with the Fomorians?”

Twitching a little, the man responded, “They need me alive. Something… something they did to Hieronymus. I don’t know, still don’t know. Something they did to him that had to do with the Reaper, the one that gives Bosch Heretics their power. They did something to Hieronymus, and when I killed him, I inherited it. So they need me alive. I don’t… I don’t know more than that. Just that they need me alive, but don’t really care what condition I’m in. It’s been so long since they shut me up in that tower, I just… I don’t know.”

I blinked at that. Why would the Seosten need him alive? What could they have done to Hieronymus that had been passed to Dries when he killed the man? And why wouldn’t they just kill him in order to pass it on to someone else? Clearly, we were missing something important.

Do you know anything about what he’s talking about? I asked Tabbris curiously.

I could sense her confusion and uncertainty as she quickly replied, Nuh uh. Mama never mentioned anything about it. Maybe… maybe she didn’t know about it. Or maybe she just didn’t think that it would, you know, um, come up? She didn’t have time to tell me everything, I mean–

It’s okay, Tabbris, I assured her hurriedly. I know. The fact that she told you as much as she did is still really impressive. It’s okay if she couldn’t give you every answer. We’ll figure it out.

Deciding to change the subject then, I asked, “But you can really break the spell that’s stopping Professor Katarin from telling us who Manakel is possessing?”

His head gave a quick jerk of a nod. “Yes. We couldn’t before, because we didn’t have enough power. But with you… you students and all those people out there supplying power, we can do it. It’s uh, it’s not elegant, but I can break it. Just needed more power.”

“Right.” I nodded then. “Well, they’ve been collecting energy from volunteers ever since you guys arrived. Last I heard, they’ll be ready for it tomorrow.”

The man gave a little crooked smile then, the awkwardness of it making it obvious that it was not an expression he was accustomed to making. “Then tomorrow we will break the spell.”

A motion caught my eye then, and I looked out through the open hatch to see Professor Katarin waving me over. He already had the others with him, though Isaac was wrist deep in one of his drones. The boy had been obsessively working on them pretty much since we’d left the planet, and especially over the past day since Katarin, Dries, and Haiden had shown up. I had tried to get him to tell me what he was doing, but he insisted it was a surprise and that I would be, to quote, ‘so fucking surprised.’ Honestly, I just hoped he didn’t end up blowing himself up. Or us.

“Oh,” I started while straightening. “Looks like I’ve gotta go work with the others. Do you, uh…” I looked over to Dries, who was already shrinking back from the open hatch. No. He wouldn’t be coming out with me. The man did not do well around crowds. He was barely functional enough with just the few of us all together. Situations like this, where we were one-on-one, were better.

“Never mind,” I quickly put in, giving him a smile. “I’ll be back later. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Thank… thank you,” the man hesitantly spoke. “And… next time, maybe you could tell me a little bit more… about the girl.” His eyes raised to look at me, and I saw the shielded hope there.

“Avalon,” I murmured, nodding quickly. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you anything you wanna know.”

With that, I hopped through the open hatch and headed down the ramp to join the others. On the way, the hatch behind me closed, leaving Dries alone again.

Honestly, I really hoped that we could get the man back with us. Because I kind of had the feeling that he needed Avalon as much as, if not more than, she needed him. It seemed like they really could help each other through a lot of their issues. They both needed family.

All we had to do was get everyone back to Earth in one piece.


“Hey guys!” I called while stepping up onto the Liberty Bell the next day. As Isaac, Roxa, Jazz, and Professor Katarin looked up from where the man had been teaching the other two something about the ship, I waved. “They’ve got the stuff all ready to get rid of that spell.”

“Great,” Roxa announced, jumping to her feet before reaching down to pull Isaac up. “Let’s do this.”

“How is Dries doing?” Katarin asked, hitting a button with his closed fist to turn off the console that he had been using. “I haven’t seen that guy leave this ship since we got him onto it.”

Yeah, there hadn’t been enough open space on this ship to set up the spell. It had taken a little prompting and a lot of patience, but Dries had slowly, gradually made his way off the ship. They had to set up a private little temporary corridor for him with Sands’ construction mace and some other powers so that he didn’t have to be right out in the open with all those other people, but he made it.

I had seen the shame on Dries’ face, his agony that he couldn’t stand to be around people. He fought it, had tried for the past couple days (and probably long before then) to get over it. Yet, as powerful and knowledgeable as the man clearly was, the simple act of standing in a room surrounded by others was too much for him. After everything that had happened, after he had spent hundreds of years trapped in a tower, he couldn’t do it. His agoraphobia was too encompassing and powerful.

“He’s… doing a little better,” I confirmed with a nod. “Once they got him in that other room away from the cargo bay, he started opening up a little bit. And he said it’s all ready to go.”

“Well,” Professor Katarin gestured while starting to move. “Let’s go, then.” The man paused on his way past, clapping me on the shoulder. “I heard you spent some time with him yesterday, Chambers, that you talked with him about Avalon. Good. He uh… he’s been through a lot. Keep doing that, okay? He might not always show it, but he really wants to know about her.”

He was right. Even in the short conversation that I’d had with Dries the day before, telling him about how I’d met Avalon, I had been able to tell that he needed it. He had been like a dying man in the desert, desperate for even a drop of information about his descendant, his family.

Avalon’s family. I still couldn’t believe that was a thing. When we got back home, she would meet her ancestor, a male blood relative who actually wanted to know her.

Professor Katarin moved on, heading down the ramp while Gordon, Roxa, and Jazz followed suit. They seemed just as impatient and excited as I was to finally deal with this spell and learn the truth.

“So it’s really that simple?” Isaac asked curiously from behind me then. “We just use the spell and Katarin’ll be able to tell us who the big bad guy’s possessing?”

I nodded, pausing in the hatchway to look back at the boy while the others finished stepping down. “That’s what they sa–oh hey, looks like one of your buddies doesn’t wanna leave.” I gestured past the boy to where one of the orb-shaped drones from the boy’s flail was hovering next to one of the ship consoles. “You think he’s got a hot girlfriend or some–wait.” In the middle of my joke, I saw the screen itself. It looked like a view of the cargo bay behind me, with targeting reticles. “What’s that thing doi–”

That was as far as I got before Tabbris screamed a warning in my head. I felt my body jerking backward as she took control, but it wasn’t fast enough. A sledgehammer blow took my breath away as Isaac’s suddenly metal-covered foot slammed into my chest. I was sent flying off the ramp, crying out in surprise as I hit the deck hard, rolling onto my side. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I couldn’t even think. The strength behind the kick, it felt like he’d broken a couple ribs, at least.

Even as I hit the floor, a deafening, high-pitched shriek of power filled the air, and a blinding green light shot over my head. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see an emerald laser as wide around as my body literally vaporize three Alters who happened to be standing in its way. One instant they were there, and the next, they were gone. Dead. Atomized.  

But the laser didn’t stop there. Everything seemed to slow down dramatically, as my horrified gaze took in the sight of Katarin surrounded by the others. I saw the man’s eyes as the enormous ship-powered laser shot directly at them. He had half a second to react. And he reacted by throwing both arms out. An invisible force picked up Jazz, Roxa, and Gordon, hurtling them away. In that instant, Katarin’s immediate action saved all of their lives.

But he paid for it with his own. Unable to protect himself, the laser ripped through the big man, burning half his body away just like that. The remains were charred and burned beyond recognition, blown apart by the incredible force and heat of the laser cannon.

I saw Professor Katarin die. I saw his realization that it was going to happen, and that his first and only reaction had been to save his students. He could have thrown himself out of the way or done anything whatsoever to protect himself, or he could focus on saving them. In that brief, tiny window, he chose the latter. He sacrificed himself to save their lives. In my head, I heard Tabbris scream, her own terrified cry of shock and horror matching my own.

Behind me, a moan of pleasure reached my ears. My head jerked back that way in time to see Isaac. Isaac, the traitorous, murderous, fucking evil piece of shit who had just murdered three Alters and Professor Katarin, was all-but collapsed there in the hatchway, his orange kill-aura glowing almost blindingly bright. He gave me a thumbs up then, winking just as the hatch whooshed closed, cutting us off from each other.

Why? Why, why, why?! Why was he doing this?! What the hell?! Was he possessed? Had we missed something? Was Isaac actually possessed and I’d somehow missed it? Had another Seosten managed to get on the ship somehow? No. No, I knew that wasn’t it. It couldn’t be, because I knew Roxa was wearing the choker. She had been wearing the choker when she helped Isaac to his feet just a minute earlier, and she had said nothing about him being possessed. Which meant that he couldn’t be. So what the hell was going on?! What… what…

An instant later, a glowing blue forcefield appeared around the smaller ship. The shield. He’d activated the shield, or one of his drones had, more likely. Which meant that no one could teleport onto the Liberty Bell. No one could stop what was about to happen, what was about to keep happening.

Because the ship wasn’t done firing. Lifting off its landing struts, more of its cannons finished popping up into place. And they all opened up. Blinding emerald lasers flooded the cargo bay. I saw three, four, five more Alters torn through. Alters who should have been safe. Alters who were supposed to be free and protected now were suddenly gone. Dead. Murdered by Isaac, an Isaac who wasn’t possessed. No one was forcing Isaac to do this. He just… was.

Chaos reigned. More blinding shots from the ship’s cannons filled the cargo bay. I saw one heading straight for Karees. Karees! My mouth opened to scream a warning, knowing it was too late.

Except, while it was too late for me, it wasn’t too late for Jazz. The other girl literally slammed into the tree-man, knocking him to the ground. An instant later, that laser tore through the girl… except she had turned into her mist-form. I saw her turn, staring at the ship with a look of complete horror, mouth open as she screamed a name. Isaac. She was screaming Isaac’s name, a look of rage overtaking her face.

I pushed myself up then, ignoring the pain in my ribs, only to be knocked to the floor once more as Sands came out of nowhere, tackling me to the ground an instant before another massive laser tore through the air where I had just been. I felt the heat of it burn part of my skin.

Sweeping her mace up as we landed, Sands created a short wall. It didn’t matter. The next shot from the ship’s cannon tore through it like it wasn’t even there. We had to move!

Getting my staff out, I grabbed Sands, wrapping an arm around the girl while pointing the staff backward. Lying there on my side, I triggered the boost, sending both of us rocketing along the floor. An instant later, three more laser shots utterly destroyed the spot where we had just been.

The Liberty Bell was floating backward toward the open cargo bay doors, firing its lasers the whole time. Screams and death filled the air along with the heat and light of those deadly cannons. In those few seconds while I was picking myself up from the floor, I saw a dozen more die, snuffed out just like that.

Jazz, Gordon, and Roxa were all trying to help, trying to get the Alters behind what little cover there was, or out of the cargo bay entirely. The problem was that there was so much open space. A lot of them were trying to hide behind the metal shipping containers, but there were only so many of those, and there was too much open ground to cover to get to them. 

It felt like hours had passed, but I knew it had actually only been a few seconds. A few seconds, and Isaac had already done so much damage.  

Just as the other ship reached the exit, the cannons all pointed toward the biggest cluster of terrified Alters who were running for cover. I screamed a warning, the force of the words burning my throat, even as those cannons opened up one last time. An armageddon-worth of deadly light tore through the air, straight at all of those innocent people.

At the last second, Haiden Moon appeared out of nowhere. His arm jerked up, and I saw a dark red forcefield appear, surrounding both the man and the clustered group. Seven, eight, nine enormous, pulverizing lasers collided with the shield, which barely held. I could see the strain on it, and on Haiden himself as he kept it up, protecting the people behind him.

Then Larissa was there. She appeared beside Sands and me, both arms outstretched. Her right hand jerked to the side, while the left glowed red. I saw two of the laser cannons on the other ship literally torn free of their housing, ripped off the ship. At the same time, another one literally melted into a heap of molten metal.

That was enough. The ship stopped firing, instead throwing its engines into reverse before shooting out into open space.

And just like that, as suddenly as it had started, the carnage was over. The ship was gone, with Isaac onboard. And in his wake, he left… devastation. Bodies, or pieces of bodies, filled the cargo bay. At least a quarter of the Alters that we had saved and spent the past several days with were dead. Professor Katarin was dead.

“Girls!” Larissa was facing Sands and me, her eyes wide. Alarms blared, the survivors screamed and sobbed, as she blurted in total confusion and horror, “Girls, what happened?!

“What the hell happened?!”

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Rendezvous 30-03

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“So explain again how their warp speed or whatever works?” I asked Larissa a couple days later, as the two of us stood on the bridge of this stolen mining ship. Jokai was sitting at the controls next to Sands, going over them with the girl again. My teammate had really taken to the idea of being able to pilot this thing (not that I could blame her at all), throwing herself at the subject the way that Vanessa threw herself at… well, pretty much every subject back in school.

“Of course,” Larissa (was it weird that I kept thinking of Sands’ mother by her first name rather than as Mrs. Mason or anything?) replied easily while gesturing for me to follow her to the side of the bridge, where a small console sat. Waving her hand in front of it, she made a hologram appear. It showed a bunch of different planets and stars, taking up several feet in front of us.

“You know the way normal travel works,” the woman began. Putting her finger on the hologram at one planet, she slowly dragged it across to another one, creating a red line between them. “Say a ship starts here, powers on their regular, day-to-day engines, and putters along until they reach the next closest planet. With the kind of engines that the ships use when flying around normally, that one trip would take about… say, a hundred and twenty years. Give or take.”

“Uh, yeah.” I coughed, shaking my head. “Seems like that kind of travel time would be pretty hard to run an interstellar empire on. ‘Hi, we have some new orders from the capital planet.’ ‘Oh, when did they send those out?’ ‘I think it was about three hundred and forty years ago, why?’”

The woman gave a slight smile at that. “Exactly. It doesn’t really work. So there’s a few other options. First, there are certain Alters who can create foldjumps, linked points where people can travel instantly from one spot to another no matter how far away it is, even on another planet.”

“Abeonas,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Even met one of them named Berlin.”

“You are definitely not a normal first year student,” Larissa informed me with a little cough before nodding. “But good, you know about them. There’s a few others like that, but Abeonas are the strongest and the most well-known. They’re also pretty rare, and it’s hard to keep their loyalty. I mean, when they could go pretty much anywhere in the universe they’ve already been at the drop of a hat, it’s not easy to keep them contained. Even possessing them isn’t a perfect answer, since they tend to be pretty resistant to it, and using a Seosten to keep them under control means that Seosten can’t be doing anything else. Basically, if the Abeonas is strong enough for interstellar transport, they’d need an equally strong Seosten to maintain control.”

When I nodded to that, the woman went on. “So that’s the first option, Alters with some kind of transport ability. Limited for the reasons we just talked about. After that, there’s regular teleportation spells, like the one I used to get this ship away from Radueriel and his ship.”

“Let me guess,” I put in, “those are rare too. I mean, you said you got that one from Apollo.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Rare and hard to do. We only moved a few solar systems, and that took four strong Heretics to pull off, exhausting three of them for a few days. Like I said, not easy.”

I started to nod once more to that, before stopping myself. “Wait, what do you mean, four?” Pointedly, I counted on my fingers. “You, Haiden Moon, and Professor Katarin. That’s three.”

“We, ah,” the woman paused, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “We met a new friend out here. But that’s a long story that’s best told once we actually get back with the others. Which, I know, sounds needlessly cryptic. But just trust me, this is something that you really need to find out in person.” She smiled then. “Besides, we’re getting off subject. Innate Alter abilities and magic teleportation are two ways to move from world to world. But with ships like this, you want something reliable. Something that isn’t super rare and doesn’t exhaust your most powerful people right when you get to what might be a planet where you need them to fight.”

“So, technology-based?” I asked then. “Rather than magic or ability-based. Something where you can just flip a switch and go faster. I mean, I know it’s not not that simple, but basically.”

“Basically,” she confirmed. “Now, like I said, there’s the normal engines that work fine for tooling around the same solar system. But for interstellar travel to take less than several centuries, you need the big guns. You need a reliable way that doesn’t exhaust your important people and allows you to send entire fleets all over the universe. That’s where the slide-drive comes in.”

Tilting my head a bit, I asked, “Slide-drive? So that’s what they call their hyperdrive or whatever.”

“Yup.” The woman reached out to the hologram of the space map once more. “So, here’s how they work. Remember how I said a normal engine just takes you from one spot to another?” She drew her finger along that red line once more demonstrably. “Well, the way a slide-drive works is by repeatedly opening a small pocket dimension. You already know what those are, right?”

I nodded quickly at that. “Sure, they’re basically the things that our weapons disappear into.”    

“Exactly. The slide-drive on each of these ships basically slips the ship into one of those pocket dimensions for a few seconds, then pops it back out again. Except for two things. First, while the ship is in that pocket dimension, the universe just continues on without it. Everything is always moving at millions of miles per hour. So the ship wouldn’t appear at the same point anyway. It would pop out at wherever that spot was with the universe moving around it. It’s like… say you have a spinning plate with an olive sitting on it. Pick the olive up and drop it again, and it’ll be in a completely different spot from where it was, because the plate itself keeps on spinning.

“And second, before the ship comes out of the pocket dimension, it travels to the limit of that space. See, every kilometer in the pocket dimension translates into a thousand kilometers in real space. The more powerful the slide-drive, the bigger the pocket dimension. Which means-”

“The further they travel with each slide,” I realized. “If their slide-drive can make a pocket dimension that’s a hundred kilometers long, that’s a hundred thousand kilometers in real space.”

She gave a short nod at that. “Yes. And most decent ships are capable of making pocket dimensions that are at least a few hundred kilometers. So that helps.

“Put together, those two things mean that when the ship pops back into the regular universe, it’s not in the same place. It basically jumps from one spot to another very quickly just by slipping out of the universe and then slipping back in. The computer calculates where they are in relation to where they need to go, adjusts, and then slips out of the universe again, only to pop back. That’s why we call it a slide-drive. They slide into a pocket-dimension, then slide back out again. It keeps doing that, sliding in and out of regular space until they get where they need to go.”  

“Huh.” I thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. “Thanks for the explanation. You… you weren’t a teacher back at Crossroads, were you?” It felt a little awkward bringing up her life on Earth after she had been away from it for so long, but I shoved that back down.

“No,” she confirmed with a quick head shake. “You’re right, I wasn’t a teacher. Not exactly, anyway. But I did work with students a lot. I was the Head of Student Affairs for the school.”

I did a quick double-take. “You had Peterson Neal’s job? Damn, we really missed out, then.”

Smiling a little, the woman gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Ulysses told me that he was the one who took my job. I’m sorry. Peterson is… competent, but not exactly creative or warm. But between Ruthers and his brother, I’m not surprised that he ended up with an important job.”

Blinking at that, I looked back to the woman while asking, “His brother? Who’s his brother?”

“Counselor Davis,” she informed me, looking a little surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew that the two of them were related. I know you’ve had some conversations with the Committee.”

I thought back to what I knew of the Committee member called Davis. All I really remembered was that he looked like a lumberjack. Did he actually do anything important? I asked Tabbris.

Um, she replied a little hesitantly, not really. He didn’t say much at all, actually. Mostly he just brought up that thing about how people have been trying to kill Avalon for awhile.

Right. I squinted thoughtfully for a second. So he didn’t really say much. No way of knowing how he feels about things, or if he’s anywhere near as much of a stooge as his brother.

“So,” Larissa started with a raised eyebrow. “How’s the conversation with the little one going?” When I gave a quick glance over to where Jokai was, she waved a hand. “It’s okay, he can’t hear us right now. Or, more to the point, he just hears us talking more about Davis.”

