Flick was possessed.
Flick… Felicity… she was possessed. There was a Seosten– had been a Seosten– in her for what was likely the entire time that Avalon had known her. A Seosten child, yes, but still a Seosten.
What was she doing in there? How much control had she exerted? That… Theia had said that as far as she had been able to see, the Seosten within Felicity wasn’t actually doing anything. She was simply there, not exerting any control. But why? Why was she there? How long, exactly, had Felicity been possessed? Why hadn’t the Seosten-expulsion rune found her?
Actually, that much was obvious. Felicity had gone to the restroom right before they’d used it back at the Atherby camp. Clearly, the Seosten had secretly left her then, before returning after it was over.
But why? Why was she there? Why wasn’t she controlling Felicity? Why was she a child? Why, of all things, was a child Seosten possessing Felicity, and how long had it been going on? What the hell was going on?
“I can’t believe they’re still having us do this.”
The flat words interrupted Avalon’s train of thought. They came from Douglas, who stood with his arms folded across his chest, his hat pulled low enough that the brim almost covered his eyes.
While the girl oriented herself, he continued, “How many classmates do we need to lose this year before they stop acting like this is business as usual? On top of the rest of our teams, now Tristan and Vanessa are gone, and nobody knows anything about what happened to them?” Unfolding his arms, the boy flailed a little. “And what are we doing? We’re getting ready to go on another damn hunt! Like nothing happened.”
He was right. The recently joined team (Avalon, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Rudolph, and Douglas) was standing in one of the transport rooms of the Pathmaker building, waiting for their dual mentors, Deveron and Marina, to join them along with whatever teacher was playing advisor this time, so they could find out what this month’s hunt assignment was.
Deveron and Gaia were the only ones that Avalon and Koren had told about what they had found out from Theia and Pace. Deveron had… well, he had been very unhappy. He’d also promised to talk to Lincoln Chambers about it, which was a conversation that Avalon was glad not to be part of. She was having enough trouble coping with the idea that there had been a Seosten, even (or maybe especially) a child Seosten, eavesdropping on every intimate moment she’d had with Felicity.
Either way, they hadn’t told the rest of the team yet. Or, rather, they hadn’t told Scout, Columbus, and Sean. The other two boys would have been a much more complicated conversation if it came up.
And speaking of those two boys, it was Rudolph who replied to his roommate’s complaint about going on the hunt after Vanessa and Tristan’s disappearance, his voice soft. “There are still monsters out there.”
Forcing herself not to dwell on the entire novel’s-worth of things she could be dwelling on in that moment, Avalon nodded. Raising her eyes, she spoke firmly. “He’s right. It doesn’t matter how much we’ve got going on personally. There are always going to be more monsters out there that are attacking and killing innocent people. Besides,” she added pointedly, “the only way to be strong enough to help the others when the opportunity presents itself is by training, and getting powers. This,” she pointed toward the door that would lead them to their next hunt when the time came, “is how we do that.”
“Girl’s got a point,” Sean agreed. The boy had been sending some kind of text message for a moment, and now held the phone loosely in one hand, glancing at it every couple of seconds. Avalon wasn’t sure who he was expecting a response from, but she did know that he had been talking a lot with the pack of werewolves that Roxa had been running around with. Nevada had given him a phone that she’d fixed up to be similar to the one Flick had. With this one, however, Sean could either flip a switch to decide whether a call or text would be picked up by Crossroads security, or pre-program any number to always stay off their system. That way, he didn’t have to carry two different phones around.
The phone vibrated in his hand, and Sean tapped out a quick response, smirking a bit as he did so.
“Hey,” Douglas put in then, “you’ve been spending more time on that phone than a fifteen-year-old girl with her first boyfriend. You got something special going on, or what?”
The other boy’s mouth opened, before he paused. “You know,” Sean replied, “I really don’t feel like lying. So can we just say it’s private and leave it at that? It’s nothing horrific or anything. Cross my fingers and hope to die. Just… you know.”
From the look on his face, Douglas wasn’t exactly bursting with joy about that. But he (mostly) let it go anyway, gesturing vaguely while muttering, “So many damn secrets around here. Trust me, secrets get people in trouble.”
