Professor Kohaku

Interlude 24B – Nevada

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Spring, 1985

In all of her life, the being who now chose to refer to herself as Nevada had never known true freedom. Whether it was at the hands of her malevolent creator, Denuvus, or the myriad of other masters who had come and gone over the years before she was reclaimed, someone was almost always in control of her. She may have escaped for brief periods now and then, but there was always someone right around the corner waiting to use her.

That was the nature of being a Djinn. Even when she wasn’t actively under the control of an owner, there were many Alters out there who could see or sense her for what she was. More specifically, they saw her for what she could do for them. They saw the power that she represented. The power of a Djinn to grant wishes was almost unparalleled.

Then there were the Heretics. They didn’t care about the power she had to offer, they just wanted her dead, along with every other non-human being on the planet.

All of which meant that, between being sensed for the power she had as a Djinn, and being sensed as what the Heretics called a Stranger, Nevada had been hunted by both sides for all of her existence. She had never known what it was like to be truly free, to not have to constantly look over her shoulder for the next person who wanted to enslave or kill her.

But now, well, now she wasn’t a Djinn anymore. She was a normal human. Okay, not really normal. She was a Heretic. After using her power one last time to change the Heretical Edge so that it could turn human-Alter hybrids into Heretics as well, she had changed her appearance just enough that she wouldn’t be recognized, and then wished herself into being a normal human. And because turning herself human had been at the request of her final ‘master’, Gaia, it was permanent. She was human, she was free and clear. No one would ever be able to enslave her for her magic again. No more wishes. No more being bound to one master or another. It was a feeling that was as intoxicating as she could imagine.

Of course, she couldn’t actually explain any of that to the people that were now her classmates. Which meant that they thought she was… maybe a little, tiny bit eccentric.

“Nevada, has anyone ever told you that you are completely, certifiably fucking insane?”

Looking toward the boy who had spoken, Nevada gave him a wide, bright smile. “Sorry, Reid, do you mean like, today, or in the past ten minutes? Because the answer is yes for both, but if you want exact numbers, I’ll need you to be more specific. Besides,” she gave him a little push with a wink, “what’s so crazy about this?”

Reid Rucker, her teammate, and one of the first friends that she had made in the school, gave her a look before gesturing in front of them pointedly. Specifically, his hand was indicating the edge of the cliff that lay directly in front of them, and the ocean water about eighty feet below.  

“Oh, I dunno,” the boy drawled slowly, “maybe it’s got something to do with your plan, and in this case I mean ‘plan’ in the loosest definition of the word, to jump off this here cliff when, unless you’ve been killing one of those bird Strangers without me knowing anything about it, you can’t actually fly.”

“Dude!” Nevada grinned, choosing to ignore the implication of killing another creature who might not necessarily deserve it. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?! Flying? That would be way better than just falling with a little bit of pizzazz. Trust me, if I could fly, you’d know. Because I would be using that shit everywhere.”

“Seriously, Nevada.” Reid touched her arm, concern in his eyes. “I don’t know what kind of stuff you learned in that Hunter group, but this is completely nuts.”

Part of the backstory that Headmistress Sinclair had helped Nevada come up with was that she had been raised by an independent group of Heretics after her parents had been killed. It explained how she knew so much about what Strangers were, and any slips that popped up in what she was supposed to know about would be explained by being raised by Heretics that weren’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden connected. And the lack of any living blood relatives would head off any number of potential awkward conversations later.

“Reid,” the blonde former Djinn intoned gently and patiently while gently moving the boy’s hand from her arm. Then she moved back a few steps. “You’re right, stepping off this cliff would be a dumb idea.”

The boy exhaled a little, slumping over. “Thank God. For a second there, I thought you were really going to–wait, stepping off?” Catching her exact words a little too late, he quickly looked up again.

Nevada was already dashing forward. “But flipping off of the cliff is the best idea ever!”

True to her word, she leapt forward into open air and twisted, flipping over several times as she plummeted toward the water below. Behind and above her, she heard Reid shout something about needing a new teammate when his current crazy one  got herself killed. An instant later, she pointed her feet down and dropped straight into the cold water, her momentum carrying her deep below the surface.  

It was so cold, and so sudden, that it instantly took her breath away. But Nevada didn’t care. She would’ve done the same thing a thousand times over, from much higher, into much colder water. Because it was her choice, because she chose to jump. It was all her, all her choice. Her decision.

Nevada would never be anyone’s slave again. She was free.

******

“Miss ah, Nevada,” Professor Zedekiah Pericles spoke gently the next afternoon. “Do you know why I asked you to stay after class?” The old-looking man stood at the front of the room, leaning slightly against his own desk while watching Nevada sitting at hers.

“Is it about the Şüräle report I turned in?” Nevada asked. “It’s totally not my fault Lennis bet me fifty bucks there was no such thing as a tickle monster. He really should’ve known better than to bet against me on that kind of thing by this point.”

The man coughed at that, working to hide his tiny smirk. “Yes,” he agreed flatly. “He should have. But no, this isn’t about that.” Straightening up, he watched her for a moment before continuing. “I wanted to ask how you were feeling about… next week.”

Biting her lip, Nevada hesitated. “You mean family day.” That was the day where everyone whose family knew the truth about Strangers and Heretics could come look around at the school and visit. It was apparently a pretty big deal, and all of the other students who weren’t Bystander-kin had been talking about it for several days now. Most of them couldn’t wait to see their families and show them what they have been learning. And, of course, the powers that they had gained throughout the year so far.

Nodding, Professor Pericles watched her carefully. “I know that with your… particularly unique situation, it can’t be that fun to hear so many of your peers planning out everything they’re going to do when their families visit.” After pausing briefly, he shook his head lamentingly. “No, not fun at all.”

Nevada’s eyes widened at that. “Oh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, Professor. I know I’m supposed to be doing better about keeping all that stuff secret. I’m trying, I swear. They asked me if I had anyone coming to visit, and I didn’t know what to say. So I just said I don’t know. I think they knew something was up, even though I tried to change the subject. I won’t mess up again, I swear. I’ll be more subtle. I’ll come up with a better story. I’ll-.”

The man raised a hand to stop her. “Nevada,” he spoke gently, “It’s alright, this isn’t a reprimand. I just want to know how you’re feeling about everything.”