“Sorry.” I blushed a little bit despite myself. “I guess it’s probably kind of obvious what’s going on when I trail off and go silent for a few seconds like that if you know what to look for, huh?”  

She nodded. “It is. So you’ll need to be careful with it. Very careful, Felicity. If the Seosten ever suspect that you’re possessed and that that’s the reason they can’t possess you–”

Blanching, I interrupted. “They’ll hurt Tabbris. I know. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Her hand found my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Sariel made the right choice when she sent her to you.”

After a moment of that, she continued. “So, let’s talk about the ship a little more. I’m sure you’ve got more questions about how these things work. Though there’s something I really hope you can tell me about.”

“There is?” I blinked. “Uh, I’ve told you pretty much everything I know. The Seosten want to kill Avalon, Fossor has my mother and is coming after me when I turn eighteen, my dad’s living with Gabriel Prosser, my mom’s first husband is my team mentor… what else could I tell you?”  

“Well…” Larissa gave me a brief pleading look. “There’s a really important question I have to ask you that Ulysses couldn’t answer. I’ve kind of been stuck out here for over seven years now, and I’ve been waiting all that time to find out…

“Do you read DC comics? And if so, what the hell happened in Flashpoint?”


“Your ship is a lot smaller than this one, Mom.” Sands was standing in front of the bridge’s viewscreen the next day, her eyes centered on the image of the vessel in question. We had met up with them in the middle of what was basically empty space, far from any planet or star.

She was right. The ship that Larissa had brought us to meet up with was much smaller than this one. It was more around the size of a large jetliner, and was shaped a bit like a narrow oval with two angular boomerangs attached to the top and bottom that glowed red in contrast with the middle oval part’s bright white. I was pretty sure that the boomerang parts were where the engines and weapons were, while the oval part held the main compartments and bridge.

“Yeah, we’ll have to bring the Liberty Bell aboard this one for now,” the woman replied easily from her place behind her daughter. “There should be plenty of room, even with the Alter camp.”

Liberty Bell?” I blinked that way after giving the ship another look. “That’s the name of it?”

“Well, yeah, after we renamed it,” Larissa amended with a slight chuckle. “I think its previous name was something like Letum Praedator. Ruin Hunter. We liked Liberty Bell a bit better. And besides, they vetoed my vote for the ship name. Said Starjammer made them think of hair metal bands. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why that’d be a bad thing. But Liberty Bell’s okay.”

A light on the nearby console flashed green, and the woman waved her hand in front of it. A moment later, half of the viewscreen was taken up by the image of a familiar face.

“Professor Katarin!” Sands blurted, waving a hand. The relief in her voice was obvious, and I knew how she felt. We’d already known that the man was alive and well (enough) from Larissa herself and through Vanessa, but knowing it and seeing it were two entirely different things.

The man smiled broadly then, and I could tell in that moment that he was just as relieved to see us. It did kind of look odd, considering his tendency to remain as stoic and… drill sergeant-like as possible while he was training us. But then again, this was a pretty unique situation.

“Sands, Flick, you’re both alright!” Katarin announced before lifting his chin. “And the others…?”

“They’re okay,” Larissa answered for us. “Everyone’s… physically fine. They’re in the cargo bay with the former slaves. So, you wanna dock that thing so we can have this reunion in person?”

He agreed, as did someone offscreen (Haiden, I assumed, though it could have been the mysterious ‘other Heretic’ that Sands’ mother wanted us to meet), and the ship started to dock.

“Guess we should head down to meet them, huh?” Sands looked to her mother, smiling immediately. She’d been doing that pretty much constantly over the past few days. Which was more than just understandable. If it had been my mother, I probably wouldn’t be able to tear myself even a few inches away from her for at least a couple of weeks. I was honestly surprised that Sands was able to focus on anything other than the fact that her mother was standing there.

Leaving Jokai at the helm just in case anything happened, we headed down to the cargo bay once more. On the way, we used the intercom system that Jokai had shown us to warn the others so that nobody would freak out too much. The last thing we wanted was to give any of these poor guys a heart attack when they saw a Seosten ship pop in.

The Alters had taken up about a quarter of the cargo bay with their little camp, which actually looked pretty homey. They had tarps set up for different sleeping areas, a cooking area in the middle, and a spot for everyone to work on the anti-possession spell that we’d taught them. They’d been using that spell a lot, on themselves, on each other, basically whenever possible. Even though they knew they weren’t possessed, they still wanted that little bit of reassurance. And, of course, they wanted to make sure that none of the Seosten had projected into one of them. That was another reason that I was glad they had all decided to stay together in the cargo bay. It would be harder for one of the Seosten to screw things up if they never left each other’s sight and were constantly just sitting in a room with no idea of where the ship actually was.

By the time we made it down there, all of the Alters were already gathered right at the edge of their camp as they nervously watched the Liberty Bell rise up through a forcefield-covered opening on the other side of the room. The thin, invisible shield was enough to keep the atmosphere inside, while allowing the other ship to slip through.

The murmuring stopped as we entered, and they all looked to us expectantly. Gordon, who had been standing near the front of the group, raised a hand as we came over. Isaac was kneeling nearby, tinkering with something on one of his drones.

“They’re still a little nervous,” Gordon announced as I stepped up next to him. He nodded toward the other ship, which was extended three landing struts while slowly easing down onto them.

“I bet they are,” I replied. “I’d be nervous too if I had their lives, even if we did tell them that it’s safe.” Glancing around, I added, “Where’s Roxa?”

“Here.” The girl herself emerged from a clustered group. She looked sweaty (distractingly so), like she had just been working out. Pushing a hand back through her hair, Roxa explained, “Just ran through a little training with some of these guys. They wanna learn how to fight, so I thought I’d help. Seemed like a good idea.”

“It is,” Larissa agreed. “The best thing we can do is help them learn how to take care of themselves.”

That seemed to generally be the sentiment all around, judging from what I’d seen of the rest of our new friends. There were a few who didn’t really want to fight at all, but most of them at least wanted to know how in case the time came that they had to.

By that point, the ship had finished settling in. A hatch opened along the side, and we watched as a ramp extended before two figures appeared at the top. Katarin and a man that was clearly Haiden Moon. I could see the resemblance between him and Tristan, though his hair was dark and worn long. He was ruggedly handsome, like he should have been stepping off a horse in some kind of western movie. They both descended, stepping easily down onto the deck.

“Well,” Vanessa and Tristan’s father started, “I guess we screwed that up. Weren’t we supposed to ask for permission to come aboard?”

“I’m not sure who you’d ask,” Larissa pointed out. “The job of captain seems to have been divided among three or four different people over here.”

Chuckling, the man took a look at us. “Well, I guess I don’t have to guess who you guys are. This must be Sandy. Your mom’s said a lot about you. Though I have to say, you’re not nearly as pretty as she claimed you were.”

“Sir,” a thoroughly unamused Gordon replied, “Sands is over there.”

Doing an exaggerated double-take, Haiden pointed. “Oh, there you are!” He stepped over, extending a hand with a smile. “Miss Mason, it is my great honor and privilege to finally meet you. Though I feel like I know you already.”

Sands shook his hand, blushing a little. While they spoke for a moment, I looked to Professor Katarin and blurted, “Okay, I can’t wait anymore!”

The man blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been trying to keep calm and focus on everything else,” I hurried on, babbling a little bit. “Because there’s so much else to do. But you’re here now, you’re right here, and we really need to find out before anything else goes wrong. Manakel. We know you got sent out here because you saw who his host was. So… so who was it? Who is he possessing? And tell me that it was the first thing you sent back through to Vanessa when she contacted you guys!”

“Ah.” The man lifted his chin. “Yes, well, there is a slight problem with that, when it comes to telling you who the Seosten’s host is.”

I frowned. “What do you mean, there’s a problem with it? Can’t you just tell us?”

He gave a long, low sigh. “I just did, Miss Chambers.”

“No you–” I stopped. Tabbris, did you?

N-no, she answered. I didn’t hear anything. I mean I don’t… remember…

“Oh,” I said simply. And then I cursed, long and loud.

A spell. They were using the same spell to stop Katarin from telling anyone who Manakel was possessing that had been used to stop me from telling people about Wyatt and Abigail, or that the people who had cast the spell that erased Mom’s identity were under to stop them from telling anyone else about her who didn’t already know. Or a similar effect anyway. This one was clearly stronger since it wasn’t limited to Earth. And it was even affecting Tabbris.

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “That’s pretty much what we said. But hey, it’s not a total loss. Our new friend onboard might be able to do something about it, with a little help. He’s got some ideas about breaking the spell, but needed more juice to get it done.”

“New friend?” Jazz had joined us. She looked like she’d just woken up. “What new friend? You mean the mysterious fourth Heretic that you keep refusing to tell us anything about?”

They all exchanged glances before Larissa gestured. “Ah, it’s better if you meet him in person.”  

Professor Katarin was already moving back to the ramp. “Inside. He doesn’t do well in front of a crowd.”

At the reminder, I glanced the other way. Karees and his people were all there, staring at the new arrivals with obviously barely constrained fear. Yeah, Katarin had a point. If whoever this guy was happened to be that skittish about crowds, I couldn’t see it ending well if he had to come out.

So, with a collective shrug, we followed our professor and the others up into their ship. I had no idea who they wanted us to meet, who could have been out here that was so important, and apparently so traumatized that he had to stay away from large groups.

The answer, as it turned out, was a man that I didn’t recognize at all. He stood a short distance away from the entrance ramp as we climbed aboard, clearly having been close enough to listen to what was going on without exposing himself.

He didn’t look like anything all that impressive. Actually, he looked like any countless number of homeless veterans people passed on the street every day. He stood only about five foot six, a bare couple inches taller than me, his figure ragged and bone-thin. He had long, scraggly hair and beard, both of which were dirty blonde with flecks of brown and gray spread throughout.

Seeing us, the man opened his mouth to say something, only to stop and cough, clearing his throat noisily. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse. “You. Hi. Hi. You would be… the… students. The students from Earth.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, stepping closer that way. “I’d like you to meet Dries Aken.”

Aken–wait. As I realized that that was the same last name as Bosch’s daughter, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon all made collective sounds of shock around me.

He’s alive? Tabbris squeaked inside my head, her own shock just as thorough as everyone else’s. They kept him alive all this time?!

“Y-y-you.” Sands’ voice cracked almost as much as the man’s had. “You… you’re alive? You killed… y-you killed Hieronymus Bosch. You killed him.”

Aken. Aken. As in… as in Avalon’s ancestor!? This guy, this guy was… was related to Avalon somehow. He was her… great, great, something something great something!

“Hi, sir,” I started to extend a hand toward the man, only to stop as he stepped back from me. From the look on his face, I might as well have offered him a live snake. His eyes darted to my hand and then back again, visibly forcing himself to relax. 

“It’s–” He started roughly before seeming to lose track of what he was saying. His eyes drifted up to the side, and I saw his mouth move a little like he was actually silently sounding out his next words, practicing. “I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he finally settled on. Then he nodded, as if convincing himself that he’d said the right words in the right order.

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly, lowering my hand. “It’s–” A thought struck me then. “Oh my God. Oh… my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening as I stared at him. “Do you guys know what this means?” As they all looked at me, I motioned wildly. “Look, we’re bringing back Sands’ and Scout’s mom, and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, right? And now, now–” I gestured at Dries like Vanna White. “We’ve even got Avalon’s ancestor! This is like… the family reunion roadtrip.”

“What… is a roadtrip?” the man asked, sounding confused as he looked at us.

“Um.” I paused. “It’s like when you start at home, then go for a really long trip just to visit someplace far away, for like… vacations. Or to visit family. Like you and Avalon, see? This is amazing.”

“Sure, okay.” Sands was nodding slowly. “But Flick, he’s also like… the worst criminal in our entire society. I mean, no offense, Mr. Aken, but the regular Heretics, the people who grew up in the knowledge, they see him as… as…”

“Hitler,” Jazz supplied. “Hitler mixed with Benedict Arnold… if he killed Jesus… by strapping him down in an orphanage and setting it on fire. Arsonist, Orphan-Murdering Benedict Hitler.”

I nodded slowly at that. “So what you’re saying is, to let Avalon have an actual relationship with her long-lost family member, we’d have to change an entire society’s opinion of the worst monster in their entire history.”

“Yeah, it’s totally– wait.” Sands squinted at me. “Are you saying it like that because you’re illustrating how impossible that would be, or because you’re adding it to your to-do list?”

I just smiled.

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Interlude 29B – Haiden and Vanessa

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The so-called ‘Black Friday’ was considered, by most American humans, to be the single busiest shopping day of the year. The crowds shoving each other aside and even trampling those who fell behind, the noise, the casual violence and insults all in search of saving a few dollars off a trinket here or there, it was pretty much their idea of the ultimate capitalistic chaos.

On the world of Kesth, it would have been considered a slightly below-average day.

Kesth was a market world. The market world, to be precise. At one point in a long-distant past, the planet (fourth from its local star, and still close enough to be considered tropical across most of its surface) had been the seat of power for the ‘Unified Worlds Organization’, a rising interplanetary government which spanned several solar systems and comprised of close to a hundred billion beings spread over close to twenty livable planets. A hundred billion and twenty planets, however, was peanuts compared to the Seosten Empire, who showed up and casually absorbed the fledgling planetary alliance with about as much effort as a great white shark expended while swallowing a passing guppy. Their billions were next to nothing compared to the hundreds of trillions who were controlled (in many cases literally) by the Seosten.

Not that they even had need to bring much of that into play. They had simply infiltrated their government, their military, and even their schools and press. One Seosten-controlled school teacher could, over the course of one short decade, do as much to ensure their victory as several thousand soldiers in open combat. Let alone those who changed their laws, turned their various religions against their own best interests, or made their media turn their own people against one another at a time when they should have been united for their own survival.

So, the UWO had fallen, absorbed into the Seosten Empire. However, the forward-thinking Seosten leader who had been assigned to the planet had used her power and influence to create one of the largest, most intricate teleportation networks in the entire Empire. It was a system which allowed people to get from almost anywhere, to almost anywhere within allowed space, while using only Kesth as a single world stepping stone. This, combined with the world’s temperate climate and lack of any connection to previously established Seosten worlds, had helped to create what became the largest, busiest market world in the entire Empire. Trillions of beings from all different planets moved through the crowded shopping districts every year.

It was through one of the thousands of densely packed market squares that three figures walked. Clad in dark robes and hoods that marked them as part of a prolific religious caste that was not shy about sharing their beliefs (a fact that actually encouraged even the casually violent shoppers around them to keep as much distance as possible to avoid encouraging such behavior), Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and Ulysses Katarin walked. Not that they looked anything like themselves even under the robes and hoods. All three possessed enough shapeshifting or disguise powers by that point to keep themselves from being immediately recognized. And as far as their status as Heretics went, that had been hidden as well.

“No wonder they don’t let anyone know about this particular spell back on Earth,” Larissa murmured, glancing at the intricate tattoo-like design adorning her wrist as the trio worked their way through a crowd of shoppers of every shape and size. “If they all knew there was something that could make it so that Alters don’t immediately recognize us as Heretics, it would actually give us a chance to observe them instead of fighting immediately. And if that happened–”

“Everyone might figure out that they’re not all evil,” Haiden finished for her with a wry headshake. “Yeah. Kinda figures that would be something they’d suppress the hell out of. They probably think it’s bad enough when some of us get powers that hide that. If people knew there was a spell that anyone could use that would do the same thing, it’d be pretty bad for them.”

Walking slightly behind the other two, the larger figure of Ulysses spoke up, his voice a deep rumble. “Just another reason for them to keep Dries locked up, I suppose.”

Dries Aken, the newest member of their little band, was back on their stolen ship. As much as the man had improved over the past short while, a bare couple of months was not even close to enough time for the man to have fully recovered from literal centuries of Seosten imprisonment. He wasn’t ready to be out in a crowd. So he had stayed behind while they came for supplies, and to look for rumors about any more of either the broken banishment shards or the prison where Sariel was being held. The latter was a longshot, but stranger things had happened.

But even if Dries couldn’t bring himself to be there in person, he had, at least, provided the spell which allowed the trio to easily walk among the population without being seen as Heretics.

“Okay, remember, we’re here to pick up actual food supplies,” Larissa pointed out. “with flavor and spice and everything. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting pretty sick of simple rations.”

“Agreed,” Ulysses rumbled in his deep voice. “Say what you will about all the problems we have on earth, but I really miss tacos.”

“We find the right supplies around here,” Haiden put in then, “and I’ll make you all the tacos you could ever Daddy.”

Pausing (an act that made the crowd behind them almost crash into the trio to shove them aside before they noticed the robes and decided to go around), the other two looked at the man in bewilderment. Larissa started, “All the tacos you could ever Daddy? I really am behind on Earth slang.”

Haiden was frowning as well. “No,” he murmured, “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m not sure what… Daddy, my dad. Dad. Please.”

Snapping his gaze over to meet Larissa’s, Ulysses quickly pointed off the side, where a restroom stood. “Come on, let’s get out of the way.”

The restroom was enormous, and varied. It was meant to accommodate the needs of dozens of very different species, with very different waste disposal methods. It was also busy, like everything else on the planet. But it didn’t take long for them to convince the occupants to make themselves scarce. Which left the three of them in the empty restroom, while Haiden shook his head. “Sorry, guys, I don’t know what…” The man trailed off, turning to grab the nearby sink. He gazed into the hologram of himself that served the same function a mirror on Earth would have, muttering something inaudible and incomprehensible as he stared into his own eyes.

Somewhere in the background, he heard the other two talking. But Haiden’s attention was focused inward. As he stared at himself in the mirror, he felt emotions that weren’t his own, thoughts that were foreign to his mind. He felt like crying, but couldn’t tell if it was from joy or sadness, or even both. The face he saw, while clearly his own, inspired a feeling of awe that he couldn’t explain. His hand seemed to rise of its own volition to touch the hologram, tenderly brushing his own image while unexplainable tears leaked from his eyes. “Dad…” he murmured.

“Wait a minute.” Ulysses’ eyes widened. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he was actually–”

Whatever the other man had been about to say, Haiden didn’t hear. His attention had been drawn to the side of the sink, where a figure had abruptly appeared seemingly from nowhere.

For a moment, he stared uncomprehendingly at the blonde teenage girl, mouth working as he fought through some vague, clouded memories. There was something about her, something that immediately struck him harder than almost anything ever had. Something that made the tears that had been leaking from his eyes truly his own. Slowly, he raised a hand, pointing. “You…”

The girl gave what was, to Haiden, the most beautiful smile he could ever remember. She looked like an angel. A real angel, not what the Seosten liked to portray themselves as.  Her eyes shone with just as much emotion as he was feeling himself, and she slowly reached her hand out toward him. When she spoke, her voice cracked a little, a single word reaching his ears, a word that changed absolutely everything the moment he heard her say, “Daddy.”  

“You…” Haiden started, memories filling his mind, memories that he had thought long-since erased. “You’re my… you’re… oh my God.” Heedless of the other two Heretics in the room with him, the man reached a hand out to meet the one that the teen girl was extending to him. Their fingers connected… and went right through one another, as if the figure was a ghost.

“Haiden?” Larissa stepped that way, her own eyes widening as she began to get some idea of what was going on. “Haiden, is someone projecting to you? Wait, is it Sariel? Is–no. No, she wouldn’t say Daddy, you–” She gave a choked noise of realization then, trailing off into silence.

Ulysses had been trying for as long as they had been traveling together to tell Haiden the names of his children. Yet the effect of the broken banishment orb meant that their identities immediately vanished from his mind, and nothing they had been able to do could get that much through. All that Ulysses had been able to get across was that both of Haiden and Sariel’s children were alive and living together at Crossroads. The man could retain basic, general information about their activities, but nothing specific about their names or identities.  