Secrets. Right, like the secret that her girlfriend, one of the people she cared about most in the world, had been secretly possessed by a bodysnatcher the entire time that she had known her. A bodysnatcher that maybe hadn’t ever taken active control or forced Flick to do anything she didn’t want to do. But they had no way of knowing that beyond Theia claiming that she didn’t see the Seosten taking control in those few seconds that she’d seen her. Which might not really mean anything. Maybe the Seosten hadn’t done anything. Or maybe… maybe she had.
Yeah, it was time to get this show on the road. Because Avalon really wanted to kill something.
As if in response to her thought, the opposite door slid open, as Deveron, Marina, and Professor Kohaku stepped through. The two mentors quickly stepped out of the way, while Kohaku started. “Right, thank you for waiting. Though,” she added with a slight smile, “I don’t believe that you had much of a choice in the matter, to be fair. As you might have guessed, we have been taking some extra precautions for your hunts recently. That requires more patience, as where you are being sent on your hunt was known only to the headmistress until only a couple of minutes ago. That way, there is much less chance of any kind of… ambush.”
“You still think there’s people out there trying to kill Avalon?” Douglas put in then. “I mean, her dad’s wormfood. Err…” He paused, glancing toward the girl in question. “Sorry, if that was–”
“It’s fine,” she replied flatly. “And my father wasn’t working alone.” Even as she said it, Avalon realized that Douglas was already fully aware of that. He’d been fishing, trying to see if they would say something else that would give him a better idea of who was behind the attacks. Because he was convinced that Avalon and the others knew more than they had said. Which, of course, he was absolutely right about. And Avalon had been tempted more than once to just sit both of the boys down and explain everything to them. But it felt like pushing them too far, too fast. She had worse luck than Felicity did when it came to people believing her, so she might have been a bit gunshy on the subject. Either way, simply getting them to accept that there were bigger threats and lesser threats, and that working with the lesser threats like the pixie in order to take care of the bigger threats wasn’t completely evil felt like a big first step.
But if they went much further than that, they were going to have to explain all of it. And going as far as explaining the whole thing about the Seosten creating Crossroads, being behind the Bystander Effect, and the rest was a huge step that they couldn’t take back if it went wrong.
She had planted the seed about not all Alters being equally evil. Hopefully, that would sprout. She was keeping an eye on both of the boys, watching how they reacted to things. If they showed hesitation about the idea of killing Alters that might not be outright evil… well, then she would feel better about telling them more. But she refused to rush it.
Patience. The only way to handle this, or the only way she would handle it, was with patience.
“Vanessa and Tristan?” That was Scout. The girl spoke up then, facing Professor Kohaku with a pensive expression while holding her enormous rifle. She only said their names, but her meaning was obvious.
Face softening a little, Professor Kohaku shook her head. “I’m sorry. We still don’t know anything else. They disappeared while on school grounds, with absolutely no warning. Which should be impossible, but… well, this is both a school and a year for impossible, it seems.”
Clearing her throat then, the woman pointedly changed the subject. “Right now, it’s time for your hunt. So please, focus on that and I promise that the moment we know anything else about any of your missing classmates that we can share with you, we will. There are many very talented investigators looking into it. They will find all of them. Just give them time and space to work.”
“Yeah, guys!” Marina put in, clapping her hands a couple times. “Let’s focus on this hunt. We’ve got some monsters to take down. That oughta get your minds off everything else, huh?”
Rudolph was the only one who responded, giving the girl an unconvincing nod. “Yeah, maybe.”
Kohaku handed out the communication pins, and they started for the opposite door, the one that would lead them out to the location of the actual hunt. Columbus, however, stayed where he was. The boy had been silent the entire time they had been waiting, to the point that Avalon had almost forgotten that he was even there. Now, she saw him staring at the floor, unmoving.
Her mouth opened to say something, but it was Deveron who moved first. “Hey,” the boy who wasn’t nearly as young as he looked started. “You need to sit this one out?”
Columbus visibly started, looking like he had been lost deep in thought and hadn’t even realized anyone else was there. Blinking up, he took a moment before shaking his head. “No,” the boy replied. “No, I’m okay. I… I’m fine, I just–I was thinking about Vanessa and Tristan.”
Deveron put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing. “I know. Trust me, we’ve all been going over it. But Marina’s right. Let’s focus on the hunt right now, at least until we know more about what happened. Just remember, any time you need to get out of there, you say something. I mean it.”
Columbus nodded, taking the communication pin that Deveron offered before moving to join them. And with that, the team made their way through the door.