“Feeling?” Nevada hesitated before giving a little shrug, her eyes on the floor. “It’s not like me not having any family is new or anything. I mean, I guess I sort of have a creator who is kind of almost family, but…” Trailing off, she shrugged again. “Believe me, he made it clear that he doesn’t see us as family. I don’t have a family.”

She couldn’t actually say Denuvus’s name, or give that many details. The woman herself had ingrained her creation with very strict magical laws that, even now, she couldn’t break. Hell, she had to use the male pronoun instead of the female one, just as another layer of protection against revealing too many details. But she had been able to say enough that Gaia, and her allies, such as Professor Pericles, understood the gist of it. They knew that her creator was not someone she thought of fondly, even if the specifics were rather murky.

Before the man could say anything to that, the door at the back of the room opened and a particularly harried-looking Asian woman stepped in, already speaking while her eyes remained locked on the walkie-talkie in her hand. “Zedekiah, you have got to help me with this dumb thing. Please, please, please, I’m so screwed. You won’t believe what-”

Finally looking up, the woman stopped short at the site of Nevada. “Oh my gosh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were busy. I was just, um, well, panicking. I’ll come back later, after you’re done.”

“It’s alright, Risa,” Pericles assured her. “We were simply discussing Miss Nevada’s rather unique situation.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Professor Kohaku,” Nevada put in. “It’s no big–err, is that radio smoking?”

“Crapsticks!” Professor Kohaku blurted as her eyes snapped back to the smoldering radio in her hands. “I thought I got it to stop doing that! Hey!” She shook the walkie-talkie. “Are you listening to me? Stop it. Stop it right now!” She looked up then, despair in her eyes. “See? The damn thing’s entire purpose is to take your voice somewhere else, and it still can’t listen to me. Technology is all completely evil. It’s already taking over the world.  Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned carrier pigeon? Pigeons are cute, and they can do tricks. All this thing does is-” As she spoke, the smoke that was coming out of the radio turned blue. “Oh come on! Now you’re doing it on purpose! What is even in you that could make blue smoke?!”

The woman raised her hand as though to throw the radio against to the nearby wall as hard as she could, but Pericles stopped her with a soft cough . and shake of his head. “I assume that your recent promotion to head of security is proceeding well then.” He smiled faintly while gesturing with one hand. “Why don’t you let Miss Nevada take a look at it? She’s already proven herself quite adept at our little devices. I’m sure she can sort out the issue in no time.”

Clearly eager to get the device out of her hand, Professor Kohaku quickly offered it toward Nevada. “You want to take a crack at it?”

“Oh, um, sure!” Nevada smiled while bobbing her head up-and-down as she took the radio. “ I think I can figure it out.”

After thinking her profusely, Professor Kohaku looked back toward Pericles. “And as for how it’s going, well, I guess it could be worse. it’s just a lot to take care of. I know, I know, Gaia can’t trust anyone else in the security position after what happened to Ignatius, but… it’s just a lot. I’m afraid that I’m going to mess something up.”

Stepping over to put a hand on her shoulder, Pericles smiled. “You’re doing fine, Risa, I promise. You’ll get the hang of balancing your new duties. And anytime you have any more trouble with the equipment, I’m sure that either I, or Nevada here can help. You’ll get there, just remember to take a breath whenever you need to. And if breathing doesn’t work, try finding a private spot and screaming. I find that tends to help.”

Breathing out, Kohaku nodded. “Thanks, I’ll try the screaming thing later. At least being head of security means I know where all the private spots are.” Smiling a little bit then, she looked toward Nevada. “And thank you. You know, for um, looking at that monstrosity.”

“No problem Professor,” Nevada chirped. “I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out what’s wrong with it.”

“What’s wrong with it,” Kohaku grumbled under her breath while giving the thing a dirty look, “is probably that no one’s made the appropriate virgin goat sacrifices to its lord and master recently.”

She made a face at the thing before straightening. “Oh, but while I have you here, Nevada, I have your art project.” Reaching into her suit jacket for a moment, the woman felt around a little before withdrawing a large poster that looked too big to have fit in there. “I just have a couple questions before I hand it back to you.” She paused, glancing toward Pericles. “Unless you prefer this to be private?”

“Oh, no,” Nevada shook her head. “That’s okay, you both already know the truth about me. Did I do something wrong with the project?”

Kohaku’s head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to ask you about it.”

She held up the poster then so that they could all see it. The image itself was of a pair of eyes that seem to be watching the observer, and an extended hand.

“The assignment,” Kohaku noted. “was to draw a picture of something that makes you feel safe. You wouldn’t believe how many students drew a picture of their weapon, or one of their teachers. But you drew this. Is it someone in particular? And why just the eyes and hand?”

Nevada found herself blushing as she shifted back-and-forth on her feet a little bit. “Uh, yeah. It’s um, you know. It’s Deveron, from back when he saved me. That was sort of the first time anyone ever saved me. I didn’t want to do his whole face, because that would probably be really bad if the wrong people saw it  and happened to recognize him. But I thought just his eyes and hand would be okay. That’s mostly what I think about when I remember what happened anyway.” Those eyes, the soft, kind eyes that had met hers right when she had been so certain that her life was about to come to an end. The eyes that had saved her life, and then offered her a new one.

“It’s a wonderful picture,” Kohaku assured her. “I just saw it and, well, I kind of wanted to know more. Which is really good for art, believe me.” She paused then, studying Nevada for a moment. “Deveron really did a lot for you, didn’t he?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Nevada replied. “Both literally and figuratively. I wouldn’t be here in the school if he didn’t ask for my help, and help me change. And I wouldn’t be alive if he hadn’t saved me.”

Kohaku smiled at that, and offered the poster back to her. “I think it’s safe to say that you got an A on this project. And I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see Mr. Adams again, even if he is persona non grata around here.”

Blushing, Nevada thanked her and the woman excused herself before stepping out of the room with a promise to give her ten million hugs if she could figure out what the hell was wrong with her radio.

Once they were alone, Pericles gestured to the device in her hand. “I do believe that if you can help Risa with her technology issues, you will have found an ally for life, come what may.”

He paused then, before looking to her a little quizzically. “It must be very interesting to be in your position.”

“Interesting,” Nevada echoed curiously, “why?”

The man explained, “You are going through the motions now as if you are a student, and in some ways you are. Being human, having choices, making a life of your own, in that regard, you are a child. But you have been alive for much, much longer than that.”

Again, Nevada blushed. “I prefer to think of this as Version 2.0 of me. And in that regard, I’m only a few months old. I’m still figuring out who I am, and who I want to be.”