In this case, however, the name came to Haiden’s lips as clear and sudden as the ringing of a church bell, and just as beautiful. His mouth opened, and he breathed it out as surely as he breathed the oxygen that gave his body life. “Vanessa.”

The truth was likely that the girl’s literal presence in his mind had overridden the spell that had removed her identity from his memory. But some part of Haiden wanted to believe that it was simply the act of seeing his little girl, his angel. Tears sprang to the man’s eyes, as he stared at her, afraid to blink and risk losing sight of his daughter for even that long. His hand rose once more, moving as close to the girl’s as he could manage without actually going through it.

He remembered her. He remembered his daughter. He could crawl through a thousand miles of desert, he could suffer any pain, weather any punishment that the Gods or Fate sought to inflict upon him. But please. Please let him have this. Let him keep his memory. His child. He would tear the eyes from his own head and spend an eternity blind to the world if he could just retain the image of his daughter. Please. Please.

“Daddy.” Vanessa was crying too, blinking big, wet tears as she stared at him adoringly. “Daddy, I found you. I found you, Daddy.” She choked audibly, closing her eyes for a moment as she visibly shuddered. “My Daddy. Oh God.” Opening her eyes once more, the girl babbled, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I wanna hug you, but I’m not good enough to fake physical sensation yet.”

“It’s okay, baby,” The name suddenly came to him, his memories opening up in ways that he had been trying to make happen for a decade by that point. “Nessabird. My brilliant Nessabird.”

The girl’s tears came anew. “You remember,” she blurted, the joy in her voice warming his heart. “You remember me.” It was clearly all Vanessa could do not to try bodily throwing herself at him.

“Of course, I remember my little baby bird.” Haiden looked her up and down, swallowing hard as the pain of all the time they had lost threatened to intrude on his indescribable delight. “Not so little anymore. But still my bird. My genius girl. You’ve… you’ve grown up.” The Vanessa of his memories was a tiny girl. This, the girl–no, young woman in front of him was… “Beautiful,” he announced aloud, staring at his daughter. He could have stared at her for hours, the same way he had when she was a baby. He remembered now. He remembered standing in the twins’ bedroom, watching them sleep while he simply absorbed the incredible thought that they were his children. “You’re beautiful.”

Vanessa was blushing, ducking her head as she squirmed. “Daddy, I… I tried to find you. I tried to find you for so long. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it took so long, and now you’re just–it’s just like this.”

“Oh, baby bird…” Haiden reached out, almost cupping the girl’s face. So close, and yet they still couldn’t actually touch one another. But she was here. He knew her name, he knew her face. He remembered her. “Ulysses says that you’re a brilliant student, that you’re learning everything faster than they can teach you over there at Crossroads.” As he spoke, the man glanced sidelong toward his two companions. Ulysses and Larissa were standing quietly nearby. It was obvious that they couldn’t see Vanessa, but they also weren’t going to interrupt.

Now the girl’s face was even redder, and she shook her head quickly. “I just had to learn, Daddy. I just… had to learn everything I could to find you. That’s… that’s all that mattered. Finding you and Mom.”

Biting his lip, Haiden slowly started, “How are you… what did you…” He hesitated, ridiculously afraid that questioning his daughter’s presence would drive her out of his head.

“It’s a long story,” she informed him, voice a little shaky. “Tristan, he’s here too.”

Tristan. He remembered. He remembered his son’s name. He remembered his son’s name! That simple fact, what would have been inconsequential to most, made the man’s knees weak. He spoke their names aloud, relishing them, cherishing them. “Tristan. Vanessa. Tristan and Vanessa. Vanessa was the name of my sister. She died a… a long time ago, during training. Tristan… We named him Tristan because he was so loud when he was born. You, you were quiet, but Tristan was just… ” His smile was so wide it almost hurt. Almost. “He was the noisy one. Always needed attention. That’s why we called him that. Tristan, Celtic for outcry. Tristan and Vanessa.”

The simple fact that he could finally remember those names would almost have been enough. After all the time he had spent trying and failing for the past decade, this by itself was a miracle.  But there was more. So many memories of his children filling his mind now that the key had been turned. He knew them. He knew his children. And one of them was in front of him.

Vanessa, who seemed to have been waiting for him to get through that, spoke up then once his attention returned to her. “Uncle Apollo says that me being in your head probably broke through some of the memory locks, especially since it’s been a few years since the orb went off.”

“Uncle Apol–” More of his memory unlocked, sliding easily into place as if they had always been there, and the man physically staggered. “Sar… Sariel. Sariel.” His eyes were wet once more. “Your mother… my wife… my wife is Sariel. She was–” More memories came, flooding into his mind like a tidal wave. One after another, his mind opened doors that had been jammed shut for the past ten years. He knew. He knew his wife. He remembered all of it. He could see her face. He could hear her voice. He could feel her breath. He could…

That time, Haiden really did slump to his knees. “Sariel,” he whispered tenderly, emotion cracking his voice. “Sariel. My wife. My wife’s name is Sariel.” Even saying it aloud, seeing her face in his mind as he reverently spoke the name that had been denied him for so long, was overwhelming.

Vanessa had moved to grab Haiden as he slumped, clearly remembering too late as her hands went right through him. But Larissa was there, her hands catching his arm as she quickly asked, “Are you alright? Is she still–”

“She’s here,” he confirmed, staring at the girl in question. He raised a hand to point to what was clearly empty air for Larissa. “She’s right there. I see her. I remember her. I remember my daughter. I remember my son.”

“She found a way to get into your head, huh?” Ulysses had stepped closer, moving beside Larissa as the woman helped Haiden stand once more.

“She did,” Haiden confirmed, nodding. “She said they had… wait, help from… Apollo. Sariel. Sariel was Artemis. Apollo, you met Apollo?” His eyes snapped that way. He had never met the his wife’s former partner himself, but she had spoken of him fondly fairly often. Fondly and, at times, with deep regrets.

Vanessa gave a quick nod. “Yes, Daddy. Like I said, it’s a long story. But–” She closed her eyes, swaying a little bit as her image flickered slightly, going in and out rapidly a few times before coming back.

“Nessa?!” The sight of his daughter’s image flickering like that made Haiden all-but panic. “Are you alright?”

She gave a quick nod. “I’m okay, I’m f-fine, Daddy.” She had to take a moment to collect herself. “I swear, I’m okay. But this is hard. It’s really hard, and I don’t know how much time we’ve got. So I have to give you the message.”

“The message?” Haiden echoed. “What message?”

Vanessa started with,. “It’s–Is that Mrs. Mason with you?”

Blinking, Haiden glanced that way. “Larissa Mason, yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, it’s her. Why?”

Swallowing, the girl explained, “It’s about her daughter, Sandoval, and some others.”

The man shook his head slowly. “What about Sandoval?” He held up a hand to forestall Larissa’s hurried, blurted questions. “What happened to her? Is she okay?”

“We–” Vanessa clearly stopped herself, shaking her head. “We don’t know. They’re out there with you. I mean, not with you, but in Seosten space.”

“They’re in Seosten space?” Haiden echoed. As his mouth opened to say something else, Larissa was already grabbing him.

“They’re what?!” the woman demanded with wide eyes. “Sandoval, she’s here?! How–why–what? Who are they? She’s here, she’s– Haiden, we have to get to her! We have to get to her right now! Now!” She was panicked at the suggestion that one of her daughters had been taken by the Seosten.

Ulysses pulled the woman back, quieting her before nodding for Haiden to go on. Swallowing, he turned to do just that. “Nessabird, what’s going on? What do you mean, they’re out here in Seosten space? Who is they, and what happened?” From the corner of his eye, he saw Ulysses about to say something before the man stopped himself from interrupting.

“Like I said, it’s a really long story,” his daughter started with a little wince. “We don’t have time to get through all of it. I think–I think I’m starting to lose the connection already, so I’ve gotta tell you the important parts. They were sent out there by a banishment orb. Like the one that took you, only it wasn’t broken. They–” She cringed. “God! There’s so much I want to tell you, I can’t just–” Visibly catching herself, Vanessa took a breath.

“Apollo says to tell you that they’re on the planet called Eulcine Seven. They’re not hurt, but they need your help like… immediately. If you take too long to get there, it’ll… it’ll be too late.”

“Eulcine Seven,” Haiden murmured. He’d been out here long enough to know the name. “It’s too far away,” he muttered. “That’s beyond the space that the Seosten allow trading ships or portals to connect to. Even from this place, we couldn’t get there for… weeks.”

“You don’t have that kind of time,” Vanessa insisted. “Apollo, he said there’s a couple spells he can give you. The first one will let one of you teleport all the way there, past their shields. The other one will let them teleport a mining freighter through a few solar systems.”

“A mining freighter?” Haiden was even more confused. “Why do we need to–”

“He says it’ll make sense when you get there,” his daughter put in. “He’s got all these coordinates and spell details that I need to give you, Daddy. We can’t get cut off, if we get cut off and I can’t get the connection back before it’s too late, I… I…”

“It’s okay, little bird,” he quickly reassured her, barely resisting the urge to reach out to his daughter once again. “Tell me what you need to tell me. I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

So she did. While Haiden produced a small pocket computer and recorded the details, Vanessa relayed the exact specifics of the spells that Apollo was giving them, one bit at a time. The spells were complicated, and would take an unbelievable amount of energy. If it had been just himself, the man was afraid that he wouldn’t have enough. As it was, this was going to take a lot out of all of them even working together.

It was more than just the spells, as well. Vanessa had to relay precise coordinates and timing. She told them exactly when to use the spell and exactly where to point it. There was absolutely no margin for error. None. Apollo had the whole thing planned out, down to the second and inch.

“Don’t worry, Nessa,” Haiden promised his daughter as soon as she had finished relaying the details. “We’ll get Sandoval and the others out of there. Who else… I mean, is Sarah there?”

“No.” Vanessa’s head shook. “It’s Sandoval and a few others. Gordon Kuhn, Roxanne Pittman, Felicity Chambers, Isa-”

“Felicity Chambers?” Haiden interrupted, blinking over at Larissa. “Isn’t that the girl that–”

The woman was already right there. “Felicity? Felicity’s there with Sandoval? They’re both there? That means–” Her eyes widened. “We have to get there now! We have to get there!”

“We will,” he promised her, turning back the other way. “Vanessa, are you–” His daughter’s image was flickering severely, going out for longer stretches before popping back in briefly. “Vanessa!”

“Daddy!” The blonde girl was clearly struggling. “I can’t hold it, Daddy! I’m sorry! I’ll come back, but Uncle Apollo says it’ll take awhile before I recover! Tristan says hi! He says he loves you, we love you! I love you, Daddy!”

“I love you too!” Haiden blurted, forgetting himself as he lunged that way, intent on grabbing his daughter. “I love you both so much, I–” His arms went through empty air. The image was gone. His daughter was gone. But alive. Alive and well. And in his mind. He remembered her. He remembered his children, his wife, his family.

Part of him thought that he should be sad that he had been torn away from his child so soon. But his joy at simply seeing her at all was too complete for that. The very thought of ever being sad again, now that his memories of his family had been returned was… inconceivable. Logically, he knew that there was still a long ways to go, and that their suffering wasn’t nearly over. Yet, it was impossible for him to be sad in that moment. Because for a man who had been starved of his memories for so long, having them returned was the most generous, glorious gift he could ever have imagined. Seeing his daughter, speaking with her, even if it was only for a brief time, it energized him in a way that he couldn’t possibly explain.

“Sandoval… Sandy…” Larissa’s eyes were wide, reminding him that she had her own problems. “She’s out there with those monsters. And if Felicity Chambers is there too, then… then…”

“Chambers makes sense,” Ulysses put in then. “They were trying to figure out why she was immune to them for awhile. Guess they… they finally got lucky and sent her over for their tests. But you…” He frowned at them. “You know why she’s immune already. You freaked out when you found out she was out here, that they had her.”

“Trust me,” Larissa insisted, pulling Haiden and Ulysses by the arms. “We have to go. We have to go now. We need to get those spells done, before it’s too late.”

The baby, Haiden knew. The Seosten baby that his wife had sent to Larissa to be put in the Chambers girl. She had told him about it, told him everything she could. That was why the girl was immune, what the Seosten were trying to figure out. If they discovered that the reason Chambers was immune was simply that she was already possessed by a kid…

He was already heading through the restroom door before making the conscious decision to move. Seeing his daughter, remembering her and the rest of his family, it had revitalized him. He knew what he was working for now. He knew who he was fighting for. “Come on,” he called back. “Let’s get those spells ready.

“We’ve got some kids to rescue.”

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Interlude 26B – Katarin, Haiden, and Larissa

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Percival posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

A little over a month ago.

“I believe–” Those two words, spoken in a simple, quiet voice that was at odds with the sheer size and football linebacker-like build of their speaker, were punctuated by a dull thud as the head of the green-skinned man that he was holding two feet off the ground smacked into the wall. “–that a bit of context is needed here.”

Ulysses Katarin continued, his hand literally covering the face of the smaller, alien man as he held him against that wall, muffling the figure’s protests and threats. “You see, I was born in a place called Desoto. It’s a territory on Earth that no longer exists. My coming-of-age was spent witnessing my home being devastated and ruined by the creatures known as Fomorians. I saw my parents and sister tortured, torn asunder, used as experiments in their breeding programs. The destruction and loss of Desoto was so complete that the only option was to erase it from both maps and from history, to wipe it completely out of the minds of all humanity. I became a Heretic after seeing just what these creatures were capable of, just how far they would go. I became a Heretic to stop any other living being from witnessing the loss that I witnessed.”

His second hand moved up to close around the figure’s throat, just tight enough to hold him in place while he removed his first hand from the man’s face. “So,” he went on, “when you think of how to respond to my question this time, it is very, very important that you bear that context in mind when I tell you that this has been an incredibly long day. I am, as they say, not in the mood. Now, for what will be the last time you will ever hear me speak these words in this order while you are still capable of coherent thought: where am I?”

Before showing up here, Katarin’s last memory was of stumbling across… the Seosten. That’s all he could think of them as now, the person he was supposed to be able to trust. Obviously, they were possessed. Realizing what was going on, he’d tried to do something about it. Through the resulting struggle, his opponent had produced a small orb, and Katarin had found himself transported to this place. There had been soldiers here, soldiers who were obviously waiting.

Keechun, the green-skinned roughly amphibian-like humanoid who had, up to about two minutes earlier, been boasting of those soldiers’ prowess and power as they stared down the newly arrived Heretic, made a rough gurgling sound. The armed figures he had used to threaten Katarin with lay broken and shattered around the floor of the research facility. When the grip on his throat loosened just a little more, he managed a strained, “Not supposed to be you.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Katarin replied. His eyes narrowed then. “But that doesn’t answer the question. Where am I? And now that you bring it up, who was I supposed to be?”

Even as he asked the question, Katarin focused on the man’s emotions. He’d killed a Stranger a long time ago that had given him the ability to read the emotions of anyone he was looking at. It gave him a distinct advantage in a lot of cases, particularly when kids in class were trying to get one over on him. And in this case, it meant he could probably tell if this one was lying.

“S-Seosten research facility Caleikas,” Keechun answered quickly. “You’re about as far from your–ehh, Earth as it’s possible to be. Without dimensional shifts, at top speed it would take the fastest ship in the Seosten fleet about two hundred and fifty years to get back to your planet.”

“Research facility…” Katarin murmured before straightening. “That–the Seosten who sent me here. The orb they used, it was meant for someone else. Someone you were waiting for. Who?”

The alien man looked like he wasn’t sure he should answer that, until a hard look from Katarin made him gulp before quickly explaining, “Th-the one called Chambers, the female that was–”

“Felicity Chambers.” Katarin frowned, straightening a little, which had the added effect of pulling his prisoner further up the wall. “Why were they trying to send Chambers to a research facility out in the middle of Seosten space?” he demanded in a tone that was even harder than before.

“Immune–she’s immune to their possession power,” Keechun managed to get out. “They want to us to take her apart, to find out why, how she’s immune. And it gets her out of the way. If she’s gone, they can focus on the other one, the founder’s descendant.”  

Obviously. Obviously the orb had been for Chambers. No wonder they were possessing… The very thought made Katarin grimace, head shaking. Obviously, they wanted Chambers gone to get her away from Avalon. Couldn’t possess her, so they wanted her out of the picture. Plus, it would distract everyone. Wyatt, Gaia, Dare, Avalon herself, they’d all be distracted, focusing on finding Chambers instead of protecting Avalon. If it had worked, it would’ve been devastating.

“How long will it take them to set up another one of those orb things?” he demanded, glancing around the facility. If they were planning on sending Chambers here, he’d have to find a way to-

“Menses,” Keechun answered quickly. “Several menses. It takes time to build them, to charge them. Sending someone this far, banishing them from that world? It’s not an easy process.”

Katarin frowned at that. “Menses. What is that? Hours, days–wait.” He turned his head a little, shaking it. “How can I understand you? Why are you speaking English right now?”

“He’s not.” The voice came from behind Katarin, and he turned sharply to find a dark-haired man standing in the doorway. A man who didn’t set off Katarin’s Stranger-sense, which meant that he was either one of the species who didn’t happen do so, or he was actually a–

“Human,” Katarin announced, staring at the newly arrived man for a moment until the memory clicked into place. “You’re human-wait, I know you. You’re the guy from Eden’s Garden, the one who took off and disappeared a little while back. Holt. Haiden Holt.”

“Right,” the other man replied casually while strolling into the room. “But actually, it’s Moon now. Has been since I got married. Haiden Moon. Sounds better than Haiden Holt, don’t you think?

“And,” he added easily, “like I said, the answer to your question is that they’re not speaking English. They’re speaking one of several languages that the Seosten use, that we call English. Latin is Old-Seosten, from their homeworld, and as they spread out through the universe, that ended up mixing with a lot of other species languages. So when they came to Earth, we got Old-Seosten, what we call Latin in Rome, then more of their languages spread out from there. Mostly English, since that’s their biggest trading language nowadays. But hey, guess you didn’t really ask for a lecture, huh? ” He took a look around then, whistling at the bodies. “Nice work.”  

Squinting, Katarin dropped Keechun, letting the green figure fall to the floor before putting a foot on him so he couldn’t slither away. “That’s far enough,” he announced while reaching to the small container at his belt. Flipping it open, he grasped the handle within and withdrew a long staff with a three-pronged blade at the end: a trident, his chosen weapon. “See, I know about the Seosten’s possession power. And you? You’ve been gone an awfully long time.” Hand gripping his weapon, he focused on what he could feel from the other Heretic. From what he could tell, there was no deception. But then again, could he really trust that in this case? Especially since he hadn’t been able to sense deception… before.

“Hey, great, you’re one step ahead of the curve.” Haiden smiled, holding both arms out. “But I’m not possessed. Not sure exactly how I can prove that in the time we’ve got, but we do need to get out of here. The Seosten are sending a fleet this way. And fun as it is to take apart their outposts, they do kind of have an advantage when it comes to numbers and technology.”

“Haiden’s right,” another voice announced then, as a female figure stepped around the man in question and into view. “We need to get out of here while we can still avoid the… Ulysses?”

All thought of suspicion and anger vanished in that moment. Katarin’s eyes widened, and he lost his grip on his weapon while staring at the figure who had appeared. “Larissa,” he breathed out before taking several steps that way. The next thing he knew, he’d lifted the woman off the floor, crushing her against his chest while making a noise that was decidedly not man-like. But he didn’t care. Only one thing mattered now, one thought that drowned out all others. “You’re alive.”