There was something wrong with Avalon. Scout knew that much. The other girl had been upset by something for the past couple of days, even if she hadn’t come out and said anything about it. At first, Scout had thought that she was just missing Flick. But it was clearly more than that. Something had happened, and she wasn’t talking about it.
She’d thought about just outright asking the other girl what was going on. Especially after Tristan and Vanessa had disappeared. That news had left her very much not in the mood for secrets. But she also knew that pushing Avalon too hard, too quickly, was the wrong move. Especially without Flick around. So, she was still trying to figure out what to do about it.
Just like she was still trying to figure out what had happened to Vanessa and Tristan. Scout had been on her way to meet the two of them so they could work on an actual school project. But when she’d gotten there, the twins were nowhere to be found. Literally. They’d vanished off the face of the island with no warning.
First Sands and the others, and now Tristan and Vanessa. Had the Seosten grabbed Sariel’s children? Were they going to use them as leverage? The thought, awful as it was, had definitely occurred to Scout.
One thing was for sure, she definitely didn’t like this feeling of being left behind. There was something going on out in Seosten space, something big. And yet, Scout and the others were stuck back here, essentially twiddling their thumbs.
“Scout,” Douglas’s voice interrupted her inner pondering. “Upper east wing. You got any movement?”
Shaking off her wandering thoughts, Scout focused. At the moment, she was laying on her stomach in the grass, surrounded by trees. The hill that she had positioned herself on lay just beyond a huge, ornate stone wall. Beyond that wall lay acres of grounds, fountains, and gardens that had clearly once been very impressive. But they had clearly gone uncared for for years, if not decades. The plants had grown out of control.
In the middle of those grounds, far off in the distance from where Scout was, stood an incredible mansion. Located not far from Los Angeles, the isolated, yet unbelievably gorgeous place had once belonged to some famous Hollywood producer back in the sixties or seventies. But he had died, and over the years, the place had gotten a reputation for being haunted. A reputation it had earned, since the place was apparently infested by things called Tzentses. These creatures were somewhat psychic, able to conjure up semi-solid apparitions that took the shape of any person or creature who had touched anything within the home or building that the Tzentses took up residence in. These apparitions, often mistaken for ghosts or boogeymen, would take humans to their creators, where the Tzentses would eat the captured prey.
In other words, the things in that house were very much evil. They had already taken and killed countless people over the decades. But that was about to end.
The others were inside the building, split up into two teams. Avalon, Rudolph, and Douglas were in one group, while Columbus and Sean, with Vulcan working as their third, formed the other. Both groups had split up to search the mansion, eliminating the ghost-like apparitions whenever they popped up. Meanwhile, Scout was using the portals connected to her sniper rifle to keep an eye on both groups and guide them around when need be. She watched their backs.
Raising the rifle before lowering her eye to the scope, she panned over the portals she had already set up before finding the one that led into the east side of the top floor, as Douglas had requested. She saw a plush carpeted hallway lined with dust-covered paintings and a couple statues, an open doorway leading to a library, a set of glass doors that led out to a balcony… and a small gray creature hiding behind a grandfather clock. The thing would have been about four and a half feet tall if it was standing up, but the thing was crouching almost into a ball. It had five arms: two on each side and one emerging from the middle of its chest. Scout couldn’t see them, but she knew there was a mouth full of teeth attached to the palm of each of those hands.
Douglas, Rudolph, and Avalon were at the top of the stairs at the opposite end of the corridor. Something had clearly tipped them off about the thing waiting to ambush them, be it a sound, a glimpse of it, or just a feeling. Scout’s mouth opened to confirm what they suspected, before she paused. It looked like… Carefully, she set another viewing portal opposite the one she was using, peering through it to see inside of the library she’d gotten a glance at earlier.
Yup. Sure enough, there were three more of the things waiting in there. It was definitely an ambush.
“Four.” Scout informed the others. “One behind the clock. Three in the library. I can take one before they move.”
“Get one of the library ones,” Avalon’s reply came. “Try to make it look like the shot came from the window. Parsons can deal with the one by the clock, while Frey and I go for the library. Any luck, the other two in there will be distracted by the shot from the window and won’t see us coming until it’s too late.”
Scout agreed, quickly taking the time to set a new portal outside of the library window. The new angle gave her a shot at one of the hiding Tzentses, and she quietly counted down from three so the others would know when the shot was coming.