The elderly man put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes soft and understanding. “In that regard, my dear, you are already very human. But,” he added after giving a quick glance toward the watch on his wrist, “you should probably go now while there’s still time left in the lunch hour. I wouldn’t want to starve you while you’re still figuring out what kind of person you are. That wouldn’t do at all.

Picking up her bag and tucking the broken radio and her poster away inside of it, Nevada’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah, I guess I’m still not used to that either. Humans get hungry a lot.

The man chuckled, quipping, “Practically every day, it seems.”

He watched her start to leave, before holding up a hand. “One more thing before you go, Nevada.”

“Yes, Professor?” She turned back to look at him.

His voice was soft, yet firm. “You are very, very wrong when you say that you have no family. You may have no living relatives, true. But here, in this place, as far as I am concerned, you will always have family.”

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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 Hayes 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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Winter Wonderland 18-02

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago focusing on Flick and Avalon. There were some… important developments in that chapter, so if you missed it, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above. 

“Miss Chambers.” A hand waved in front of my face as the voice repeated louder, “Miss Chambers.”

Snapping out of my daze, I blinked a couple times and looked around. Bus. I was on the bus that was bringing me back home. Hours had passed since… since that… since Avalon and I had… since we had…

“Miss Chambers.” Again, the hand was back while another shook my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Oh, oh! Bus, right, yes. I straightened, face flushed while looking toward the woman who was speaking. Professor Kohaku. She had accompanied me for the trip. Apparently the plan was for her to stay on the bus after I got off, just watching over me long enough to make sure I made it to my father.

I wasn’t entirely sure what difference it made if I was with my father or not, since if anyone was going to come after me, Dad’s presence wasn’t going to stop them. But I wasn’t in the position to argue. So, I’d taken the little bus ride next to Kohaku and ended up zoning out a bit while thinking about that… that…

“I’m okay,” I quickly blurted before the woman shook me again. My blush was deeper, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Hadn’t stopped smiling throughout the entire trip, ever since… Crap, focus, focus. Don’t zone out. “I’m okay.”

The Asian woman continued to eye me for a moment before speaking carefully. “If something happened at the school that you wish to talk about… something between you and Miss Sinclaire…”

Eyes widening, I blurted, “No. No, nothing. I mean, it’s fine. It’s all good. Really good.” Okay, now I was outright blushing. Stupid traitor blood vessels. “I mean, nothing happened. I’m just… thinking.”

Yeah, just thinking about how that kiss had felt. And about how Avalon had looked at me afterward, how her hand had lingered on my face, and how… how… Okay, Flick, don’t zone out again. Focus.

“I, um.” Clearing my throat, I tried to change the subject by looking at Kohaku. “How are you?”

Rather than answer the admittedly lame question, the professor nodded toward the front of the bus. “We are almost at your stop.” After a brief pause, she added, “If it would make you would feel more comfortable, I can step off with you and find a reason to escort you and your father to your home.”

My head shook a bit at that. “No, it’s—I mean, if anything happens, I’ll let you guys know. Wyatt gave me a couple…” Pausing, I looked around the bus briefly. There was almost no one on it, and the seats surrounding us were empty. Still, I lowered my voice. “He gave me a couple emergency alert things in case anything goes wrong. If any of the you-know-who’s decide to come visit, I’ll set them off.”

“As you wish.” Kohaku put her hand lightly on my wrist. “But if anything happens, promise that you aren’t going to try to play hero, Miss Chambers. Now is not the time to prove how capable you are.”

Meeting the woman’s intense stare, I nodded quickly. “I know. I promise, Professor. I’m not going to do anything stupid. The second anything bad happens, I’ll throw up every alert and alarm that I can. Hell, if it comes down to it, I’ll start a fire and throw up smoke signals. I’m not about to take that risk.”

“Good.” Kohaku took her hand off my wrist. “Make sure that Miss Porter understands the seriousness of the situation as well when she arrives, as well as Mr. Porter. They are both visiting, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I confirmed. “Well, Shiori’s coming in a couple days, and Columbus is visiting late on Christmas. I mean—she’s going back to her adopted parents’ place on Christmas Eve to do the actual holiday stuff, then they’re both coming late on Christmas day.” I didn’t add that it made the most sense that way since night would be when Asenath could be the most active. Nor did I mention the frankly almost predatorily interested sound of Twister’s voice when she had asked if Columbus was coming.

The woman smiled. “Good,” she repeated. “The more people you have with you, the less likely that anyone will make a move.” Pausing, she looked to me. “I know it may sound as though we’re being paranoid, Miss Chambers. But in the case of this particular threat, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.”

My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know, I know. I get it, I promise. No being stupid. No problem.”

She continued to study me for another few seconds before her smile returned. “I’m glad that you know better, Miss Chambers. And as I said, put a little thought into my offer. You would do well in Security.”

The bus had stopped by then, and I promised to think about it before thanking her again for the escort. Then I straightened up, grabbed my bag, and shrugged into my coat before stepping off the bus. As I entered the cold Wyoming winter air, my eyes looked around for my father.

It wasn’t hard to find him. He was the one standing all by himself near the bus, holding a sign up over his head as though he was in a busy airport waiting for some arrival he barely knew. I blinked up toward the sign, and didn’t bother suppressing my groan.

The sign read, ‘Mrs. Felicity Depp.’

Quickly moving across the snowy ground, I reached up to grab the sign out of his hand, face flushed. “Jerk,” I informed my oh-so-hilarious dad. “I haven’t had a crush on Johnny Depp in years.”

Dad continued to smirk while letting me yank the sign away and crumple it up. “I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear that. Ten-year-old you did send that letter swearing your undying love.”

Red-faced, I gave him a light kick, careful to watch my strength. “I was ten. I also thought The Last Airbender was gonna be a great movie, so I was naive and my tastes sucked. Also, you’re a jerk, jerk. A jerky jerk jerkington.”

Even as I said it, however, my arms were wrapping around my father and I held him tight while repeating one last, “Jerk.”

He chuckled before hugging me tight enough to lift me off the ground. “Love you too, Cubby.”

We stayed there like that for a few moments, clutching onto each other. I’d missed my father more than I realized while everything was going on. Yes, I’d seen him not that long ago at Thanksgiving. But still, weeks apart was a long time for the two of us.

Eventually, however, Dad pulled back and smiled down at me. “Wanna grab chicken for lunch on the way back? You’ve gotta be starving after that bus ride.”