He could sense it. The empathic power he’d inherited meant that Katarin could sense the woman’s relief and joy. She was doing nothing to hide those feelings as she clung onto him. “Ulysses,” she repeated tenderly. “Oh my God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

“Larissa.” It was all he could do to find his voice enough to say the name of his long-time friend. “Larissa, how are you–what are you–how?” Something caught in Katarin’s throat, and he leaned back, holding the woman in front of him to get a better look at her. It had been so long, years since he’d seen Larissa. She’d been a student of his, and then a colleague. But most of all, she was a friend. Losing her had been a terrible blow. One that he had experienced many times before, of course. And yet, somehow, that one had hurt even more than most.

“It’ll take a long time to explain all of it,” she quietly, yet quickly informed him. “And Haiden’s right, we need to get out of here before the Seosten reinforcements show up. They’re still too dangerous for even three of us to take on in a straight fight. We’ve got a ship nearby.”

“Ship,” Katarin raised an eyebrow. “As in a spaceship… yeah, you’ve got a lot to explain.”  

She grinned at that, hugging onto him even more tightly than before. “I will. And you can tell me how my girls are doing. It’s… it’s their first year at the school. They are… they are at the school?” When he nodded, Larissa looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself. Head shaking, she pulled him by the arm. “But we’ve gotta get out of here first.”  

So, with a last look back toward the bodies scattered around the floor and the green-skinned figure huddled in the corner pretending to be invisible, Katarin followed the other two Heretics. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, why Larissa had ended up out here, or how they were all going to get back home. But he did know one thing with absolute, crystal-clear certainty.

Whenever they found a way back to Earth, he was going to bring Larissa back to her family.


Present Day

The gray-skinned orc-creature let out a bellow of rage, which was cut off into pathetic gurgling as Katarin’s hurled trident took him in the throat. The weapon lifted the creature from the ground, sent him flying backward a dozen feet, and impaled itself (with the orc dangling by the throat) in the side of a great, stone tower that lay in the middle of this otherwise barren field.

“So what you’re saying is,” Katarin started while teleporting himself next to his weapon in order to yank it out so that the orc could fall back to the ground, “the Seosten brought their own languages to Earth just to make themselves a bit more comfortable while they were busy enslaving or mind wiping humanity.” As he spoke, the large dark-skinned man flicked a switch on his trident. The left prong began to glow green, even as he made a swift upward motion with it, followed by a sharp, outward thrust that moved straight out before sweeping down once more.

In response to the motion, a solid four foot wide pillar of earth (or ground, at least if they couldn’t call it earth) tore itself up. It followed Katarin’s gesture, dirt and rock moving like snake, weaving through the air before slamming into one of the winged demon-like Strangers who had been diving in toward them. The pillar of earth caught the flying creature, slamming into it hard before the downward gesture sent it down to piledrive the thing straight into the ground.

In the same motion, the man kept swinging the trident around and backward without bothering to look. The gray-orc, who had been struggling to pick itself up even with the traumatic damage to its throat, was impaled once more. That time, one of the prongs of the trident went through its left eye. It made a weak, gurgling noise of pain before collapsing lifelessly to the ground.

Katarin had been doing this for so long, over a hundred years by that point, that he barely noticed the pleasurable sensation of both Strangers’ deaths giving him their power.

Nearby, Haiden rose from the body of the Stranger whose chest he had driven his sword through. As his glowing bronze aura faded along with Katarin’s own silver glow, the man replied, “Pretty much. We’ve still got some of our own languages, but the Seosten influenced them so much it’s hard to tell where theirs end and ours start. Like I said,” he added while flipping the sword up and around to transform it into its shotgun form so he could take a shot at one of the nearby creatures, “Latin is mostly Old Seosten, from their homeworld. And English, hell, most of those Germanic languages, comes from the universal trading language most species speak.”

The past month (or Mensis in both Latin and Old Seosten, apparently) had been… incredibly busy. Katarin had learned enough to know he could trust Haiden Moon, as well as a lot of other things about all that was going on. But this was the first time they’d returned to this particular conversation about the language similarities. It had come up again since the three of them had eavesdropped on the orders being given to this same group minutes before ambushing them.

The last of that patrol that had stood in their way fell into two bisected halves, revealing Larissa in her water-form. Her arm was raised, a water-whip extending from her hand. It was that whip, a whip made of water, that had cut the Stranger in half lengthwise with a single lash.

She paused there like that, obviously taking in the rush of pleasure as her pink aura flared up before speaking. “When I first got here, I thought they were speaking some indecipherable alien language. Turns out, it was just Latin.” Pausing, the woman added with a briefly thoughtful frown, “I guess I really should’ve paid more attention to that class back when I was in school.”

“English has got a lot of other languages influences in it though,” Katarin mused as his eyes scanned the field for any more potential threats. “How does that work?”

“Well, sure,” Haiden agreed while stepping that way, “they’re not one hundred percent the same. Languages grow apart. But a lot of those other languages that influenced English are actually alien languages that influenced the Galactic Trading Language. The Germanic and Romance languages, mostly. Basically, Alters have been all over the planet for so long that their established languages had a lot better chance of sticking than anything new us humans came up with. Combine that with the Seosten using the Bystander Effect to erase everything humans used to know about non-human species and… well, you end up with us thinking we made up the language. Pretty convenient though, not needing a translator out here.”

Finally satisfied that the field was clear, the three of them walked around the stone tower where Katarin had impaled the earlier orc, toward the entrance that the patrol had been protecting. There was a metal door there, but Haiden simply made a sharp grasping gesture and the thousand pound, two foot thick thing crumpled itself into a ball and fell aside with a loud clang.

“So what do you think this place is?” Larissa asked while they moved in through the opening. Her voice echoed slightly through what turned out to be a large, empty space. Across the chamber, there was a set of stairs leading up further into the tower, and more leading down.

“All I know,” Haiden replied, “is that one of the shards from that banishment orb is here. Which means as soon as we grab it, we’ll be one step closer to being able to undo the spell, so I can get my memory back, get my wife back, and get home for our kids.”

It was… frustrating. Katarin had figured out very quickly that Haiden was the father of Vanessa and Tristan. But every time he told the man any of the details about that, he had forgotten. The same went for whenever Larissa tried to tell him what she knew about his wife. Just like a memory spell. The Seosten sure loved those.

Descending down into the depths of the tower basement, it soon became obvious that the place had been a prison of some kind, though it hadn’t been used for that in a very long time. What it was being used for, as well as who that patrol had been working for, was anyone’s guess. Not to mention the question of why it still looked like some kind of Earth medieval tower.

The basement was almost as empty as that first floor had been, save for one thing: a five foot wide, six foot high cage in the middle of the otherwise barren space. And in that cage sat a figure, faced away from them.

“I knew you’d come.” The voice was male, and it cracked a little as if from a long period of disuse. “I knew you’d make it here. It’s why I held onto this.” Without looking back to them, the figure held up a dirt-encrusted hand, revealing what looked like a small shard of black glass.

“The orb piece,” Haiden breathed, moving that way before stopping himself. “Who are you? How do you know what it does or that we want it? Why are you in that cage in the middle of nowhere? Why was there a small army guarding this place?”

“The tower is from Earth,” the man in the cage replied, his voice hoarse and dry. “They wanted to ensure that I had no way of leaving it, and did such a good job that they had to transport the entire thing here when they took me off the planet. Then they… mostly forgot about me. It’s been too long. I don’t matter that much to them anymore.”

“Who are you?” Larissa spoke quietly, moving forward a step. “Why did they imprison you and then forget about you?”

Slowly, the man reached out a pale hand to catch hold of the cage bars. He pulled himself up, bones creaking as he did so before turning to face them.

“You,” Haiden blurted, taking a reflexive step back in surprise. Beside him, Katarin said the same thing, while stepping forward.

“Him?” Larissa blinked in confusion, looking back and forth between the men. “Him who?”

“Yes,” the man in the cage confirmed quietly. “It’s me.”

“Dries Aken,” Haiden explained, without looking away from the caged man. “Hieronymus Bosch’s son-in-law, his daughter’s husband.

“And the man who killed Bosch himself.”  

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Mini-Interlude 16 – Nevada

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving. 

The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.

“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures to ensure their privacy. Finally, she finished her thought. “Wasn’t this the kind of music your old Master used to enjoy while you were still… in his employ?”

Pushing herself back before standing up, Nevada smiled reflexively. It was an old defensive measure she’d learned to deal with uncomfortable or upsetting memories. “You mean when I was a Djinn,” she replied flatly while waving her hand. A minor telekinetic touch shut off the music, leaving the room much quieter.

Wincing just a little at her directness, Risa nodded. “I would have thought that his preference for that music would have turned you away from it. Especially given his… proclivities while listening to it.”

Picking up a nearby wrench just to have something to squeeze, Nevada shook her head. “Not like it’s the music’s fault. Besides, he preferred the Perry Como version of the song. Something about Como being a natural born American while Haymes was from Argentina. Which was pretty funny considering dear old Master wasn’t even born on this planet, let alone America.”

“Sorry,” Risa murmured apologetically. “I know you don’t like to think about those times.”

Nevada shrugged. Her mouth opened to ask what the woman was doing there, but before she could say anything more, the door behind Risa opened abruptly, and Virginia Dare appeared.

“Felicity and Koren,” she announced. “They’re in trouble.”

“What kind of–” Risa started.

“Fomorian trouble,” Virginia interrupted. The tension and fear in her expression and voice were far more plain than Nevada remembered seeing them ever before. “There’s a Fomorian at Koren’s house.”

Those words instantly drained all the amusement and casual atmosphere from the room. Nevada dropped the wrench she had been squeezing so tightly and was already halfway to the doorway by the time Risa caught up with her. The security chief was paler than usual, her expression set in a grim line.

No one joked about the Fomorians. Not after what had happened during the last major altercation with them, including the loss of Desoto.

“Gaia?” Risa spoke tersely as the three of them emerged into the corridor.

“Still busy with the Committee,” Virginia replied, her own voice just as tense. “Ulysses is prepping the portal.”

She explained everything that had been in the message from Flick as they made their way through the hall. Their destination wasn’t the Pathmaker, but the enormous mirrors in the main corridor. As promised, Ulysses Katarin was already there, performing the opening enchantment on the mirror that would connect them to Koren’s house.

“Can’t put it inside,” the big man explained without looking up as the women approached. “Fomorian shit’s already blocking it. The closest I can get is the sidewalk at the front.”

“Do it,” Virginia prompted, her face tight with worry. “Deveron Adams and Wyatt are there too, but..” She paused, shaking her head. “We need to be there, now. Before now. Yesterday, if time traveling back into time you’ve already experienced wasn’t out of the question.”

Ulysses was already nodding, throwing the last bit of magic into the mirror before he stepped back. “Hope we can break that blood shield the Fomorian threw up. Cuz the last time I had to deal with one of those, it took a god damn hour to knock it down, and that was with nine of us.”

“We have a secret weapon,” Virginia reminded him before stepping through the mirror.

“Wyatt,” Ulysses finished for the woman, smiling mirthlessly. “Let’s hope the guy’s as good as Gaia says he is.”

Then they were through the portal, emerging through a simple wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, an elderly woman walking her dog gave them a wave, and Nevada briefly wondered what exactly the woman had seen. What had the Bystander Effect turned the four of them stepping through a door that had no business being in the middle of sidewalk into? Maybe she saw them stepping out of a van?

Regardless, they had more important things to focus on. Wyatt was there. His wide-eyed gaze snapped around, focusing on them. “Felicity,” he blurted, “Koren, they–”

“We know,” Virginia interrupted before the man could start rambling. “How long will it take you to bring down the shield, Wyatt?”

Not, ‘can you bring it down’, Nevada noticed. For Virginia, it wasn’t even a question of whether the man could pull it off or not. She simply wanted to know how long it would take him to do it.

Swallowing hard, an act that sent his pronounced Adam’s apple bobbing, Wyatt nodded. “I can. I can do it. I’ve been examining the spell, and–”

“Details later, Wyatt,” Risa reminded him. “Right now, focus on smashing that spell down as soon as–”

“No,” Dare corrected her while shaking her head. “Don’t smash it down. He’ll know we’re coming. Wyatt, we need you to get the spell as close as you can to going down without alerting the Fomorian about what’s happening. Can you do that?”

Again, the nervous man fidgeted and seemed to hesitate before nodding. “Um, maybe. Yeah. I mean, normally I’d have to put my own power into it as I went. But if I leave most of the power out of it and just shape the spell, it might work. But I can’t put enough power in fast enough by myself. After I—umm, shape it, we all have to put power into the spell at the same time if you want it to go down fast.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Risa decided, laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Be fast, Wyatt. The Fomorian cannot escape. Not with what it already knows.”

“Funny,” a new voice spoke up from the darkness as the man in the green suit came into view. “I would’ve thought that your first words would’ve been, ‘he can’t be allowed to hurt our students.’”

“It’s implied, Seller,” Risa snapped at the man from Eden’s Garden. “What are you doing here?”

It was Dare who answered. “He’s helping. Flick obviously called for his aid. Which is good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have all the help we can get to deal with a Fomorian who managed to survive the war and escaped being banished. He’s gone unnoticed this entire time. We can’t just let the ridiculous Garden/Crossroads division matter right now.”

Seller gave a brief bow. “Yes,” he murmured in agreement. “Besides, regardless of where they happen to attend school, I prefer not to leave my more promising descendants in danger. Particularly from a Fomorian.”

Nevada’s head snapped around at that, and she felt her own surprise jump. Her mouth opened to question what he meant, but she stopped herself. She had to focus on what was happening, not get distracted. Even if it was an announcement like that. Because if he was related to Flick, that meant that he was related to… Oh.

Virginia stepped away to use a telepathy power to contact Deveron on the inside to let him know what was going on. She also used the same mental discussion to get a report from the boy about the full situation inside.

Deveron. According to Gaia after a discussion the woman had had with the boy, he was the one who had originally recruited Nevada to join the school. He was the one who convinced her to turn herself into a human, and then a Heretic. After, of course, she had altered the Edge to allow hybrid students.

Before then, Nevada had simply… not really thought about who had recruited her. That was the power of the spell that had been used. Even though she’d clearly thought about the fact that she’d been recruited by a Heretic, she simply hadn’t thought about who it had been. And nothing about the fact that she couldn’t remember who he was, this man who had changed her life so much, had actually struck her as odd.

Magic scared her sometimes. And the fact that it frightened even her, a former Djinn, said… well, it said a lot. And at some point, she was going to have to have a discussion with Deveron about everything that she couldn’t remember.

Soon. She’d talk to him soon.

Meanwhile, Risa and Seller took a moment to put aside their initial hostility and talked about exactly what they were going to do once the spell went down. Then the Eden’s Garden Heretic stepped away to do something of his own that would apparently mask his own presence from the shield.

Of course, since he was apparently related to Flick and Koren, the spell would let him through anyway. But it would also alert the Fomorian to his arrival, so the man was doing something that would hide him from the spell once he passed through it.

Eventually, they were ready. Seller gave a quick salute before moving through the spell to cause a distraction. The man had enchanted a couple of stones, placing one in his pocket while leaving the other with Nevada and the others so that they could all hear what was going on.

“Tell me you’re ready, Wyatt,” Virginia urged, clearly not wanting to wait any longer.

“Ready,” the man confirmed.

Dare sent the message through to Seller, and the rest of them took a moment to gather their energy for the last push to break the blood shield. Meanwhile, they listened as the emerald-suited man announced his arrival to interrupt the Fomorian, who was apparently trying to convince Flick or Koren to choose which of them would go with him. Nevada tightened her fist, snarling under her breath while focusing on her own power.

Then Seller’s voice announced that if Dare was going to do it, she should do it right then. And on cue, Nevada, Ulysses, Risa, and Virginia all helped Wyatt by pouring their power into the spell that the enchantment expert had created. The invisible wall vanished, and they were through. Through and ready to make sure the Fomorian didn’t escape, and never hurt one of their students again.


“Where are they?” The booming demand came from the doorway that led into Koren’s house, and Nevada looked up from her slumped over position to find Gabriel Ruthers standing there, flanked by Gaia.

“The Fomorian, Chambers, and Fellows,” the man demanded before Nevada or any of the other exhausted and clearly bloodied figures could respond. “Where are they? If you let them escape–”

“Felicity and Koren are fine,” Virginia snapped. The woman was busy holding her hand tight against a deep wound in her own stomach until it could heal. “Physically, anyway. And the Fomorian’s body is in there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the kitchen. “He’s dead. But he got off a message. We’re not sure what it said, but… probably too much.”

“If they’re fine, then where are they?” Ruthers’s voice was dark.

“Eden’s Garden,” Risa answered without looking toward the man. The woman’s vision would take awhile to return after the fog that the Fomorian had released into her face had eaten away most of her eyes. “Koren’s mother was… critically injured. They took her to Eden’s Garden to have her turned into a Heretic so that–”

What?!” Ruthers’s voice turned into a bellow. His fury was palpable. “You allowed them to—what kind of failur–”

“Gabriel,” Gaia snapped. “Leave. The situation is handled. You and I can discuss it further later.”

At first, Nevada thought the man was going to blow his gasket and start screaming at Gaia right there. His face reddened and he glared at the woman for a few seconds before taking a visible breath. “You, I, and the rest of the Committee. We will all discuss this. And everything else.”

“I can’t possibly contain my excitement at the prospect, Gabriel.” Gaia replied flatly. “Now leave, and let me attend to my staff. There’s clearly no need for your presence here.”

“We’ll see where my presence is required, Gaia,” the man retorted.

“We will most certainly see.”

Then the man was gone, just as abruptly as he had arrived. Gaia let out a visible breath before stepping further into the building. Her attention was on the rest of them, her voice soft. “Are all of you all right?”

“We’ll be okay,” Ulysses replied for them, shifting his half-mangled form with a grunt. “Can’t say that tangling with a Fomorian is any more fun than it used to be, though.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would be,” Gaia murmured before stepping over to lay a hand on Nevada’s arm. “I’m going to discuss things with Seller, and find out how the others are. Tristan was pulled along with Felicity’s travel to Eden’s Garden.” She paused briefly. “And so was Roxanne.”

“Pittman?” Ulysses blurted. “How—oh damn it, she was touching him, wasn’t she?”

“They were surfing,” Gaia confirmed. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach them in time to prevent it. And now… now I fear what might have happened if she wasn’t pulled the entire distance. If she–” The woman stopped, obviously not wanting to put voice to the fear.

“Go,” Virginia urged. “Make sure they’re okay.”

“I have to ask,” Gaia started first, focusing on Nevada. “You… you were the one who killed him, weren’t you?”

Nevada nodded. “Yeah. Well, we all killed him, but that last hit, that was me.”

“And did you… gain anything from it?” the headmistress asked carefully.

Risa interrupted. “Why would you even have to ask that? Heretics don’t get powers from killing Fomorians. That’s one of the things that makes them such a pain in the ass. We all know that.”

“Normally, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But I thought perhaps… Nevada’s uniqueness would be different.”

“You mean the fact that I used to be a Djinn, and that it’s magic that made me human,” Nevada realized before shaking her head. “No. No, I didn’t get anything from it. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t feel any different.”

Gaia met her gaze intently for a few seconds before nodding. “If that changes… tell me. If our hybrids are going to react to Fomorian kills any differently than a normal Heretic, we need to know about it.

“The last thing we need, at this point, is another surprise.”

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-06

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“You know, I’d say that you’re fucking crazy,” I retorted after a few seconds of silence. “But I’m pretty sure all of this,” I gestured around the room a bit wildly, “pretty much made that a forgone conclusion.”