Then she took it. Her bullet exploded through the window, sending glass shattering everywhere an instant before her target’s head essentially exploded.
She felt the rush of pleasure then, gasping as her own pink aura flared up. It was enough that she took her eyes off her scope for a second. By the time she’d collected herself to look through it once more, the fight was mostly over. Rudolph had used a minor telekinesis power he’d picked up from somewhere to push over the grandfather clock, forcing the Tzentse there into the path of his incoming arrows. Meanwhile, Avalon had grabbed Douglas and rushed the library using the vampiric speed that she had inherited (along with other powers) from her father. She and Douglas had each dispatched one of the remaining creatures in there while the things had been reacting to the shot that had torn through the window and then their companion’s head.
Those four were done. But the mansion had been infested by a lot more than four of the things, so they weren’t done. Not by a long shot. It was a big mansion, and an enormous set of grounds for these things to hide in. All of which meant that even if things went completely as planned and there were no unexpected interruptions, it was still going to be a long night.
With a quiet sigh, Scout moved the scope to check on Columbus, Sean, and Vulcan. Maybe this wasn’t doing anything to find Tristan and Vanessa, or helping Sands and the others out in Seosten space. But Avalon was right. They needed powers and training if they were going to help when the time actually came. And this was how they would get both.
Sighting in once more, Scout shifted her position a little, and got ready to keep shooting.
Eventually, the hunt was over. Nothing had gone wrong, save for a brief scare in the basement when there ended up being more of the things than they had expected. But the team had pulled through, and actually managed to clean the place out to the satisfaction of both their mentors and Professor Kohaku. And now, they had actually made it all the way back to Crossroads. The four boys had split off to head for their dorm, while Scout walked with Avalon to their building.
However, rather than going inside, Scout found herself being pulled by the hand as Avalon guided her past the door. Confused, she let the other girl lead her around the back of the building to the ladder, and the two of them quickly climbed up to the roof.
Once there, she started to ask what was going on. But Avalon wouldn’t tell her, simply saying she should wait until Sean and Columbus arrived. Apparently, she’d gotten word to those two to join them as soon as they could get away from Douglas and Rudolph.
It took awhile, during which Avalon sent two text messages while Scout tested the new power that she had picked up on that hunt. Essentially, she could summon a small ball of blue-green glowing energy. That ball could be reshaped into any small object or animal (nothing much bigger than a small cat, a screwdriver, a baseball glove, a dagger, a cup, etc) and could, at a thought, shift between being solid or intangible. It also made a pretty good flashlight.
Almost the whole team had all ended up with what amounted to varying levels of that power. Sean had gotten the strongest version of it, able to create something as large as Vulcan himself. Meanwhile, Rudolph had ended up getting something substantially different. In his case, he could turn himself intangible and said when he focused, he could see the deaths of small animals played out in front of him in a sort of holographic overlay if he was looking at where that death happened.
After waiting for about fifteen minutes or so, they finally saw the two boys on the roof of their own dorm. Sean waved while holding Vulcan in his gun form, before Columbus took his roommate by the arm. Suddenly, the boys were standing next to Avalon and Scout.
“Sorry,” Sean started while setting Vulcan down. “The guys wanted to chat and we didn’t wanna, you know, make them suspicious. What’s up?”
“Yeah.” Columbus was watching Avalon. “What’s wrong?”
Avalon’s head shook. “We’re waiting for one more per–”
“I’m here!” Shiori’s voice came, as the Asian girl hopped up over the edge of the roof. “Hey, sorry, I just got your text with the… err… what’s going on?” She moved to stand next to her brother, her smile melting into a frown. “Avalon, you’ve got ‘more serious than even usual for you’ face. What is it?”
Rather than answer immediately, the other girl held one of their privacy coins up, activating it while making sure everyone saw. “There’s something I need to tell all of you,” she started. “Something we found out about Felicity. But you need to let me get all the way through it. You need to let me finish.”
“Something about Flick?” Shiori started while glancing to Scout, who could do nothing more than shrug. Scout had no idea what was going on. But it had to be what had been upsetting the girl so much for the past couple of days. She was finally going to tell them.
“Yes,” Avalon confirmed. “But like I said, shut up and let me finish before you start freaking out. Everyone just… listen.”
And then she told them.