“Sure, Dad,” I replied, unable to resist returning his smile. Being around my father just made me… happier. Between that and what had happened back on the island with Avalon when we…

Dad’s fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hey, yo. You okay, kid?”

Well, if I’d been blushing before, now it was practically a five-alarm fire. My head jerked up and down rapidly. “I’m good,” I squeaked. “All good. Hungry. Let’s eat. Eating’s good.”

From the look on his face, Dad knew there was something else going on (I mean, obviously, he wasn’t blind and deaf). Still, he didn’t push. Instead, he led the way to the car.

As we went, I glanced up to see the bus pulling away with Professor Kohaku. Watching the exhaust as it disappeared down the road for just a moment, I shook myself and continued after my father.

It was time for a vacation. And I definitely, undeniably needed it.

******

“So, um, what exactly does the name Reathma mean, anyway? And where does it come from?”

It was a few days later, about a week before Christmas itself. Asenath had said from the beginning of my vacation that she wanted to take Shiori and me somewhere special. And now that Shiori had actually arrived, Senny had insisted on having us come with her to whatever the surprise was. So, while Twister stayed with my dad to make sure nothing happened to him, the three of us took off.

I didn’t know where we were going, since Senny had insisted that we blindfold ourselves and sit in the back seat of the car while she drove. Which, honestly, I could always use the Blemmye’s power to know exactly where we were in relation to home. But that felt like cheating, so I avoided it for the time being.

Senny had been driving and taking more twists and turns than were probably absolutely necessary. She’d said something about taking magical ‘shortcuts’ that would get us much further a lot faster, and apologized for taking the roundabout way. Apparently, however, it was one of the conditions for her bringing us to… wherever she was bringing us. All I knew was that it was apparently a pretty big deal.

Shiori, beside me in the seat and equally blind, continued. “I mean, I tried to look it up, but I wasn’t sure how to spell it. Is it Wraith, like ghost? Wraith-Ma. Like Wraith-Mom. Am I a ghost-mom?”

I could hear the amusement in Asenath’s voice. “Nope. It’s R-E-A-T-H-M-A. Reathma. It just sounds like Wraith-muh. And it’s a word from my father’s homeworld that means oath or promise, basically. A reathma is essentially a blood oath, a um, a promise not for anything specific but just to be there for the other person. If you and someone else have a reathma, you’ll back them them up no matter what happens. If they need protection, food, a place to stay, anything. And they’ll do the same for you.”

She paused then, clearly hesitating before adding in a soft voice. “I hope you don’t mind being named after something from my dad’s world. I know he doesn’t really—he’s not really related to you or any-”

“It’s great,” Shiori interrupted quickly, her voice making it obvious that she was sincere. “It sounds beautiful, really. And… Senny, maybe he’s not my dad, but he’s—he’s yours and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it sounds like the name means a lot. ” After another hesitation, she added in a quieter voice. “I guess I was just kind of wondering if the name had anything to do with my real dad.”

That was kind of a good question, actually. Why had Shiori’s mother named her after a word from Senny’s father’s world instead of giving her a name that had something to do with Shiori’s father? What did that name have to do with Shiori herself other than the fact that Jiao obviously loved her husband. Did she not care as much about Shiori’s father, whoever he was? Or was I reading too much into it?

Asenath was quiet for a few moments before her voice returned. “Mom will tell you everything about your father and… and the rest of it, I promise. She sent a message saying she’d be here by Christmas.”

We continued on that way for another hour before the car finally parked. Asenath got out and helped the two of us out without taking the blindfolds off. Carefully, she led us across what felt and sounded like a vast, mostly empty parking garage considering the echo in the vampire’s voice as she directed us.

We entered what was obviously an elevator, and ascended a ways until a ding announced our arrival. Senny ushered us off, then reached up and removed the blindfolds. “All right, here we go.”

Blinking at the sudden bright fluorescent lights, I looked around, squinting uncertainly. “A hallway?” From what I could see from where I stood, we were in some kind of plain corridor. There was linoleum on the floor, plain, unremarkable walls, and a simple door in front of us. It looked incredibly mundane.

Shiori looked just as uncertain and unimpressed, but Senny just smiled at us before starting to explain. “I can’t exactly tell you where we are. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was just to get permission to bring you both here to begin with. Lots of favors and promises, and you’re going to have to meet the big guy so he can chat with you before you go anywhere else. But still, here we are.”

She continued to hold the doorknob, and I paused while glancing to Shiori to find out if she had any idea what her sister was talking about. Getting nothing but a shrug in response, I coughed. “Okay, got it. Big secret place. But uh, exactly what kind of secret place are we talking about? What’s going on?”

Asenath smiled at us, as if that was the question she had been waiting for. Rather than answer verbally, she pushed the door open and stepped aside, gesturing for us to go ahead. So, after giving Shiori another uncertain look, I took a step forward and moved through the doorway to see what lay beyond.

A mall. We were in a mall, stepping out of one of the service corridors. But it wasn’t an ordinary mall. Even as my eyes took in the semi-familiar layout that immediately screamed ‘mall’, I was recognizing some of the differences. For one thing, I was pretty sure that no actual mall I’d ever heard of would have had an eight and a half foot tall troll wearing a comically undersized security hat on his massive head standing in the middle of the aisle.

It wasn’t just a hat the troll was wearing. He also wore a shirt that probably would have been too big for Shaquille O’Neal. But on the troll, it was tiny and stretched impossibly tight over his huge form. On the front of the shirt, the words, ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’ were written.

My Stranger-sense started screaming at me (obviously), as soon as my eyes spotted the enormous troll. But he wasn’t the only Alter in sight. No. Everywhere I looked there was another non-human. The entire mall was full of them. Looking left, I saw a group of blue-skinned figures that were about three feet tall with bald heads and enormous yellow eyes that took up most of their faces. They were walking quickly past a Menmeran (that was what the bodybuilder frogmen that Scout and Sean had killed on the Meregan planet had been called, I’d eventually found out), who was studying the window display of one of the stores. A window display that didn’t actually have any mannequins. Instead, about a dozen of what I swore were actual flying pixies fluttered about performing some kind of show for the Menmeran and a few other figures who had slowed or stopped to watch. It involved ribbons and really intricate flying sequences. Further in the same store, I caught a glimpse of more elaborate shows going on.