The grayish-green, sharp-edged face of the Fomorian simply smiled at me for a moment before speaking. “Why do you believe that, out of every species in this vast universe, humans are somehow able to form genetic bonds with what you call Strangers? A trillion creatures in this unending void, and, for some unexplained reason, only your species is capable of becoming one of these… Heretics. Truly?”

He made a dismissive gesture then before tapping the table in front of him. “Think about it. Try to comprehend the odds against such a thing. Humans, for no reason whatsoever, genetically bond with any other sapient creature simply by bathing in their blood sufficiently? Think of the manufactured Heretics such as yourselves. That’s simply taking the same premise to genetically bond an entire army of humans using the exact same creature, what you call the Hangman. A natural Heretic, whatever name they may go by, isn’t that different. They simply bond their genetics to a different creature.”

Deveron hadn’t lowered his weapon. His voice was dark. “Forgive me if I’m not falling all over myself to believe a word out of your mouth. Now, I believe I said to let the babies go.” His thumb pulled the hammer of the flintlock pistol back with a decisive click. “I rarely repeat myself once. Never twice.”

If the threat meant anything to the Fomorian, he didn’t show it. Instead, the creature simply looked to me. “The power and knowledge of our race is considerable. But we are relatively few in number, as far as that goes. We reproduce rarely, and many of those offspring don’t exactly survive to completion.”

Glancing toward Deveron and then back again, I swallowed hard before forcing myself to speak. Whatever it took to waste enough time that Seller, Professor Dare, and the others could make it here. We needed help. “So you’re saying that you created humans as, what, some kind of military project?”

That smile returned. “Indeed. Very good. We created your race to serve as our soldiers, our warriors so that we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with such… barbarism. Humanity was conceived as the ultimate weapon with the ability to bond yourselves with the genetics of any other sapient creature. No matter what race we found ourselves competing against, our new soldiers would be able to bond to them. Any advantages, abilities, or genetic gifts these other species possessed, you would be able to gain those very same gifts simply by taking a bit of their blood. You were our most glorious creation.”

Koren, arms still buried in her mother’s back to pump her heart, was in tears. “If you like us so much,” she demanded, “then why the hell are you doing this?! Help my mom! Or tell us what you want!”

Tutting her with a wagging finger, the Fomorian shook his head. “In due time, in due time.” He glanced briefly to Deveron, looking him up and down once more before continuing with a sigh of lamentation. “If all had gone as planned, humanity would’ve spread over the universe, serving as soldiers to expand our reach far beyond what we ourselves could possibly have maintained given our low population.”

Keep him talking and distracted, a voice in my head instructed. Deveron, obviously. Dare is already outside with reinforcements. They’ll be in here as soon as they can get that damn shield down.

Swallowing hard, I made myself stare at the Fomorian when all I really wanted to do was run to Koren and her mother… my sister. I forced my attention to stay on him. “But it didn’t go as planned, did it?”

His eyes, suddenly hard and dark, stared at me in a way that made me want to shrink backwards in spite of myself. The voice that came was much less calm than it had been. “No,” he spat. “A traitor to our cause, a traitor to our species, abandoned the project and took the only true samples with him. He came here, to this planet, and released them into the wild. They became your first ancestors. And we spent millennia searching for our stolen creations. Imagine our pure joy when we arrived on this world and found that, not only have you reproduced into the billions, but that some of you had already discovered your ability to bond the genetic abilities of other species to yourselves. Our creations were achieving our dreams. Given the proper direction and guidance, you would easily serve your original purpose.”

He tapped the table a few times, staring down at it before muttering. “Little did we realize that our worst enemies, the closest creatures our species has to contemporaries, had already found you and begun to influence your growth. Their leadership knew our creation, knew what you were capable of. They sought you the same as we had, and they found you sooner. So, to prevent you from becoming what you were meant to be, they first created a magical curse, an effect that would prevent your species from realizing that any other sapient race existed. They sought to ensure the failure of our project by stunting your growth. Their magic is what you refer to as the Bystander Effect.”

“The Seosten,” I realized, lifting my chin. “You’re talking about the Seosten. They’re your enemies.”

That dark, hate-filled look came back for a moment before the creature shook it off. He continued in a falsely sweet, calm voice that wasn’t fooling any of us. “Yes. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect to block our wonderful creations from fulfilling their purpose. Except, that wasn’t enough. You, our wonderful, perfect, most glorious experiments, could not be contained. Some of you managed to accidentally bond yourselves to other creatures anyway. And such bonding destroyed their curse, freeing you to become more than what you were. These, what some of you call ‘wild Heretics’, terrified the Seosten. And they were right to be frightened. Our creations cannot be hobbled that easily.”

From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Deveron’s attention was on Koren, and her eyes were shut while tears continued to fall freely down her cheeks. Her shoulders were shaking heavily. My best guess, my hope was that Deveron was trying to reassure her, promising her that there would be help for her mother soon. All she had to do was keep it together, keep pumping the heart until they got here.

Before the Fomorian could start paying attention to them, I made myself ask a question. Be a reporter, Flick, I told myself. Ask questions, make him keep talking. He obviously wants to, so play into that.

“So they tried something else, didn’t they?” I put in slowly. “After their Bystander Effect didn’t work.”

“They tried many things,” the Fomorian retorted sharply. “One of which was to guide you themselves. Who do you think was behind the creation of your Academy? They guide you the way they wish, subtly pointing you to their enemies.” His smile returned. “Even our greatest threat recognizes the glory of our creation. They loathe us, but they don’t hesitate to use humans to achieve their own goals.”

“You know what the real question is?” I asked while looking straight at the creature. “Why are you telling us this? Why are you even here? It’s like Koren asked, what the hell do you even want? You set this whole thing up to, what, get us here and then monologue at us about your race for some reason?”

“Well, no,” the Fomorian replied. “Not exactly. You see, I actually did all of this,” he indicated the babies around us, “to ensure Koren’s cooperation. Your sudden arrival and ability to bypass the shield was unexpected, and I was forced to improvise with… that.” He waved a hand toward Koren and her mother. “True, I could have simply taken my prize and left. But I wished to see for myself why you were both capable of passing the blood shield. And now that I’ve looked you over, I understand. You and Koren here are both descended from the Atherby line. He,” the Fomorian nodded toward Deveron, “is not related to the Atherby’s. But he is related to Koren, and so he was able to pass the shield.”

Before I could say anything to that, he went on unprompted. “As for why I came here to begin with, well, that has to do with the destruction that the Baroness who currently runs your Seosten-crafted Academy brought against my people. We arrived here, finally locating our lost creations and sought to retrieve them. Sought to give you all purpose, to free you from this pitiful backwards existence. But, just as many children rebel against their parents out of ignorance, the Heretics fought us. Most likely directed by our Seosten enemies, of course. But either way, their resistance would not have succeeded.”

Not bothering to resist the urge to smirk at him, I nodded. “Until Gaia destroyed your portal so you couldn’t come here anymore.”

The Fomorian made a noise that was somehow simultaneously dismissive and annoyed. “I have just finished telling you that we created humanity and crossed the entire universe searching for that lost creation. Do you really believe that destroying a single portal would have been enough to block us?”

Well, when he put it that way… I frowned. “What do you mean? You could just make another one? If so, then where is it? Why haven’t all your people come back? Because you’ve obviously been alone for a long time. Otherwise you wouldn’t be such a Chatty Cathy right now. How long has it been since you had an actual conversation? Over a hundred years? That’s gotta get pretty boring, doesn’t it? If you guys could make another portal and come back any time you wanted, your people would’ve done it by now.”

He smiled thinly, a dangerous, evil look. “The Atherbys.”

“Mom’s family?” I frowned, shaking my head. “What do they have to do with any of this?”

“They,” the Fomorian answered, “were part of a group of Hunters. Wild Heretics, unaligned with any school. The patriarch of the clan was the close friend and protege of the one known as Gabriel Prosser.”

“Prosser,” I echoed, breathing the familiar name. “The ex-slave who fought the Hangman demon. He knew our mother’s family? They were… they were close?” I had long-since stopped wondering how this creature knew about my mom even after the spell that the Heretics had done. If Fossor had a way of protecting his own memory from such things, I wasn’t surprised that this Fomorian had one as well.

“The very same,” he confirmed with a sly smile. “Why do you think your mother was so easily able to find aid from his camp when she needed it? The one called Prosser remembers his allies. He came when she needed him, because her father was once one of his closest, dearest friends and confidants.”

Shrugging then, the Fomorian added, “Then Joshua Atherby allied himself with Gaia Sinclaire. Both sought to end my race’s ability to come to this world. She, your baroness, would destroy our physical portal. Meanwhile, Joshua Atherby and his wife would sacrifice themselves to empower a spell that would bar our entry into this world. Very, very few of us escaped that spell through the sheer luck of being in mid-transit upon this world when it was cast. Most of my people that were here were either eradicated or sent back through the portal upon its destruction. And with the empowered spell blocking the rest of them from ever creating another portal to this place, we were stranded and alone.

“And I have spent over what you call a century searching for the method to reverse that spell. Only to eventually find that I could not do it myself. Because that, of course, would be entirely too simple.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I straightened with realization. “An Atherby made the spell, so you needed an Atherby to undo it. You had to find one of Joshua Atherby’s descendants.”

Deveron finally spoke up then. “That couldn’t have been fun, especially after they erased Joselyn from all the records and hid her away. Believe me, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what that’s like.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” The Fomorian regarded him briefly before making a noise of annoyance. “Indeed. I finally located the correct family after many, many years of searching through every possible dead end, only to find that, of all preposterous things, Joselyn Atherby’s daughter was not a Heretic.

I suppressed the urge to laugh in his face. “And you needed her to be a Heretic, because non-Heretics can’t use magic. You were stuck. You spent all that time looking for an Atherby to bring your people back, and you finally found one that you couldn’t even use. Must’ve sucked to be you right then.”

The Fomorian glared at me for a moment. At the same time, the babies that he was connected to began to squirm and whine a little. Obviously, their connection was close enough that they could feel his anger. I was going to have to watch out for that.

In the end, however, he gave a short nod. “Yes. It… sucked, as you say. I was forced to employ… alternative methods. I created a Stranger attack and involved Joselyn Atherby’s granddaughter. I hoped that such an event would prompt Crossroads Academy to take her on as a student. It required that I alter a human being sufficiently to provide the Heretic investigators with their supposed culprit, but my efforts were successful. The child was, eventually, taken into the school and turned into a full Heretic.

“After that, I simply had to wait for the child to come home. Unfortunately, I learned that the Heretics were planning on secretly moving this family, to protect them from some external threat. To avoid losing my opportunity, I simply disposed of the original father and took his place, changing their memories so that they would believe it had always been that way.”

I saw the way Koren froze up, her tears coming anew from the way the Fomorian so offhandedly mentioned ‘disposing of’ her father. It made me want to put my staff through his smug, stupid face. Oh god. Her dad. Koren’s dad. Was he really… was he… For a second I couldn’t find my voice.

It didn’t matter. The Fomorian went on anyway. “I replaced the human, changed their memories, and waited for the brand-new Heretic Atherby to come back to me. We were about to depart, so that Koren could begin learning what she needs to do to remove the spell that blocks my people from arriving, when you passed through the shield and my curiosity was piqued.”

“And now?” I pressed, hoping against hope that the shield would be down any second. Where the hell was Seller, anyway? He should’ve been able to pass through the shield too. So where was he?

“Now… I suppose I should offer you a choice,” the Fomorian mused. “I only require one Heretic Atherby. It could be either of you.” He looked back and forth between us. “Do I have a volunteer?” He smiled then. “You see? I can be reasonable. I only require one of you to fulfill my goal, and all of the others will be free to go. Even the tiny offspring.”

“They’re not going with you.”

The voice wasn’t Deveron. It was Seller. The man in the emerald suit was standing at the back of the room, close to the Fomorian and directly behind Koren and Abigail.

Whipping his head that way, the Fomorian made an appraising noise. “… an ancestor. Another relative of Atherby… but I should have felt you pass through the shield.”

“Yeah, sorry about taking so long,” Seller casually mentioned in my direction. “I had to make sure your friend here wouldn’t notice me going through the shield. Us old-school Heretics have lots of fun little tricks. And speaking of fun little tricks, if you’re gonna do it, Dare, do it now.”

It took me a second to process his last few words. By the time I had, Professor Dare was suddenly in the room, alongside Professor Kohaku, Professor Katarin, and Nevada.

“I’d tell you to let our students go,” Dare spoke to the creature in a dark voice. “But I think I’ll just make sure you never bother them again.”

The Fomorian somehow looked simultaneously astounded and furious. “That is impossible,” he spat. “It would take any human at least twice as long as that to bring down the blood shield, and I would have felt it beginning to weaken.”

“Well, we have something you don’t,” Deveron informed him.

Wyatt, I thought with a smile. We have a Wyatt. I didn’t know how he was as good as he was with magic, but I was beyond glad that he was. I owed him… everything.

“No matter,” the Fomorian decided, giving them a doubtful look. “I have researched you, Miss Dare. And the rest of you. None of you would risk the lives of so many innocent offspring of your species. Perhaps others in your camp, but not you.”

“You’re not wrong,” Dare conceded. “So you should ask yourself, why exactly would we come in here then?”

“Oh right,” Seller snapped his fingers. “That’s the other thing I was doing while you were babbling: protecting the babies from you.”

Before the Fomorian could respond to that, Dare yanked her sword from its place at her hip. Just like when I had seen her destroy all those peridles, she slammed the blade into a portal that appeared on the floor. More portals appeared around each of the umbilical cords that connected the Fomorian to the infants, and she cut through each of them at once.

Immediately after that, Seller flipped a coin out of his pocket. It flew through the air, catching the candlelight briefly before seeming to disappear.

And just like that, I was outside on the grass. A bunch of babies were lying in their incubators all around me, and Koren was nearby with her mother.

Professor Dare and Seller had worked together to sever the Fomorian’s connection to the babies without hurting them, and Seller had done something to send us all outside. Meanwhile, they were in there, fighting that… creature.

Wyatt was there too, lying unconscious on the grass with his hand outstretched. Apparently bringing the shield down that fast had taken a lot out of him.

“Flick!” Koren screamed, yanking my attention to her. She was still sobbing, and her arms were still in her mother. “Pl-please, help. Please help me, help me. I don’t know what to do. He said if I stopped, if I didn’t… she’d… she’ll… I—I c-can’t. Please, Flick. Please.” Her tears were falling freely, and she could clearly barely form the words. “Please, if m-my dad… I… I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Pl-please. Please… I can’t lose her too. Please. I’m sorry I was mean before. I’m sorry for everything I ever said. I don’t know… I don’t know. I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Please help me. Please. Please.”

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I stammered, staring at the hole in Abigail’s back. That wasn’t normal medicine. It wasn’t anything regular doctors could fix, and Heretic healing abilities didn’t work on Bystanders. Unless…

Seller!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Seller, get out here, we need you! Seller! Se–”

“Easy, kid,” the man’s voice spoke tensely as he appeared there, hand on my shoulder. “I’m here. Though I should be in there, helping your teachers. A Fomorian is no joke, especially as annoyed as that one is. You–”

“Seller, damn it, look!” I pointed to Abigail. “In case you’ve been away from normal humans for too long, that’s not something they can fix.”

Paling a little even in the darkness, Seller took a step that way and knelt down. He put a hand on Koren’s arm, then another on Abigail. “How you doing, kid?”

“P-please, sir…” Koren whimpered the words weakly. “Please help her. If you can help her, please.”

He looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “You know what you’re saying. What you’re asking. What it’ll mean. The shit-storm it’ll provoke.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “I’m pretty sure Ruthers will lose his fucking mind. I don’t care. She’s my sister, Seller. Your descendant. You wanted to start helping us, watching out for us? Then start now. Start with her. I know Crossroads won’t like it, but do it anyway. Take her. Save her life. You did it with Avalon, now do it with Abigail. Make her a Heretic.”

“Kid?” Seller asked, looking toward Koren.

Her head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Please. Whatever it takes, just save her. Save my mom.”

Breathing out, Seller finally nodded. “All right. Well, I’ll take her then. I’ll uh, have to take you too,” he informed Koren. “At least until we get this whole… thing sorted out.” He indicated where her arms were to demonstrate.

Go ahead, Deveron’s voice spoke in my head. We’ve got this. I’ll explain it to the others, somehow. Get Abigail the help she needs. Make sure she’s okay. I… I can’t go. Go for me. Please.

“Yeah,” I confirmed out loud, addressing both Deveron and Seller at once. “And you’re taking me too. Koren and I are both going with you, to make sure Abigail’s all right.” When he started to object, I snapped, “Call it a diplomatic visit, because we’re related. Call it whatever the hell you want, but I’m not leaving until I know Abigail’s okay.”

The man cursed briefly. But before he could say anything else, another voice spoke up. “Me too.”

Wyatt. He was awake, straightening up weakly. “I… I’m going too.” Clearing his throat, obviously still exhausted, he nonetheless announced, “I’ll go as… as Felicity and Koren’s security escort. To make sure they’re safe.” His eyes were on Abigail, on his sister.

Seller hung his head for a second before straightening. “You’re all my descendants, so it could work. But it’ll be tricky. You don’t go anywhere without me, you don’t do anything unless I say to, got it? This isn’t gonna be a picnic. So just… damn it, stay close and don’t push your luck.”

I nodded along with the other two, most of my attention riveted to Abigail, who still looked completely out of it.

Seller sighed briefly. “Okay then. I guess you’re all coming to Eden’s Garden for a little visit.

“Gabriel help us.”

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Mini-Interlude 3 – Shiori

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“Boys and girls!” the voice of Professor Katarin bellowed over the sound of Shiori’s Hunter track-mates excitedly chattering back and forth as they stood at the edge of the jungle entrance on the far end of the school grounds. “I will ask for your attention once. If you do not give it to me immediately, you will spend the next four Saturdays in my classroom writing an essay on exactly why ignoring the man that is about to take you into the jungle is a very, very bad idea! Now, do I have your attention?”

There was a chorus of answers. Unlike in most groups, everyone spoke up clearly, because Professor Katarin wasn’t most teachers. He was somehow able to zero in on exactly who mumbled or didn’t answer at all, and single them out for a severe dressing down. The group as a whole had been broken of that kind of habit very early on. Katarin didn’t expect you to mumble when he asked a question, he wanted to hear your voice loud and clear. He was scary and loud, but very fair in his treatment.

After ensuring that he had everyone’s attention, the man continued while his eyes scanned them all, watching for any interruptions. “We are about to engage in a hunt for what creature, Mr. Calburn?”

Shiori’s head turned a little toward Paul Calburn, who stood a few feet away. The boy was six feet tall, with the kind of build that came from working on a ranch. In spite of his height and build, however, he was also extremely polite and courteous, always holding the door for people and offering to help with anything they needed. That said, he was also very cocky, certain of his own skill. Even now, he was smiling broadly at the man. “Why, yessir, Professor Katarin, sir. We’re heading out to hunt Jekern.”

“Exactly, now what is the very fucked up thing about Jekern… Miss Pittman?” Katarin’s attention turned toward Paul’s teammate that shared this track with him, a Bystander-kin girl named Roxa.

The girl herself, whose blonde hair and surfer build made her look more like she should be out on a wave somewhere rather than hunting monsters (not that Shiori was in any position to judge, though she did have a rather distractedly pleasant figure), laid a hand on the head of Gidget, her large mechanical cougar. “Sure thing, Professor. The fucked up thing about Jekern is that once they hit a certain size, another Jekern grows up inside of them. Then once that Jekern’s big enough, it like… you know, makes another one inside it. So when you kill one, there’s another inside it, and another, and another all the way down to the little tiny shits that can fit in the palm of your hand. It’s totally nasty and weird, sir.” Her head tilted then, just a little bit. “But kinda cool, if you’re into what the fuck kind of stuff.”

“Indeed,” Katarin confirmed. “On all counts. And if you want to be a Hunter, you’re gonna have to be at least somewhat ‘into what the fuck kind of stuff.’” He cleared his throat then. “Now, I’ll be watching and evaluating how you all choose to handle these creatures. You’ll be divided into trios. Each of your groups will be given the general location of one Jekern ‘individual.’ The three of you will work to subdue and eliminate each of the Jekern. If you run into trouble and need help, you’ll have signal flares.” His voice grew louder. “Use them if you need to. I do not dock points for anyone that has to ask for help. I do throw punishments at people who don’t ask for help when they obviously need it. Questions?”

“Uhh, yeah, I’ve got one.” One of the other boys raised his hand. “If we kill these things, are we gonna, like… start making smaller versions of ourselves inside our chests or something? Cuz that’s… pretty fucked up, Professor. Even for Heretics.”

Katarin actually chuckled. “All I’ll say is that it hasn’t happened so far. Maybe you’ll be the first.” Winking, he added, “No, we don’t grow our own miniature clones inside ourselves. In our case, inheriting the Jekern’s power involves growing smaller, more efficient back-up organs. Get stabbed through the heart, the power deploys the reinforcement duplicate heart in its place. That sort of thing. Or, of course, the lightning breath.”

Once that was settled, Professor Katarin began to point to each student in turn, starting with Shiori herself. “Porter, Pittman, Calburn, you’re one group. Stand over there until it’s time to go.”

Stepping out of the way alongside Roxa and Paul, Shiori shifted her weight from one side to the other. As usual these days, her attention drifted toward Flick. Especially her eyes. Pretty and brown, like chocolate. They made her feel… safe, and had done so since the moment that the other girl had made it clear that she both knew and accepted what Shiori was, and that she was not an irredeemable monster.

But it was more than that. She didn’t just feel protected by Flick, she also felt protective of the girl herself. As scary as being on that other world had been, it was also one of the best times she’d actually had since coming to this school. And the vast majority of the reason for that was Flick Chambers.

Of course, it wasn’t just Flick’s eyes that were distracting, and Shiori felt her face grow pink as her mind drifted just a little bit. Noooo, no no. No. Bad Shiori. Focus. Straightening, she turned a somewhat guilty look toward her two partners, both of whom were engaged in an animated conversation about the creature they were about to hunt down.

Right. Focus. Hunt now, think about Flick and the way her uniform hugged her… eyes later.

Wait. Crap. That didn’t work.


A deafening roar filled the air, followed by the sound of thundering hooves as the massive warthog creature, whose shoulders stood over six feet in height, came charging directly toward Shiori. The damn thing wasn’t just big, it was also incredibly fast. Which was weird, considering the weight they were carrying around inside them. Then again, absolutely everything about this creature was weird.

Rather than freeze up, Shiori threw herself into a backward flip. Her feet hit the tree behind her, and the wall-crawling ability she had inherited from the Daesimalo during training took over, rooting her to the wood.

Unfortunately, the Jekern proceeded to crash into the tree so hard it literally tore through the thing. The tree that Shiori was perched on the side of collapsed, and she quickly leapt to the next one, startling a snake that had been coiled around the branches. It hissed at her, but unwound itself from the tree to retreat.

It was a good thing for the snake’s hide that it did, because the Jekern had already pivoted and located her. Only this time, rather than charge, it leaned its head back to glare up at her. An instant later, a bolt of lightning erupted from the thing’s open mouth. Only Shiori’s incredible reflexes allowed her to hurl herself away from that tree before the lightning tore the top half of it apart. She flipped through the air, landing neatly against another tree.

Before the Jekern could shoot at her again, Paul took a quick step in from the side. He swung one of his two hand-axes, nicknamed Pain and Panic. The short blade dug into the side of the giant warthog, before Paul yanked it free and rolled backwards to avoid the Jekern’s retaliatory tusk-swing as it spun toward him with a bellow.

“Y’all okay up there, Shiori?” Paul called to her while dancing backward away from a feint charge, the warthog testing his reflexes.

“Yup!” she replied, unable to resist adding, “I feel bad about the other tree though. Poor sap.”

The boy groaned at that, just before the Jekern lunged toward him. Rather than let it run him down, however, Paul literally split in half. His right half replaced the other part of itself with water shaped like the rest of his body, while his left half did the same with glowing, crackling flames. Each held one of his small axes.

As the giant warthog charged right through the area that the boy had just been in, his flame and water-matched selves each swung their weapon. Pain and Panic cut into the creature, and it bellowed in pain that time.

Shiori knew what was happening. Every time one of Paul’s weapons struck something, it marked the thing it hit. For about ten minutes after that, every time the same weapon hit anything, it would do the exact same damage (multiplied in cases of hitting the same creature multiple times) to the marked creature. She’d seen Paul use that by hitting several creatures with smaller nicks just to mark them, then decapitating another creature, subsequently killing all the ones he had already struck.

Unable to keep the two halves of his body separated for longer than a few seconds, Paul returned them together, fusing once more as the fire and water faded away. As the Jekern reared back, he brought both axes slamming down into the thing’s heavy side, cutting deep into it.

An instant after that, a second, slightly smaller Jekern tore its way free through the hole that had been created. Meanwhile, its larger self tipped over, an abandoned husk. Shiori could see the thing’s massive ribcage. Some of the bones were broken, revealing flesh on the inside. According to Professor Katarin, the Jekern organs were not only small and very efficient, they were also located inside the heavy, thick bones that made up the creature’s skeletal structure. It didn’t have one large stomach, but a half dozen smaller ones stuffed inside the bones both for protection and to save room. Meanwhile, the bulk of its body area was taken up by a sort of nutrient sack where the next Jekern was curled up, legs tucked underneath itself. That Jekern would have a smaller version inside of its chest and stomach area, and so on down the line.

Paul took a knee as his orange-ish aura flared up, making a slight grunting noise as the pleasure that Shiori knew all too well obviously filled him.

The new Jekern lunged toward the momentarily distracted boy, trying to gore him on its horns. But Shiori reacted faster. Both of her discs went flying from her hands the very second the hole in the side of the original pig-thing had started to widen. As the Jekern lunged at her Hunter trackmate, the discs struck home, smacking the creature right in its eyes with a short burst of electricity. The thing howled, stumbling a little in surprise and pain.

A second later, Gidget the mechanical cougar slammed into the side of the giant warthog, ripping and tearing into it. Briefly blinded, the second Jekern bellowed in anger, shooting off two bolts of lightning in rapid succession that went flying off into the sky.

Leaping down from her tree perch while simultaneously summoning her discs back to her hands, Shiori landed hard on the Jekern’s back. It was like landing on a wild bull. The thing leapt and spun in the same motion, trying to throw her off it while lashing out with a foot at Gidget. The robotic cougar was knocked aside, just as Shiori reached down around the warthog’s neck, a disc in each hand. The line of electricity appeared between the discs, and she planted her feet before hurling herself up and back with a hard yank of the electric line. Strong as the current was at that close range, the line of electricity she had created actually burned through the Jekern’s neck, beheading the thing.

Oh god! It was her turn to feel the pleasure from killing one of the Jekern. Shiori gasped, willing herself to stay focused even as she fumbled in the air.

Which was obviously the cue for the snout of the next Jekern to come shoving its way out of the open neck-hole, the rest of it kicking its way free like a demented chicken coming out of a muscle and organ-filled egg. It was gross, to say the least.

The new warthog thing spun quickly, before the girl had a chance to recover from her burst of pleasure. This one was even faster than its predecessors. Opening its mouth, the creature zeroed in on her and shot off a bolt of lightning with a triumphant bellow. Caught in midair, if she was alone, Shiori would have been hit straight on. She could’ve turned into sand, but quite frankly, she wasn’t eager to find out what would happen if her sand-form was struck directly by lightning.

Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Even as the bolt came racing toward her, Shiori felt herself being grabbed. Roxa, moving faster than most people should’ve been able to (someone else had said that they’d clocked the girl doing over sixty in a sprint), slammed into her hard. Both girls went flying off to the side, the lightning bolt narrowly missing.

Rather than hit the ground, Shiori felt something else rise up to catch the two of them. It was Gidget, transformed from cougar mode into an elaborate hoverboard. Roxa planted her feet confidently, taking a second to make sure Shiori was on, then made a hard left to avoid the giant tree in their way. The board skimmed the surface of the tree before righting itself.

“You good, dude?” Roxa called into Shiori’s ear over the sound of the creature bellowing angrily.

“Yup,” she confirmed, giving her an only slightly shaky thumbs up. Below, they could both see Paul tangling with the Jekern, keeping it busy. He would occasionally split himself into his half-fire and water selves for several seconds to make the thing split its attention.

“Gonna pin it down!” She called back over her shoulder before leaping off the flying board. In the same motion, Shiori threw her discs. They spun down, the electrical cord springing to life between them just as they passed on either side of the creature to hit the ground. The Jekern was knocked down, bellowing as the sparking energy coursed through it.

Paul threw himself out of the way, tucking into a roll as his two halves came back together. In the same moment, Roxa sent her board on a strafing run straight over the Jekern. As she approached, two small gun barrels popped out of either side of the board, while a slightly larger barrel rose from the front end, attached to a sort of handle and control yoke. Roxa caught hold of it, thumbs hitting the buttons on either handle. Instantly, the three barrels opened up, unleashing a torrent of gunfire down into the temporarily pinned creature.

For a moment, Shiori let herself wonder about something that had been bothering her for awhile. What made certain animals qualify as ‘Strangers’ (or Alters) and others not? Well, obviously this creature was definitely strange and had to be using unnatural abilities in order to even exist. But at exactly what level of oddness did something become a ‘Stranger?’ How did that work?

Shaking that uncertainty away, she forced herself to focus. Stay alive, learn to fight, be a good little Heretic. Follow Gaia’s plan. Prove the headmistress right.


The fight went on for awhile like that. In the end, the Jekern had seven distinct selves, each smaller, faster, and somehow meaner than the last. That or the smaller ones were just severely pissed off at their attackers by the time they had a chance to fight. And were therefore very motivated.

Either way, the fight was long and brutal. Shiori’s entire body felt like one big bruise by the time she dropped beside the last Jekern body, one about the size of her head. The damn thing had been shooting lightning so fast, over and over again, that it took them awhile to even get close enough to see it. And now it was dead, its body cracked apart by a shot from Gidget.

Dropping to one knee beside the body to pant for breath, Shiori watched as Roxa and Paul each took turns gulping water from the canteen that the boy had brought. Even as she looked that way, Paul was producing a second one, which he tossed toward her.

Shiori leaned forward to catch the canteen. As she moved, a sound caught her ear. Turning her head quickly, she stared at the split apart body of the last Jekern.

It wasn’t the last Jekern. Her eyes spotted the next one in the remains. Except, rather than charging out after them like the others had, this one was simply cowering, half hidden by the rib cage of its… what, parent? The little thing was barely large enough to fit in her cupped hands. And, judging from the way its wide eyes stared at her while it shook violently, it was terrified.

“Hey, Shiori!” Roxa called. “Something wrong?”

“Huh?” She looked that way while the poor little piglet cowered. “Oh, umm… no. No, nothing’s wrong. I’m just gonna… um, pee.” She gestured to the nearby tree, one of the ones that had been tipped over and blown apart. “Right behind there.”

The other two nodded, and Shiori turned her attention back to the Jekern. In as smooth a motion as she could manage, she pushed herself up while simultaneously reaching out to grab the thing. One hand caught it around the body, while her other hand held its mouth shut so it wouldn’t squeal.

It panicked, jerking in her grasp while its snout gave off little sparks of electricity, just enough to tingle. Hurriedly, praying that the other two wouldn’t notice, Shiori moved straight behind the fallen tree without looking over her shoulder. Once there, she went back to one knee and set the Jekern down.

“Shhh,” she whispered intently, staring into the thing’s eyes. “Shhh, it’s okay. It’s all right, I’m not gonna hurt you. I won’t hurt you. Shhh….” Slowly, gingerly, she took her hands off the thing.

Immediately, it shot backwards away from her a few feet, pivoting to keep her in sight. Shiori moved slowly, reaching into the hollow of the fallen, broken tree. “Here. C’mere, little guy.” Putting her hand down on the dirt with her palm up, she reached into her pocket with the other hand and produced a wrapped up granola bar. Breaking it up, she poured a few bits and pieces into her palm, then waited until the tiny piglet sniffed at her fingers and began to take a tentative bite or two.

“See? I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry about your… brothers? Parents? Other selves? I don’t know what it’s called,” she whispered, waiting until the piglet had almost climbed into her hand to get more granola before she slowly, carefully, and gently picked it up again. The thing tried to panic once more, but Shiori quickly moved it just to the hollow of the tree and then set it down inside.

“Hide,” she instructed. “Hide here.” Breaking up the rest of the granola bar, she sprinkled it among the leaves, letting the little Jekern baby go sniffing for it.

“Stay right here, okay?” Shiori whispered. “I’ll come back for you. I’ll come back with more food and then… and then… I dunno. But I’ll help you. Just stay here and be quiet. God, I don’t know if you can even understand anything I’m saying. Probably not. But… please. Just stay. I’ll bring more granola. You seem to like that. Maybe some fruits and…” Shaking herself, she finished. “Just don’t get eaten. Please, please don’t get eaten.”

Pushing herself back to her feet, Shiori moved to join the other two. She was going to have to break the rules even more if she was going to take care of the little guy. But she owed it to him. She just couldn’t bring herself to kill something that looked at her as frightened and cowed as he was. She couldn’t do it.

Besides, she told herself while rejoining the other two for the hike back to meet the rest of their trackmates, weren’t mercy and restraint the very things she wanted to help Heretics learn when it came to Alters?

This would either be good practice, or it would end up getting Shiori into a lot of trouble.

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First Hunt 4-01

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“So, I know you’re a Silverstone and all, but you do know that tonight is kind of a big deal, right?”

I blinked once at the boy who was talking. He was one of the other students in my year, a thin and aristocratic looking guy with hawkish features and a thin nose with a golden stud in it that was shaped like a heart. I hadn’t interacted with him much over the last few weeks, but I knew his name was Zeke, and he was on a team with Vanessa and Erin. That team consisted of those three, Zeke’s roommate Malcolm, as well as Travis and Rudolph, the two guys that Columbus and Sean hung out with.

“Yeah, sure,” I replied to him after a second. “Some kind of once a month team exercise thing.” Belatedly, after letting my eyes move over the crowded patch of grass near the Pathmaker building where all the first years had been gathered, I added, “Everyone seems pretty amped up.”

That was an understatement. There was a current of anticipation running through the students who knew what was going on that reminded me of being a kid at school right before Christmas vacation. This was obviously something they’d really been waiting for and looking forward to for a long time.

Zeke nodded, eyes never leaving me. Or rather, never leaving a particular spot a few inches above my eyes. “Right, and the ‘team exercise thing’ is a big deal. Most of us, those of us who grew up waiting for our chance to be here, have been dreaming about how these events would go since we were toddlers.”

I smiled at that, giving him a thumbs up while being careful not to move too much. “Hey, good to know. Hope it lives up to the hype. Good luck to your team and everything.”

“Uh huh.” His eyes hadn’t moved. “So you know this is a big deal. Great. So I have to ask, why aren’t you taking it seriously, exactly? Do you think it’s funny to mock the things that we like?”

“Mock?” I echoed blankly. “How am I mocking it?”

His eyes dropped a bit to squint at me. “This is our first big Heretic fight, you know? The first time we get a chance to fight as teams and actually go after real bad guys. Sure, it’s a fight with the training wheels on and the staff is right there to grab us if anything happens, but still. Big fight. Big chance to look like heroes, to be heroes. It’s a big deal, Felicity. You could at least pretend to take it seriously.”

“One, it’s Flick.” I reminded him. “And two, how am I not taking it seriously?”

By that point, Zeke was speaking through gritted teeth, unable to mask his annoyance any further. “If you’re taking it seriously, then why is there a rock on your head with a plastic sword taped to it?”

It was Columbus who spoke up from beside me. “Hey, I’m working on the little guy’s real weapon, but it took longer to get time in the metal shop than I thought, okay? The plastic’s just a placeholder.”

Grinning, I reached up to pat Herbie while remaining careful not to move my head too much so that he would remain perched a few inches in front of my ponytail. “Yeah, you just said everyone around here really looks forward to this. Can you blame the little guy for wanting to get in on the action too?”

To Sean, who was standing behind Columbus, I added, “Oh, thanks for the sword by the way. Herbie loves his new weapon, even if it is temporary. It really suits his debonair swashbuckler style.”

The other boy returned my easy smile while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “No problem. I’m gonna need He-Man’s weapon back once Columbo finishes up the metal one, but I don’t mind sharing with Herbie for now. Least this way the little guy gets to feel like he’s contributing.”

“Contributing?” Zeke was looking at us like we were all certifiably insane. “It’s a stupid rock with a couple googly eyes glued on and a plastic sword taped to it. It’s not a–” He started while lashing out as if to smack Herbie right off the top of my head, his annoyance apparently getting the better of him.

It was a move he regretted, since his hand had barely gotten within a few inches of my little buddy before Avalon seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Her hand closed around the boy’s wrist, and she gave a slight twist that made him abruptly turn sideways and drop to one knee with a yelp of pain.

“Funny,” my roommate stated flatly, her voice cold. “I’m pretty sure you don’t usually get a chance to make the whole ‘don’t touch a hair on my teammate’s head’ thing quite this literal. So I’m going to make this one count.” Leaning in a bit closer, she made sure the boy was looking at her from his kneeling position before speaking again. “The rock wasn’t bothering you. Neither was Chambers. You’re nervous that you’re going to fuck this up, so you’re looking for something to pick a fight about. Stop it. Shut up, stand up, and walk away. Quit spending so much time and energy obsessing over why someone else is doing something you think is stupid and focus on your own shit. Got it?” When the boy gave a single nod, Avalon released him and watched as he picked himself up. He scowled briefly, but said nothing before turning to slip away, pointedly ignoring the people who were staring.

Briefly meeting my roommate’s gaze, I gave her as much of a nod as possible. She ignored me and returned her attention to her gauntlets, obsessively going over them for any possible imperfection with the same meticulousness that I’d seen her use on her own face in the mirror.

I understood that urge a little bit more now that she’d told me her story. The need to be perfect, the drive to make herself look good extended through both her physical training and the time she spent on her appearance. Avalon had a drive to be as close to perfect as possible, all to prove her father wrong. She worked her ass off constantly to avoid being the helpless little girl that had been abused for so long. This image she’d made of herself, of this untouchable, beautiful badass was something she desperately needed so that she never had to think about the girl she’d been before. Avalon had basically created this almost mythological figure for herself and she worked almost constantly to maintain it.

Over the past week and a half, she and I had been investigating Deveron. We still hadn’t had a chance to get his roommate alone yet, but Avalon said she had an idea for that. I just had to wait to see what it was. In the meantime, I had been going through the library looking for any mention of either him or my mother. It was slow going since I couldn’t ask any of the staff about it, but so far nothing had turned up.

At least my father’s old advice about this sort of work was proving true. Detective work was turning out to involve a lot of reading boring file after boring file until it felt like my eyes were going to bleed.