Looking right, my eyes spotted one of the Relukun wood people walking alongside a couple Satyrs as the trio moved into another store that appeared to be selling every movie from the past hundred years or so, if the window display was any indication. And further on, there was an actual clothing store that a group of teenage Alters of half a dozen different species were all loitering in front of, while the proprietor (a humanoid lion whose mane was graying with age) barked angrily at them to come in and buy something or move the hell away from the entrance so that actual customers could get through.

There was more and more to see. Everywhere I looked, there were other Alters going about their day. It was like we’d stepped through a portal into some kind of alternate universe where the whole world was Alters. The entire mall was full of them. Some of the stores I looked at seemed fairly normal and close to what you’d see in the human world, such as the clothing store or the place that was selling movies. Then there were the clearly abnormal ones, such as the place where the pixies were giving their flying shows, or a magic shop that appeared to be selling actual magic things rather than tricks and illusions.

And that was all before I looked up. Because when I did, I realized that this was only the first floor. There were two more floors above that one, with open space clear to the ceiling so that we could see the railings that surrounded the upper landings. In those upper floors, there weren’t stores. Instead, I caught glimpses of actual homes that had been built into what had been the rest of the mall’s shops, tiny apartments here and there, and even what looked like over-sized birdhouses where more pixies fluttered about. I saw wet clothing hanging from lines to dry, children of every shape and size running around, old women gossiping, and even what had to be a teacher leading her students on a field trip. There was an ugly old Harpy perched on the top railing, cackling to herself while watching something that was happening further back on the third floor where I couldn’t see. And more, so much more.

By that point, Shiori had moved up to join me. She looked just as taken aback as I was, her eyes wandering back and forth while she made noises of surprise and fascination. Together, we stared.

“It’s pretty impressive, huh?” Asenath spoke up, moving up on Shiori’s other side while watching us, wearing an amused expression on her face. “Twister and I figured you guys might like to see this.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, the big troll took two lumbering steps our way. Now, I noticed that he carried a gigantic club in one hand. The thing looked like a broken part of a telephone pole that had some railroad spikes driven through it to make a sort-of oversized nailbat.

“Dzese are dzem?” the troll asked in what sounded like an awfully chipper and upbeat voice considering his size and the weapon he was carrying. “Dzese are dze Heretics, Senny? Huh, huh?”

“Easy, Buddy, easy.” Asenath chuckled, smiling as she nodded. “Yes, this is my friend. And my sister.”

I blinked, but it was Shiori who realized how Senny had said it and blurted, “Your name is Buddy?”

The troll grinned and thumped his free hand against the words on his shirt. “I am Buddy System. Using Buddy System for being safe. Funny, yes?” He had what sounded like a heavy Russian accent.

Shiori was clearly delighted by it going by her face, and I had to chuckle too as I eyed his massive spiked club. “Buddy System. Yeah, I guess you would be pretty damn effective at protecting people.”

Buddy gave a clearly proud and delighted smile, thumping his chest again. “Buddy System keep safe.”

Senny spoke up again. “Buddy’s pretty much the first line of defense in this place. I mean, besides the magic keeping people away from it to begin with, of course. He’s kind of the most visible deterrent to stop anyone from starting trouble once they’re in here. And he does a really great job at it.”

“But what is this place?” I asked, looking around at the Alters again. Some of them had stopped short, staring and whispering to one another as they watched us with obviously worried expressions. At least no one had panicked yet, probably because of who we were standing with. That and they had probably been warned about our arrival. Even then, however, I could tell that a lot weren’t very comfortable.

Smiling at the question, Senny replied, “This? On the outside, it’s just some rundown mall in some random city that never gets worked on, yet the humans all somehow leave alone. But in here, on the inside, it’s a place for Alters to go and relax. It’s a place for us to be safe from prying eyes and the wild world out there. There’s no fighting in here, no violence unless the aggressor wants to be banned for life. It’s a place for Alter children to run around without worrying about Heretic boogeymen jumping out of the woodwork, or Nocen monsters snatching them. Basically, it’s home for a lot of Alters.

“Flick, Reathma… welcome to Wonderland.”

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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Second Hunt 16-06

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Scout made it to the room just as Avalon was starting to come to. My eyes snapped from the quiet girl coming around the corner, to my roommate as she gave a quiet groan and began trying to sit up.

Gaia was already there. She was still kneeling next to her adopted daughter with a hand on her face. The woman’s voice was soft as she said something quietly in a language I didn’t understand, but sounded quite tender. Then she added in English. “It’s all right. Take it slow, the threat is over now.”

“What–” Blinking a couple times, Avalon pushed herself into a slight sitting position. Her eyes went from me to Gaia and then back again before she muttered in an annoyed tone, “They tried again.” It wasn’t the kind of voice of a person terrified that some kind of conspiracy had attempted to kill her for what had to be the fifty-third time. Instead, it was the same sort of tone that I’d expect to come from someone who was annoyed that their roommate had taken the last of the milk. Exasperation. Annoyance. If Avalon was actually afraid of what was going on, she wasn’t really showing any of it.

I had to stop myself from rushing up to her. She’d been pretty much point-blank in front of an explosion that had knocked her unconscious for a decent length of time. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to… But no. Gaia was there. She deserved to be the one to check on the girl that mattered enough to her to adopt her, to do all of this for her. I cared about Avalon, but interrupting that right then would’ve been selfish.

It also reminded me of just how much the girl had to mean to Gaia. As old as the headmistress was and as much as she had seen over those centuries, she had to have lost a lot of people. But I had seen her expression when she came in to find Avalon unconscious after yet another attempt to kill the girl, and I saw her expression as she knelt with a hand on her face. I’d seen the anger and the relief. If Gaia wasn’t Avalon’s mother, it was pure semantics. She clearly cared about the girl just as much as if she was.

Moving up to my side, Scout looked at me questioningly. So, I whispered a quick explanation, “Bad guy fought Deveron for awhile and then got away just before Gaia showed up. She dismantled the bomb and fixed the hole.” Glancing to her and the blood on her uniform, I added, “Are you okay?”

She gave a quick nod at that, making a face before lifting her rifle pointedly. Then she focused on the wound in my arm and the blood there, and her face fell a bit before the girl whispered a weak, “Sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Shaking my head, I lifted my arm and showed her. “Healing already, see?” Restraining a grimace of pain as much as I could, I instead tried to smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, deflecting bullets with a knife, who saw that coming? You were helping. I just… I’m glad Deveron showed up when he did.” My eyes glanced that way, and found the boy (or man) in question already talking to someone on his own communication pin. “He was… really bad ass. If he hadn’t shown up when he did…” Trailing off, I couldn’t help the shudder that passed through me. “It would’ve been really bad.”