But it was worth it. I had to know what Deveron’s connection to my mother was, what the hell his deal was in general, and what had happened to both of them. It was all just… insane, and I wanted answers.

Before I could say anything else, Sands and Scout moved up on either side of me, the former slipping right between Columbus so that she could pluck Herbie off my head, giving him a quick peck right above his eyes. “For luck,” she said before grinning my way. “You guys ready to kick ass and take a whole lotta names? Or, you know, as many names as we can take while kicking literally all of the ass.”

I took Herbie back from her, admiring the sword briefly before giving Sands a hip bump. “Actually, I’m kind of freaking out and trying not to show it. Guess that’s why I need my buddy so close.”

Sands met my gaze seriously. “Hey, it’ll be fine. Yeah, I guess it’s kind of scary. We go off as a team to deal with some Strangers and all that. But it’s okay. They’ve got staff monitoring everything the whole time. If something goes wrong, they’ll jump right in. This is just a way of getting our feet wet. After all, they can’t really let us out in four years with just book knowledge and a few classroom battles.”

Scout nodded, though I noticed that the girl was already holding her rifle in front of herself rather than leaving it inside the camera case where it usually was. She was obviously more nervous than her sister.

“Hey, Scout.” I offered my hand to her with the rock in it. “You wanna hold onto Herbie for me? He likes you, and since you’ve got the long distance weapon, he’ll probably be safer with you anyway.”

Smiling, the other girl accepted the little guy, holding him carefully while nodding to me.

“Eyes front, first years!” A voice bellowed, drawing everyone’s attention to where four teachers and the headmistress herself were standing. Professor Katarin was the one speaking, and he had Sands’ and Scout’s father Professor Mason on his left side, as well as Professor Kohaku the art teacher and security track head on his right. Headmistress Sinclaire and Nevada, the cheerleader-looking young woman who had taken over for poor Professor Pericles, were standing near the back, quietly conversing.

“Let’s have some quiet here, huh?” Professor Katarin ordered, the big man’s eyes moving over the crowd of excited (and obviously nervous) teenagers for a few more seconds before he spoke again. “Now here’s the thing, I know this is a big deal for you guys. But it’s a big deal for us too. This is your first hunt. It may be a training wheels hunt since we’ll be setting you down where we know the bad guys are and you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for the whole time. Plus we’ll be watching. But it’s still a real hunt, and there are some real consequences if you fuck up too badly. So if any of you look like you’re going to cause problems or not follow instructions, you’ll sit this out. No warnings, no second chances. That includes anyone we see trying to talk while we’re talking. You don’t pay attention, you’re done for the day. That’s it. You will stay here and you will not participate in any further hunts until we are satisfied that you are ready to take this seriously. Is that understood?”

Katarin waited until there was a chorus of agreement before continuing. “Now, it should also go without saying that if any of you are not comfortable with this hunt and do not think that you are ready, you should absolutely say so. Speak up, and you will not be forced to participate. No one will give you a hard time about sitting it out and waiting until you’re ready, or they’ll answer to me. So, would any of you like to wait until next time to give this a shot? Anyone at all?”

There were no takers. A few people (mostly bystander-kin like me) looked tempted, but no hands went up. Katarin looked around, giving enough time for someone to work up the nerve to be the first to say they wanted to sit out, but when none came, he nodded. “All right then. Headmistress Sinclaire has some things she’d like to say to you. Remember what I said, you talk while she’s talking, you’re done.”

Then it was the headmistress’s turn to speak. She took a moment to look out at everyone, a smile touching her expression before she finally began. “Good evening, everyone. I’m glad to see all of you here, ready for your first live hunt.” Briefly, the woman’s eyes looked toward me while she added, “Each and every one of you was told before accepting your invitation to enroll within Crossroads Academy that this is not a normal school. Over the past month that you have been students here, I hope that fact has been sufficiently impressed upon you so that this evening’s activities do not surprise you.

“We have identified and tracked a different target or small group of targets for each of your teams. These targets have been painstakingly cataloged to ensure that your team is ready to attempt a capture or kill. If you fail, do not be discouraged. Many fail their first attempt. That’s why we do these things rather than simply make you read books on the subject and then expect you to know what to do in a live combat situation. While it is true that many of you will go on to duties that do not involve chase and eliminate, being capable of such live combat is a necessary skill for every Heretic. Make no mistake, even in the less directly violent professions that you may aim for, you will always be a target for the Strangers. You will know them and they will know you. Therefore, you must be prepared to fight, and to kill when it comes down to it. Because they will not hesitate to kill you.”

Inwardly, I noted the second bird that stone happened to kill. Namely, that directing trainees to deal with the less powerful threats also allowed the full Heretics to focus on the more dangerous Strangers.

After letting her words sink in for a few seconds, the baroness spoke again. “Your teams will be sent through the Pathmaker one at a time to your destination, alongside your team mentor and a faculty aid. Both will remain close while you hunt, though the hunt itself will be up to you as much as possible. You will be told what creatures you are hunting, as well as as much information as you require to find them. Be warned, however. In future hunts, your faculty aid may choose to make you rely on what you actually know rather than provide answers, so you will want to be caught up on your studying.”

I rolled my eyes while looking toward the empty spot where—wait, where Deveron was standing? Where the fuck had he come from? Blinking up at the boy, who had somehow managed to position himself right nearby without me noticing until just then, I was so surprised that I actually opened my mouth to say something. At the last instant, I caught myself and halted my voice in its tracks, swallowing back the words that had started to spring out. A glance toward Katarin showed the man eyeing me pointedly, nodding to show that he had been paying attention before making a gesturing motion with his head toward the headmistress to tell me where my own eyes should be.

I obliged, though it was hard not to immediately demand to know what Deveron was doing. Was he just pretending to be a mentor now because the staff were watching? That had to be it, right?

Meanwhile, the headmistress assured us a few more times that we would be safe and that there would always be several staff members watching everything that was going on. Finally, she nodded toward the security chief while finishing with, “Professor Kohaku will be taking each group one at a time into the Pathmaker building once it’s their turn to start. Each of you will stay with her, and follow first her instructions and then that of your faculty guide when the time comes to start the hunt. Until Professor Kohaku takes your group, you may feel free to speak among yourselves, but do not leave this area.”

With that, she and every other teacher aside from the small Japanese woman moved into the nearby building. Nevada briefly gave us a thumbs up before skipping to catch up with the other teachers.

As soon as they were gone, I whirled toward Deveron and hissed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Lazily linking his arms behind his head, the boy arched an eyebrow at me. “Jeeze, Chambers, make up your mind. First you can’t stop bitching because I’m not spending enough time with the team. And now you’re bitching because I am?”

My eyes rolled. “Let me guess, not showing up here and at least pretending you give a damn is grounds for a lot more punishment than you want, so you’re just gonna stand two feet away and be completely useless instead of standing as far away as possible and being useless.”

“Ouch, she bites.” In spite of his words, Deveron didn’t sound bothered. As usual, he didn’t really sound like he cared about much at all. That and his lazy smirk made me want to smack him.

“Is there a problem here?” Professor Kohaku had silently approached, her eyes moving between me and our team ‘mentor.’

I opened my mouth to respond, but Sands stepped on my foot. “Nope,” she replied firmly. “No problem. Right, Flick?” Looking my way, she made it clear with her expression that she really, really wanted me to go along with it and not complain about Deveron. Obviously, she was afraid that saying anything might end up getting us removed from the hunt. Her mouth moved silently to form the words, “We can do it without him.”

Resisting the urge to sigh, I nodded. “We’re all good.”

“Good,” Professor Kohaku replied quietly. “Because your team is up. Let’s go.”

Deveron winked at me, and then we were heading for the building. Heading to our first real hunt, our first real… kill. No matter how they dressed it up, that’s what it was. We were supposed to be hunting and killing monsters, and now they were about to have us do that for the first time, in as controlled circumstances as possible.

God, I really hoped I wouldn’t fuck this up.

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 First Steps 2-06

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If I had been alone in that moment, I probably would have been killed immediately. Standing there flatfooted and with next to zero actual combat experience, all I could do was start to shriek in terror as those dark, evil shapes dropped from the ceiling and plummeted toward me.

But I wasn’t alone. In mid-scream, I felt a hand grab my arm. Avalon’s voice blurted, “Move, idiot!” Then she hauled me away from that spot with a yank that sent me stumbling backwards. An instant later, one of the cockroach-poodles hit the floor where I had been, making a screeing noise of anger.

That single peridle was joined almost immediately by several others, all crawling over each other to get at us. One crawled on top of another and launched itself off of its body, shell opening up to reveal pitiful little wings that it used to propel itself up and forward, its pincer-like mouth opening as it came.

The awful thing was met in mid-air by a glowing, humming blade of energy that neatly bisected the ugly monster, sending bits of foul-smelling goo splattering everywhere. Avalon stood there, arm raised with the lightsaber-like blade extended outward from one of her gauntlets. She’d barely moved.

As I watched, the other girl’s skin began to glow with a pale green light. The glow surrounded her for a brief second before fading, and I saw her give a visible shudder as a murmur of what sounded suspiciously like genuine pleasure escaped her. A second later, she regained focus and remarked to the monstrous bugs who were currently reevaluating their options. “Yeah, this prey has teeth, fuckers.”

While the peridles were busy regrouping, she spoke to me without taking her eyes off of them or lowering her guard. “You have a weapon. Use it. I’ll keep as many as I can off you, but you’re going to have to do some of it yourself. Don’t fucking panic and don’t let them draw you out. Your staff has range to it. Use the power it has to knock them away when they start crowding you too much, but don’t waste it on a single one. Wait for a group. If you need to, use it to get away. Keep your head up, keep turning so they can’t hit you from behind, and for the love of Gabriel, don’t fucking panic.”

I swallowed, tightening my grip on the staff that I actually had forgotten. “You said don’t panic twice.”

“It bears repeating,” she retorted sharply. “Don’t fucking panic. I will help you when I can, but some of it you’re going to have to deal with yourself. Try to kill one right away to get its regeneration.”

By that point, the peridles had decided that waiting was no longer in their best interests. Spread out as they were, they came charging straight in, mandibles clacking in an almost deafening cacophony.

This time, rather than stand there and wait, Avalon rushed forward to meet them. Three steps and she leapt upward. Her arms pointed toward the floor, and a pair of solid-light hammer shapes slammed into the ground, smashing two of the bug-things beneath them before shoving upward to propel her higher.

She flew in an extended leap, spinning in the air. The hammers disappeared, replaced immediately by a long blade from her right hand and some kind of grasping claw-shape from her left. As she twisted, the blade cut through two more of the creatures, and the claw caught a third one in mid-leap toward me. She yanked it backwards, crushing the thing in the grip of the claw before tossing the remains.

Landing on one knee in the middle of the crowd of monster bugs. One leapt at her, but the energy claw instantly reshaped itself into a sturdy shield. Catching the bug on the shield while she remained crouching, I saw Avalon smirk briefly just before a half dozen energy spikes sprouted from the shield, impaling the creature before it could abandon its perch. Immediately afterward, before I had even registered the next bug’s movement, she flipped herself up and around in a weird little sideways twist, planting one of her feet solidly in the face of another creature’s attempt to jump at her. The thing fell onto its back, screeing in panic for a moment just before Avalon landed on her feet and dispatched it with a contemptuous swipe of a blade from one hand. Its screams died with it.

That glow came back then, brighter and more noticeable this time as my roommate was rewarded with the power from all the peridles she had just destroyed. Barely a handful of seconds had passed.

Without seeming to even glance in my direction (which would have provided her with a good look at my expression of utter amazement), the other girl blurted, “Behind you, damn it, pay attention!”

Remembering belatedly that this was not some badass TV show, I spun around in time to see a solitary bug-monster scrambling toward me. Clearly it had decided to seek easier prey. Much easier in my case.

Right, I could do this. With what was supposed to be a powerful bellow but clearly sounded more like the yipping of a puppy, I held the staff at one end and brought the other end down as hard as I could like a hammer, straight toward the charging thing. To my credit, I managed to keep my eyes open.

Unfortunately, keeping my eyes open just meant that I could see the thing neatly sidestep my utterly amateurish blow. It kept coming, barely dignifying my effort with a single (probably mocking) screech.

At the last second, I managed to lash out with one hand. My fist made contact with the side of the gross thing’s mandibles, and I had a brief flashback to what the lobster had felt like the one time Dad and I had splurged on real sea food. Or as close as Wyoming ever got to the stuff, anyway. The bug was knocked very slightly aside so that its lunge missed me as it landed just to the side. Unfortunately, the pain in my hand made it pretty clear that I’d done more damage to myself than to the monster.

Worse, the thing was still coming. It spun sideways, lashing out at me with a scream of anger. It was met in turn with my own scream of terror as I threw myself backwards away from its lunge, swiping down at the thing with my staff as if it was a rat that I was trying to shoo away with a broom.

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon as the other girl flipped over one of the charging bugs, landed on its shell to bring it to the floor with a solid crunch, then spun into a kick that knocked another of the things aside before simultaneously stabbing downward and sideways with both hands to impale both of them on her energy blades. Retracting both, she hopped off the dead bug, tossed her hair a bit to get it out of her eyes, and regarded the remainder for a brief moment while her body glowed once more with the influx of power that she was absorbing from their dead bodies. Once it was done, she raised one hand, turned her palm up, and beckoned for them to come at her again.

I, on the other hand, was barely managing to keep this single peridle away from me. It snapped at my staff a couple times, but couldn’t actually damage it. I was afraid, however, that if it got a decent grip on the thing, it would be able to tear the weapon out of my grasp. So I kept swatting at the ugly monster from either side, doing my best to hurt it while feeling like the complete amateur that I was.

I’m not sure what made me glance behind myself just then, whether simple luck, some kind of sixth sense, or remembering Avalon’s warning not to let myself get too distracted. Whatever it was, my quick turn and glance revealed a second bug skittering along the wall that I was rapidly backing myself up to. The two of them were working together to pin me in a trap between them, at which point I had no delusions about my ability to keep them both off of me. I had to do something beyond waving this staff like the panicked old woman with a broom in one of those old Tom and Jerry cartoons. I was supposed to be a fighter, a warrior, but so far I had done nothing but gape at my utter badass at a roommate. Which, to be fair, she kind of deserved because god damn. Still, I may have been new to all this, but damn it, I had to contribute. Or at least not die pathetically flailing at two of them while Avalon tore her way through dozens. I needed to stop panicking, think about what I could do, and defend myself.

With that thought, I pulled the staff back and twisted perpendicular to my previous position while taking a quick hop backwards to give myself some distance. The move put both of the bugs in front of me. They were on opposite sides, of course, but at least I could see both of them at the same time.

Rather than randomly lash out with the staff again, I held it close and adjusted my grip so that both of my hands were spread equally apart from the middle. With one finger, I pressed the part of the staff that made it begin to charge with kinetic energy. The black ends of the staff began to glow with that blue energy. Then I waited, warning myself to be patient while trying to ignore the pain in one hand that had come from punching the first creature previously. The pain and my own fear kept trying to overwhelm me, but I forced it back and kept my gaze centered.

The two bugs slowed their approach as it became clear that I wasn’t flailing wildly anymore. I could almost hear their thought processes (if such existed) while they reevaluated the situation. The one on the wall made a loud, ugly scree noise once more, clearly trying to grab my attention. At the same time, the other one used its wings to propel itself up and forward in a violent charge to take me off guard.

This time, however, I was ready. Rather than panic, I stood my ground until the thing was well within range. Then I brought the staff up in as vicious a blow as I could manage, twisting my hips so that my weight was thrown into it. The ugly monster’s face was snapped sideways as the staff slammed into it with enough force to send it flying sideways into the wall with a horrible scream.

Oh wait, that was me. I was the one screaming. Right, so maybe not totally professional and cool.

The peridle hit the wall and dropped to the floor, dazed briefly. Before it could recover, I used one foot to somewhat awkwardly kick it onto its back. Then I grasped the staff in both hands near the top and swung it down has hard as I could into the thing’s exposed underside. It screamed (and this time it really was the monster instead of me), its legs kicking frantically. I repeated the motion again, hitting the thing even harder. That time, I felt something in that soft underbelly crack. A third blow, even stronger than the first two, silenced its terrible, nightmare-inducing screams. It was dead.

The exultation that I felt in that moment was a truly physical sensation. It swept over me, a tingle that blossomed into the kind of pleasure that felt almost embarrassingly wonderful. Hoooly crapcakes that felt incredible. A surprised gasp escaped me, and my skin gave off a similar glow to the one that I had seen on Avalon. Mine, however, was a rich gold color rather than green. It felt absolutely amazing, and for a second I almost forgot that there was another bug to deal with. Finally, at the last second I heard the warning shouted by my roommate from somewhere off in the distance. Realizing almost too late what it meant, I threw myself to the side to avoid the bug’s leap. Still, its mandibles caught on my arm a bit, and I felt more pain shoot through my bicep, making me almost drop the staff as I stumbled.

The bug hit the floor and pivoted back toward me, but I was already reacting. Pointing the staff at the wall behind myself, I quickly triggered the button that would deposit a kinetic-mine there. Then I focused on the remaining bug. “You want me, asshole?” I blurted, hyping myself up. “Come on!”

With a loud screech, the thing took the bait. It leapt straight up and at me. Just before it would have connected, I dropped into a roll, throwing myself away from the thing. There was a loud explosion of air, accompanied by a disgusting splat as the bug hit the force bomb I had left behind. Pieces of it rained down around me, and I nearly retched at the smell. It was awful.

A second later, I was distracted from the scent as that same incredibly pleasurable feeling washed over me. God, was that going to happen every time we killed one of these things? It was a bit distracting.

And the hand that I had smacked against the first bug didn’t hurt anymore, I realized. The pain there was gone, and there was no bruise or mark where it had been. When I looked at my arm where the second bug had cut me, the bleeding had stopped. It still ached a little bit, but was already improving.

I was alive. I was alive! Two of the bugs were dead because of me. I had killed them. For a second, I let myself feel the amazement at the thought of what I had accomplished. It felt… even better than getting Calvin, my old boss at the theater, arrested for his drug schemes had. Those things had been trying to kill and probably eat me. I had survived. I had killed them. I was… I was a…

“Dumbass!” A shout from Avalon interrupted just before the girl landed near me, stabbing downward to impale the bug that had been coming up on my side. Before she had even withdrawn the energy blade from its corpse, she gave me a smack with her other hand. “I told you to pay attention! Stop patting yourself on the back before you get yourself fucking–”

Yelping at the sight of yet another one of the damn peridles charging in while my roommate was berating me, I brought the staff up, triggering the last of the energy that I had stored up while swinging the weapon straight at the ugly little monster. The blow connected solidly with its body, and the release of the kinetic charge made the thing literally explode, spraying both of us with bits of poodle-roach. Our clothes, hair, and faces were completely drenched in this foul smelling stuff. It was like hitting a pinata full of toxic sewage while standing directly beneath it. It was all I could do not to throw up, which would have just added to the level of utterly disgusting.

Somehow, the fact that I was immediately filled with that sense of briefly blinding pleasure after killing the bug made the whole thing worse. “Ugggnn… sorry.” I muttered, opening my eyes with a wince. I expected to see Avalon glaring hatefully at me for getting bug-innards all over her.

Instead, she just shook her head, knocking some of the gunk away. Then she spat twice. Her nose crinkled up in disgust, but instead of blaming me, she mumbled, “Not gonna chew you out for killing the fucking bug, Chambers. It was the right thing to do.”