Before Scout could respond to that, Gaia was standing up. She took hold of Avalon’s hand and helped her up as well. I could tell that the woman wanted to do more than that, but she stopped herself for the other girl’s sake. Then she was looking toward me. “Thank you, Felicity,” she spoke quietly, obviously more in control of herself by that point than she had been when she first arrived and actually called me Flick. “You have, as usual now, gone above and beyond what we should expect of our… our students.”

“Hey,” I tried to shake that off even as I cradled my broken and still healing wrist. “I didn’t do anything that Avalon wouldn’t have done for me. Except her way probably would’ve been a lot more competent.”

A slight, knowing smile touched the headmistress’s face then as she looked from Avalon to me and back again before speaking in an easy tone. “It’s very important that roommates and… partners be able to trust each other that much. I’m glad that you two are willing to go that far to protect one another.”

“She shouldn’t have had to,” Avalon spoke sharply then. “The bomb shouldn’t have gone off. We’re su-”

“We’ll discuss it away from this place,” Gaia interrupted, her tone gentle but firm. “For now, this exercise is over. We’ll go back to the island and have a… discussion with your entire team, together.”

“Um,” I hesitated before raising a hand. “Headmistress, what about the rest of the skeleblineists?”

The red-haired woman just blinked at me, head tilting a little. “I’m sorry, what about the what, now?”

My face pinked at that as I remembered that wasn’t their real name. “Err, sorry, I mean the… Strangers. I couldn’t remember the name, so I just—you know, skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. Skeleblineists.”

For a long, silent moment, Gaia just looked at me. Then she gave the faintest smile of amusement, almost undetectable before murmuring, “Fair enough. Now, as for what should be done about them…”

The woman trailed off, pausing as she looked away. I saw a momentary frown of concentration cross her face, and felt some kind of invisible yet almost tangible power pass through me. It was a little bit like feeling static electricity, and lasted for five seconds or so. Abruptly, the feeling cut out and there was a loud squealing noise from all around us. About five feet from Avalon, one of the skeleblineists popped out of the wall. On the opposite side of the room, another one appeared from the floor. And a third came out of the engine itself. None of them were attacking, however. They just popped half-way out, screaming in pain. Meanwhile, further off in the ship I could hear the cries of others echoing.

The terrible squeals only lasted for a second or two, until all of them were visible. Then all three of the ones I could see were reduced to literal ashes that fell to the floor. And considering the way the screams cut off everywhere else as well, I was pretty sure the exact same thing happened to the rest of them.

Gaia straightened, the by-then-familiar golden aura (the same color as my own, I noticed) briefly flaring up around the headmistress as she cracked her neck to the side. Then the woman nodded in satisfaction. “There. Now it’s finished.”

Okay, yeah. I’m pretty sure my gulp at that was audible from clear across the room. Or possibly even from the other side of the ship. “Oh, um. Thanks,” I managed weakly, my wide eyes darting to the girl beside me. For her part, Scout looked just as taken aback by the display of power. Which made me feel a little bit better. If she wasn’t used to it, having grown up around all this stuff, then it wasn’t just me.

By that point, Gaia was already gesturing toward the nearby hatch. At her motion, the broken doorway lifted up and set itself back into place before closing. Then the headmistress just stepped that way and opened it once more. Except rather than seeing the corridor of the ship, the open doorway revealed one of the Pathmaker portal rooms. She gestured for us to go. “You’ll find the rest of your team already waiting, I promise. As I said, we will discuss things once everyone is together and accounted for.”

So, Scout, Avalon, and I passed through the portal together. I resisted the urge to try to help Avalon. Not only was I really not feeling up to it considering the pain in my arm, wrist, and… well, pretty much everywhere, but I was pretty sure that if I had even tried to steady Avalon, she would’ve flattened me.

As promised, Columbus, Sands, and Sean were already waiting in the portal room. Wyatt was there too, standing beside the other security guy. When we came into the room, Sands went running up to embrace her sister, while Wyatt took a step my way before stopping himself. The poor guy looked like he wanted to tell the entire concept of secrets to go screw themselves as he stared at me intently for a moment before managing a slightly strained, “Oh—oh good, good, you’re all okay. No one d-died?”

Smiling faintly, I shook my head at him. “Nope, not… not this time. We’re fine, Mr. Rendell. Thanks.”

Vulcan had no such compulsions against showing how much he cared. The robot dog came bounding right up to me, barking until I obediently reached down to pet him. “Hey, boy. Did you take care of your partner? You keep him out of trouble, huh?” Smiling, I rubbed over his metal head vigorously.

My eyes moved up then toward Columbus. The boy was still soaked from his little swim when he’d been knocked out of the ship by the bomb, but otherwise he didn’t really look hurt. “You okay?”

In the back of my mind, that new power that I’d picked up was still cataloging every inanimate object that got close enough to me. I could sense what was in Sands’s pockets, as well as Scout’s and Avalon’s. As far as I could tell, it didn’t actually tell me what was in the extradimensional storage space like our weapon sheathes. It probably had something to do with the items technically being in another world.

“Yeah,” Columbus nodded to the security guy who’d saved him. “Thanks to Bennet. Think I swallowed about half the ocean when I got knocked out there, but I’m good. What about you? You look… bad.”

“Gee thanks,” I mumbled before sighing. “We’re alive. Despite their best efforts. That’s what matters.”

Professor Dare came through into the portal room then, followed by Gaia and Deveron. The blonde teacher looked more worn out than I had ever actually seen her. I could see a few cuts and bruises, her normally immaculate uniform had a couple holes in it here and there, and her hair had come loose so that there were random strands sticking out. There was even a bit of blood under the woman’s nose.

“Bennet,” she addressed the other security guy, who was staring at her with probably as much surprise as I was. “Please go and find Risa. Ask her to join us here, assuming nothing else has gone wrong.”