The two of us exchanged looks for a second, covered as we were. Then we turned to face the rest of the bugs. So far, between the two of us, we had managed to kill dozens of them (Avalon being responsible for roughly ninety-eight percent of that). However, the room still seemed to be just as filled as it was before, if not even more so.

“There,” Avalon muttered, nodding toward some kind of circle that had been drawn on the ceiling. “That’s a summoning circle. It’s transporting them here. They’ll just keep coming.”

“How do we…” I panted a little. “… get rid of it?”

She grimaced, hesitating before admitting, “I… don’t know.”

By then, the swarm of ugly bugs had regrouped and were approaching a bit more cautiously, spreading out to avoid giving us any more openings. They had learned from the deaths of the others, and I had no doubt that they realized I was the weak link. For all that we (Avalon) had done, there was still too many of them. We were going to be overwhelmed.

In the next second, there was a loud crash from the opposite side of the room. The door was literally blown off its hinges, and I saw both Professor Katarin and Professor Dare practically fly into the room. Both acted quickly. Katarin focused on the summoning circle, producing a long chain that he whipped around once before throwing toward the spot on the ceiling. The tossed chain stuck itself into place over the lines of the circle, and then began to glow red while smoke billowed out of it.

At the same time, Professor Dare drew her sword. Standing there, she raised one gloved hand and swept it around the room. As she did so, I saw a bit of the floor or wall underneath each of the scattered peridles shimmer somewhat, almost like the surface of a lake.

That done, Professor Dare flipped her sword around and dropped to one knee while driving the blade into another of the shimmering spots directly in front of her. As she did so, the blade disappeared into that spot before simultaneously emerging from each and every other shimmer spot that she had created. All of the remaining bugs were killed instantly, and the summoning circle had been destroyed.

And just like that, in the span of a handful of seconds since they had entered the room, it was done. The fight was over, and I had survived my first true conflict with the Strangers.

I really hoped they didn’t all smell this bad.

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First Steps 2-05

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“It’s not exploding. Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My response to Columbus’s question was to lift the leather-bound text book, gesturing to the page that I had been reading from. “According to this thing, yeah. It should be blowing up as soon as we throw it.”

Believe it or not, we were doing homework. Magic homework, specifically. It was late that night, about an hour before curfew, and the two of us were standing down on the beach, facing the ocean.

The ocean. The sight of it still made me want to stop and stare at it for hours. I’d never been far from Wyoming before, and now I was standing on the beach of a tropical island, my bare feet wiggling in the damp sand. Columbus had questioned if taking my shoes and socks off was strictly necessary, to which I had pointed to the beach and huffed that of course it was. I wasn’t going to visit this pristine beach and not wiggle my toes in it, even if we were doing homework at the time. That would just be weird.

Honestly, I was a little bit surprised that we were allowed to go out onto the beach and away from the supposed safety of the environmental shield over the school grounds. When I’d raised that wonder with Sands earlier, however, she had pointed out that the shield hadn’t been any protection for poor Professor Pericles, so forbidding us from leaving it probably wouldn’t accomplish much. So, Columbus and I had been free to come down here and work on the assignment that Professor Carfried had given the class.

The goal of this particular homework was to follow the instructions in the book to invest power in a small object that would then explode like a firecracker when it was thrown. We were doing the best we could to do just that, throwing the sticks that we charged down the beach to some empty sand. Yet the sticks were just landing where they fell, with nothing particularly special happening.

“Maybe it’s because we’re using sticks,” Columbus mused before looking at me pointedly. “The assignment said to use rocks. Maybe this spell only works with stone or something.”

I shook my head. “I already told you, we are not blowing up Herbie’s cousins right in front of him.” Gesturing to my little buddy, who sat enjoying the evening air on a nearby bit of driftwood, I then added, “Besides, I asked Professor Carfried about it and he said the sticks would be just fine. It’s the spell that matters, not the specific object. It just needs to be something hand-held that we can throw.”

“Okay,” Columbus stooped to pick up another stick from the pile that we had gathered. “You wanna just run it through for a third time, or try to work out what we’re doing wrong?”

Before I could respond, another voice spoke up. “He’s throwing it.”

Jumping a bit, I turned along with Columbus to find the blonde girl, Vanessa, standing there. She held a book clutched against her chest, and looked uncomfortable to be down here on the beach. Which might have had something to do with the fact that she was still wearing her red-lined school uniform.

Blinking at the sight, I voiced my confusion to her statement with an extremely eloquent, “Huh?”

“You’re charging it,” she responded after a momentary hesitation. “He’s throwing it. It doesn’t work that way. The person that charges it has to throw it. It’s your energy. He can’t just use it himself. I mean, he could, but that’s a whole different spell that we haven’t learned yet.”

“Are you sure?” Columbus asked with a slight frown. “It doesn’t say anything about that in the book.”

“Look in chapter nine, page eighty-four, third paragraph,” Vanessa replied while hugging her own book tighter to her chest. She looked a little embarrassed, but still confident about what she was saying.

After glancing toward Columbus briefly, I shrugged and flipped the pages in the book. “Okay.. page eighty-four, paragraph three.” Tracing my finger down the page, I found the spot and read aloud. “Within jointly created spells, objects empowered by each individual must be employed by that same individual. The energy is tied between Heretic and object, and cannot simply be used by another.”

Columbus whistled. “How the hell did you know that? That’s like, seventy pages away from where we are. You try to do a joint spell too or something and have to look it up? Or is this what happens when you have an actually competent team mentor.” He looked to me. “I bet it’s the mentor thing.”

Clearly embarrassed, Vanessa shrugged uncomfortably. “No, I just… I just wanted to help.”

“You did help, thanks,” I assured her quickly. “We didn’t even think about the whole sharing thing. But did you really read all the way through chapter nine already? We just got the books this morning.”

No longer looking at me, the blonde girl just shrugged both shoulders again. “I read fast,” she mumbled a little, face pink. “It’s no big deal. I just like to read. And I have a good memory.”

“You can say that again,” Another new voice spoke up as a girl came came down the trail that led from the school to the beach. I belatedly recognized her as Erin Redcliffe, a tall girl with short hair that had been dyed a vivid blue. Unlike the other girl, Erin wore shorts and a crop top to visit the beach. “Do you know how hard it was to drag this girl away from the library? I practically had to threaten to burn the place down if she didn’t come out and have some fun.” Poking the girl beside her, she added pointedly, “You know I didn’t mean come down to the beach and read some more, right?”

From the guilty look on Vanessa’s face, it was clear that that was probably exactly what she’d been hoping. She held the book tighter against herself while mumbling, “You wouldn’t burn the library.”

“Hell no,” Erin gave her another poke. “You just needed encouragement, genius girl. Get you out of the library and into some fun once in a while. We’re living on an island full of magic! People like me are supposed to be used to it. I thought a Silverstone like you would want to get out and see new things, explore new places. Especially since you’re in the Explorer track.”

Looking even more guilty at that little reminder, Vanessa’s head bobbed. “I know, I know. It’s just that the library is familiar. It’s comfortable. I like learning things there. It’s like I’m learning all this new stuff about… about magic and monsters and everything, but it’s still familiar because it’s a library.”

“I know, I get it.” Erin’s voice had softened somewhat. “I promise we don’t have to stay out here long, okay? I won’t even make you change clothes. We’ll just go for a walk down the beach, throw some rocks into the ocean, look at some pretty stuff, and then you can come back. That okay, genius?”

While Vanessa nodded, I spoke up to ask, “Why do you keep calling her genius?”

“You mean besides the fact that she just helped you guys out with homework using information a hundred pages beyond where we’re supposed to be?” Erin replied before gesturing. “Check it out. Vanessa, see the book she’s holding?” She nodded toward my Introduction To Magical Theory And Practice textbook. “What’s the first word on page… thirty two?”

Squirming on her feet, Vanessa was silent for about five seconds before she answered, “Desperate.”

When Erin gestured to me, I quickly opened the book and scanned through to the page in question. My eyes widened then. “She’s right,” I said while showing the book to Columbus. “But how did you–”

“Pick two numbers,” Erin told me, grinning a little. “Any numbers between one and nine.”

“Okay,” I thought briefly before answering. “Three and seven.”

“Three and seven, got it. You next,” Erin informed Columbus.”Two numbers. Trust me, it’s great.”

Looking just as uncertain as I’m sure I did, Columbus provided the numbers of four and two. Erin repeated them, then looked to Vanessa. “Right, Flick there gave the first number of three, Columbus’s first number was four. So page thirty-four. Flick’s second number was seven. Columbus’s was two. So seventy-two. What is the seventy-second word on page thirty-four?”

That time, there was no hesitation before Vanessa answered, “Rowing.”

With Erin and Columbus both looking at me, I flipped the pages to the right spot, counting the words carefully to make sure I had the right one. When I saw the word, I stared at it. “She’s right. How?

“I told you, she’s a genius,” Erin replied. “She remembers like… everything. Everything. She reads it, she sees it, she hears it, she remembers it. She could tell you what she had for breakfast ten years ago.”

Columbus whistled. “Damn, that sounds pretty damn useful. Why didn’t we get you on our team?”

“Hey, forget about it, buddy.” Erin pointed at the boy. “No poaching my awesome roommate.”

The two of them moved on to their walk, leaving Columbus and me to continue our homework, the right way this time. The boy looked to me. “Can you imagine having a gift like that?”

I shook my head at that. “I’m not sure it is one…”

Blinking, he asked, “What do you mean, you’re not sure.”

“I mean, look at the kind of things we’re going to see,” I pointed out. “Think about the situations they want us to get into. These monsters, the Strangers, they do bad things. They’re evil. They kill people in awful, horrible ways. They torture, maim, and… and do worse stuff to innocent people. There’s cannibals, Columbus. The stuff they do is kind of soul-crushing just to think about. So, you tell me to look at a girl who might see any of that and never be able to forget it at all, who will always remember everything she sees perfectly, who will always know what it smells like, what the air around it tastes like, who will never, ever forget any of it? I look at her and… I’m not sure it’s a gift.”


The next morning, I was picking at my cereal absently toward the end of breakfast. I had been slow enough about eating that almost everyone else in the dining hall had already moved on, heading for their first classes. Even most of my team was gone, leaving me with the twins. Eventually, after a couple more swirls of my spoon, Sands gave me a slight poke, asking, “Are you okay?”

Flushing a little, embarrassed that my distraction had been noticed, I nodded. “I’m fine. It’s dumb. I just… I miss my dad, that’s all. I’ve never really been away from him for a long time. I guess I didn’t really think about it at first because all of this is so new, but… my dad and I have always been really close. Now I can’t even tell him where I really am or what I’m doing. I hate lying to him, and I miss talking to him.” I swallowed hard, looking away. “I’m just homesick, I guess. Told you it was dumb.”

“Hell no, it’s not dumb.” Sands laid a hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “I don’t know how I’d deal with having to spend so much time away from my dad. Ever since Mom disappeared, the three of us have been a team. Dad, Scout, and me. If they tried to separate any of us, I’d be pretty messed up.”

I winced, looking at the girl. “Your mom disappeared too?”

“About seven years ago,” she confirmed before glancing toward her sister. “Is this okay?” Waiting until Scout gave a very slight nod, she then asked, “Do you wanna take a walk?” That time, Scout hesitated before nodding. She stood up and walked out of the cafeteria, as quiet as ever.

Once her sister was gone, Sands sighed. “Scout was with Mom the day she disappeared. Only she wasn’t Scout yet. She was just Sarah. Mom and Sarah took our boat out on the ocean to watch this whale pod that was passing by. That was early in the morning. They wanted me to go, but… uh, I was tired.” There was a look of such guilt in Sands’ face right then that it was almost painful to see. She looked away from me, paused, and then continued. “They were gone all day. The boat never came back. Eventually Dad and Aunt Virginia—err, Professor Dare went out to look for them. When they came back, Sarah was with them but Mom was gone. They said they found her on the empty boat.”

Sands was quiet once more, and I noticed that we were the only ones in the cafeteria. Still, I didn’t interrupt. Eventually, she spoke again. “Dad said they couldn’t find her at first. They thought the boat was abandoned. He… he called their names, Mom’s and Sarah’s. There was no answer, but when he called again, he heard someone crying. He found Sarah under the cot, behind the fishing equipment. When he said her name, she started screaming at him. She wouldn’t stop screaming. He tried to help her, tried to pull her out from under the cot to find out what was wrong, but she was just… screaming at him every time he said her name. He said ‘Sarah, calm down. It’s Daddy, it’s Daddy, Sarah’ and she just cried and screamed even more. Finally, he realized it was her name. Her name was what was upsetting her. So he called her his little scout. That was just a silly little sometimes nickname that he used once in awhile because Sarah was always getting into things, ever since we could walk. Exploring. She was his little scout. So he called her Scout, and she stopped screaming. But she didn’t stop crying.

“We umm, we found out later that there was a… a Stranger out there. It took Mom. And it tried to take Sarah. She hid, and this… this monster was walking through the boat, calling her name. It kept saying things like, ‘Saaaaraaah, mommy misses you. Come out, Sarah. Mommy wants you. Come out, or Mommy gets hurt.’ Then he kept making her hear our mom being… hurt, tortured. Crying. Begging. That monster kept walking through the boat, but he wasn’t saying her name anymore. Mom was. She kept calling for Sarah. I… I don’t know if it was our real mom or a trick, but it was her voice. She kept calling for Sarah. Sarah, help me. Sarah, don’t you love me anymore? Sarah, I’m scared. Sarah, please stop hiding. Sarah, I’m going to die. Sarah, he’s going to kill me. Sarah, please, Sarah.”

There were tears in Sands’ eyes then, and she wiped them away before giving a shudder. “That’s why she doesn’t use the name Sarah anymore. That’s why she’s Scout now.”

I swallowed hard, staring at her. “I… I’m sorry. I had no idea it was anything like that.”

Her head shook. “It’s been awhile. I don’t usually talk about it. God, I’m not sure why I did this time. It just felt like something you might wanna know. You said your mom left you guys, right?”

“For some guy she pulled over for speeding,” I confirmed with a sigh. “Guess all three of us were basically raised by our fathers, huh?”

“I guess so,” Sands replied. Then the two of us were quiet, thinking until the bell rang to announce that we were going to be late for class if we didn’t hurry. I quickly dumped the cereal bowl and we joined Scout in the corridor. Then the three of us raced to reach the self-defense classroom.

We made it just in time, sprinting into the room a second before the late bell went off. At the front of the room, Katarin gave us a long look before gesturing for us to join our teammates. Then he spoke up. “What are the three greatest strengths that we have as Heretics?”

One of the boys that had grown up around all this stuff raised his hand before answering, “Our collective knowledge gained by those who have come before us, our ability to see through the Strangers’ disguises, and our ability to steal the strengths and powers from the ones that we kill.”

“Yes,” Katarin gave a nod of his head before folding his massive arms over his chest. “It’s that last one that we’re going to be working with today. If you’re going to survive the kind of training that we have to get through this semester, you’re all going to have to take a bit of punishment. But we can’t have you getting beat up and bruised, then just send you onto the next class. You need a bit of an edge first. That’s where this little guy comes in.”

Reaching down behind himself, Katarin straightened up with something grasped in his hand. There were several yelps through the room, as well as one muttered, “Fuck, that’s disgusting.”

Whoever had said that was right. The thing that Katarin was holding looked a bit like a poodle crossed with a cockroach. It had six legs and was covered with a dark brown shell with blotches of fur showing here and there. It was probably only about as long as my forearm, but that’s pretty damn big for something as ugly as it was.

“This,” Katarin explained in his booming voice, “is a Peridle. Ugly little shit, huh? Don’t worry, they’re only dangerous in packs. Keep them separated and the things are too stupid to do anything but sit there. They don’t attack, they barely move without a swarm leader, and they are almost entirely useless save for one thing. Anyone wanna try to tell me what that is?”

“They regenerate?” Someone else put in.

“Yup.” Katarin gave the thing a shake, and it made this ugly little squelching noise that almost brought bile to my mouth. “As long as they’re not dead, the damn things heal right up after you hurt them. So one of the first things we do with you new students is have you kill one of these things. That way you get to feel what it’s like to absorb a Strangers’ power, and we get to beat you up a little harder since you’ll get better a lot faster than you would have otherwise. It’s a win-win situation.”

The other thing it did, I realized, was give us something to kill that didn’t look the least bit human. For most of us, dealing with something like this would probably feel more like stomping on a bug than anything else.

“All right then,” Katarin boomed. “Separate into your roommate pairs, and then line up. One pair at a time go through that way.” He pointed to a door at the back of the room before reiterating. “One pair through at a time. You’ll find two of these buggers waiting for you. Kill them, watch your partner kill theirs, then come back out here. Shouldn’t take any of you longer than a minute.”

Looking to Avalon, I smiled. “Guess we’re squashing some bugs, huh?” Her response was a shrug.

We lined up, and one pair at a time passed through the doors. Professor Katarin stood right in the doorway, watching everything that happened. I heard a lot of screams of disgust every time one of the creatures was killed, and the awful stench that kept wafting back wasn’t making me any more eager to go in there. After each session, Katarin went into the room and spoke with the students who had just finished before sending them out. Then he took the time to clean it up a bit and put two more of the creatures into place before sending the next pair of students in. That continued onward, with each student that came out afterward looking dazed but fairly happy, and extremely energetic. They all gathered on the opposite side of the room, comparing stories and generally chatting quite enthusiastically. Whatever else killing one of those things did, it also seemed to give a jolt of energy, making everyone that came out seem almost hyper.

Eventually, it was our team’s turn, and Avalon and I were the first pair up out of the group. Without looking at me, my roommate strode past Katarin and into the room. I followed after her, tugging the cap off my belt sheathe before drawing the staff up and out, still a bit awkward with it.

Right, I could kill a little ugly poodle cockroach thing, couldn’t I? It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Half the class had done so without any real problem so far.

The room smelled worse on the inside than it had on the outside. I gagged a little before taking in the sight. Sure enough, there were two of the damn things sitting a little bit apart from each other on a hard wooden floor. The walls were blank white, and there was bits of blood and bug-poodle body parts lying around that Katarin hadn’t quite gotten to.

Killing bugs, killing bugs, it was just killing bugs. I could do this. Gripping my staff in my hand, I took a step forward.

Then I stopped. “Uh, wait, why are there three of them?” I was looking at the third Peridle, sitting a short distance away from the one that I had been heading for. “Professor, why is the–” Turning that way, I blinked at the sight of the closed door. “What the…”

There was a sudden pounding noise at the door. Professor Katarin’s voice bellowed, “Open this door right now!”

I had just taken a step back that way when Avalon caught my shoulder. “Chambers!” Jerking me around, she pointed. “Look.” Her voice was dark.

Turning my head the way she was staring, I saw the literal writing on the wall. Someone had spray painted a message over the far wall that I swore hadn’t been there a few seconds ago. It read, ‘Eden’s Garden Whore Doesn’t Belong Here. If Headmistress Mommy Won’t Get Rid Of You, We Will.’

Avalon’s jaw was clenched, and I could feel the anger radiating out from her. Before she could say anything, however, a noise drew my attention. Blinking up, I stared for a moment before what I was seeing made any sense. Then I gulped. “Ummm…. Avalon?” Tugging her arm, I pointed.

She looked up as well, and cursed. “That’s a lot of bugs.”

She was right. The ceiling was literally covered in those damn Peridles. The ones that were harmless as long as they weren’t in a swarm. Yeah, a swarm like the one crawling around on the ceiling right above us.

A whimper escaped me before I whispered, “Okay, okay. We just go to the door, and–”

That was as far as I got before every head of those ugly bugs turned our way. With a collective screech, the ceiling itself seemed to collapse as they launched themselves straight for us.

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