The man glanced to the headmistress, who nodded. Then his eyes darted toward both me and Avalon for a second before he spun on his heel and hurried out the other way with a quick, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Once he was gone, Wyatt didn’t wait any more. He practically sprinted to cross the distance before he was hugging me. Actually, the poor guy was literally lifting me off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to turn off the escape-port, I wanted to use it, but she was still in trouble and the escape-port wouldn’t work with her and I was trying to fix it, but if I let you go then she wouldn’t have anyone and I couldn’t do that to you or her and I didn’t want to do any of it, but I had t-”

“Wyatt, Wyatt,” I quickly interrupted while he continued to babble. “I’m okay! We’re okay, listen, I can’t—Wyatt, I can’t understand you. What do you mean, escape-port? What happened? Talk slower.”

Visibly taking a moment to calm himself, the man swallowed hard. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a couple times before he pushed on. “I provided security measures for your mission that would have pulled you out of danger. Somehow, they… they blocked the effect on Avalon’s. Yours was still working, but I deactivated it. I left you in danger so that you could protect her, all because my measure failed.” His voice was getting higher by the end, and he turned abruptly toward Gaia. “Headmistress, I accept any punishment you give me for the unacceptable failure. I’ll… I’ll resign right now if you wish.”

“No, Wyatt.” Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you understand? We owe you our thanks, not condemnation. If it wasn’t for your security efforts, Avalon would already be… The assassins would have succeeded.”

The poor guy looked taken aback, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I—they would have?”

“Yes,” the headmistress nodded. “And Felicity here most likely would have been killed as well.” Her gaze softened. “You are correct, the person who attacked Avalon was able to block the spell that would have brought her out of danger. But even then, they were not able to take her anywhere. I detected several attempts in that room to leave with her. Obviously, their primary intention was to leave with Avalon, most likely so that they could… eliminate her in private without any of us to stop them.”

Gaia had a hand on Avalon’s shoulder, her voice soft as she continued. “Because of your security enchantment, none of those efforts worked. Which meant that they had to attempt to…” she swallowed just a little. “… kill her right there. That also required breaking through enough of your enchantments to even make the attempt. Between those efforts and their ongoing focus on preventing your retrieval spell from simply whisking Avalon away from them, the attacker’s attention was split enough that they were unable to put their full effort on the fight with Felicity. If they had, I believe she would be dead now.”

Well, that made me cringe. I’d thought fighting that masked assassin had been hard enough. But knowing that their attention had been split multiple ways and they hadn’t been fighting at near their full ability? Yeah, that thought made me want to whimper. Clearly whoever these people were, they were far over the level of a few first year students. Looking to Wyatt then, I managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“Does… does that mean they screwed with my bombs too?” Columbus put in. The poor guy looked about as guilty and stressed out as Wyatt had. “Because I swear I checked them before I put them in my pack. They should’ve been fine. The timers worked when I was testing them before the mission.”

I checked them as well, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare assured him. “I would not have allowed you to go out on a mission like that with active explosives unless I was confident that they had been assembled correctly and were safe. When I looked them over, they were. Someone interfered between the time that I did my inspection, and when you attempted to use them. Which indicates a disturbing level of access, as well as enough knowledge of what your mission was to assume that they would be used.”

Before anyone could say anything to that, the door into the rest of the building opened once more and Professor Kohaku entered. Her gaze took all of us in, clearly inspecting for any lasting injury before she gave a long sigh. “Again?”

“Again.” Gaia sounded just as annoyed before turning her attention to us. “We will talk more of this later. For now, I must ask you to excuse us while we… discuss what has happened and what we are going to do to prevent it in the future. As for your grade for this mission…” She looked to Professor Dare.

The blonde woman smiled just a little. Her injuries had already healed, though there was still the blood on her clothes and the rips through them that showed just how much she had been through. “I would say you all scored quite well, if we discount the… interference. Had things continued the way they were progressing, you would have sunk the ship, as we hoped you would. You displayed admirable teamwork both before and after the interruption. So I would say you’ve earned top marks, given everything that happened.”

The headmistress squeezed Avalon’s shoulder, looking like what she wanted to do was pull her back into a hug right there. “Yes. Very good indeed.” Clearing her throat, she nodded to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, if you could ensure that they arrive safely back at their dorms?”

So, we trudged out of the portal room together. Everyone else looked utterly exhausted. In my case, most of the pain had faded, and I wasn’t even tired. Mostly I felt numb. I wanted to hug Avalon and not let go. I wanted to know who the hell had tried to kill her again. We knew why they were trying so hard, but not who. I wanted her to be safe, and happy.

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

So I did. After spending some time with Avalon in our room and making sure the girl was really okay (hopefully without pushing her too far), I eventually left. Thanks to my new pendant, I didn’t have to obey the curfew anymore. Which meant that I could wander the grounds after hours, talking to my dad on the phone. Not that I told him that I was out, and especially not why. As far as he knew, I was in my room, and just needed to talk.

Eventually, he had to go to bed, so I switched to the private phone and talked to Asenath. Finding my way out behind the main building, I took a seat on the grass and watched the jungle in the distance while I told the vampire girl all about what had actually happened that day, and how worried I was. She listened while I vented about how angry I was that our security and safety had been compromised again, and how worried I was about Avalon.

There wasn’t much that the girl could do, obviously. But she was a really good listener, and didn’t try to cut in. She let me say what I needed to without interrupting, which let me get my head on straighter than it had been pretty much since the attack started.

Finally, I sat back and looked at the sky with the phone to my ear. “Thanks, Senny. Sorry for talking your ear off. I just…”

“Needed to talk to someone,” she finished. “I get it. Don’t worry. I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Trust me, you’re doing enough,” I assured her. “Just… don’t let anything happen to my dad, okay? I… I couldn’t take that. Not now.”

Her voice was serious. “You have my word.” Lightening her tone a bit, she added, “And hey, could you ask Shiori what her favorite kind of pie is before Christmas break?”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I nodded absently. “Yeah, I’ll find out. But I thought you didn’t cook.”

“I don’t,” she retorted. “But Twister does.”

We talked a little bit more. Now that I had the ranting out of my system, I was able to laugh a little bit and just enjoy the conversation. Eventually, I let the other girl get back to what she was doing and hung up. Then I just sat there under the moonlight, watching the jungle and the stars.

About ten minutes passed like that before a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes, I turned slightly to find Gaia standing just above me. “Err, sorry, Headmistress.” I quickly started to get up.

“It’s all right, Felicity.” Gaia extended a hand down to help me. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting?”

My head shook. “No, ma’am. I was just… thinking.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. “I’ve been doing a lot of that as well. And I believe it’s time that I began taking your training more seriously.”

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

The woman’s voice was somber. “We both know and understand how much… pressure you are under, Felicity. We know what you’re facing, what you have already faced. Between those threats and the ones you have put yourself in to protect my… Avalon, I would be a failure if I did not come to you now and offer… if you would accept it, additional training and schooling, during some of the hours that you now have available after curfew.”

My mouth opened and shut. “You… you mean you want to give me extra lessons, extra training… yourself?”

“Would that be acceptable?” she asked in a quiet voice, watching my reaction.

It took a moment to find my voice, but I finally bobbed my head up and down rapidly. “Y-yes, ma’am. Really, anything you can do, any… any training you can give me, I swear, I’ll do the best I can.

“God knows I need the help.”

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Medical Leave 15-02

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Hours later, after the regular school day had ended, the sound of my staff hitting sticks filled the air.

“Again, harder this time. Don’t be afraid of your new strength, Flick. Trust me, the staff won’t break.”

After giving me those instructions, Deveron stepped back along the sandy beach while holding a pair of escrima sticks up in the defensive position. “It’s meant to stand a lot more force than you can put on it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded and tried to stop holding back. Ever since I’d killed that werewolf and taken on his strength, I’d felt like I always had to watch what I was doing. Sure, being able to lift a thousand pounds (barely) wasn’t an unbelievable amount in the grand scheme of super powers. But it was about ten times what I was accustomed to being able to lift, so pretty much everything felt a lot more flimsy. Everything I did throughout the day required so much less effort to accomplish the same amount. It was taking a lot to get used to. And that meant it was harder for me to stop holding back while we trained.

Still, this time I tried to put my actual strength behind the blows as I swung the staff at my… god, what was Deveron? My tutor/sort-of step-father? God, this was really weird. And the thought of it distracted me enough that he simply slid my staff out of the way with one of his sticks before giving me a swift smack against the stomach with the other one. It didn’t knock the wind out of me or anything, but it did sting enough that his point was made without him having to say anything. Focus, Flick. Think later.

Abandoning my thoughts, I let my body work automatically, swinging high, then low, then bringing the staff around in a spin for momentum as I pivoted to go for his opposite leg. Each time, one of Deveron’s sticks was there. He was fast enough to easily keep up with everything I was doing, and it didn’t seem that difficult for him. I felt like a child wrestling with… well, her dad. In a way, it was reassuring. Especially since it meant that I didn’t have to worry much about accidentally hurting him.

We continued that way, moving back and forth through the sand. Sometimes he took the lead and made me defend, showing me where I messed up whenever I was inevitably hit. But mostly he had me attack him, playing defense while occasionally correcting my stance, or the position of my hands. Now that he was actually paying attention and trying to teach us, Deveron was actually a good tutor. I was already learning a lot from him, and between his efforts and Avalon’s, I was becoming at least halfway decent.

Finally, after an intense session of that, we took a little break. I stooped and picked up a water bottle, gulping it down for a second as I looked up and down the beach. We were the only ones in the immediate area, though there were others spread further apart. I could see about a dozen second years playing some kind of soccer game up away from the beach on the end of the school grounds. I considered it ‘some kind of soccer’ because there were clearly several added rules that I didn’t recognize. I mean, the last time I checked, soccer didn’t include flying remote drone robot things firing stunning lasers at whoever had the ball. And people definitely weren’t allowed to use weapons in the normal game. Plus, I was pretty sure that the ball wasn’t supposed to occasionally electrify itself.

Well, that was one way to train. Beyond the murderball, there were several other groups along the beach itself. Most of them were swimming, or just walking through the sand. A couple guys from my year were throwing a frisbee around. And, of course, there were more people training, like we were.

I took all that in for a moment before looking to Deveron. “I— I’m sorry you didn’t get to see Abigail.”

The boy was drinking from his own bottle, and froze a bit at my words. For a moment, he didn’t say anything. Then I saw him swallow noticeably before lowering the bottle. His eyes came up to find mine. “I believe you when you say that she’s all right. I just…” He hesitated, trailing off awkwardly.

“She’s your daughter,” I said for him. “And—and you haven’t really had a chance to see her in person.”

His eyes closed, and I saw him give a slight shudder at the reminder. “Yes,” Deveron said quietly. “And I would… I would give almost anything to be there with her, to be with my daughter.” He swallowed hard before pushing on, his voice weaker. “Except her safety. That’s the one thing I won’t risk to be with her. I won’t put any of you in more danger than you already are, just to make myself feel better.”

Wincing, I stepped that way, reaching out to take his hand. Squeezing it, I was quiet for a moment while searching for the right words. “Hey, I… you’re a very different person than I thought you were, when we first met.” I finally managed a little weakly as I cursed myself for not knowing what to say.

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me briefly before giving me a smile, one that actually reached his eyes, unlike his earlier mocking smirks. “That’s funny, you’re exactly the kind of person I thought you were.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I squeezed his hand a little tighter reflexively. “I’m… I’m glad I don’t have to hate you anymore.” It sounded awkward, but I felt like it needed to be said. “Don’t be a jerk again.”

“Scout’s honor,” Deveron replied, holding up two fingers. “And I’m glad you don’t have to hate me too.”

“Well, okay,” I shot back quickly. “But I’m not sure how Scout would know if you’re lying or not?”

Snorting, Deveron started to say something else, but before he got anywhere, I saw Avalon approaching. She was already moving pretty easily on those crutches, and for a second I was distracted at the sight of how graceful she was even as she navigated her way across the sand. If it was me, I was pretty sure I’d already have managed to get both crutches stuck before falling on my face. And yes, I was including my control over sand in that assessment. I’d used them briefly when I was in middle school and I’d sprained my ankle pretty badly. But, well, let’s just say I didn’t get the hang of them.

“Chambers,” Avalon spoke up once she was close enough. As Deveron turned that way as well, she leaned on the crutches and dug through the pocket of her uniform jacket that she had yet to change out of before producing some kind of pendant on a chain. She tossed it toward me. “Congratulations.”

Blinking, I caught the necklace before looking down at it. “Aww, presents? And here I thought you weren’t even going to pay attention to the all-important three-month roommate anniversary.” The pendant itself was silver, with the letters CRA for Crossroads Academy written across it in red on one side, and some unfamiliar runes on the back in elaborate blue script that seemed to glow a little bit.

Easing up the last few steps with the crutches, Avalon rolled her eyes a little too pointedly, obviously hiding her amusement. “It’s from Gaia,” she explained, pushing on before I could do more than open my mouth. “And no, she doesn’t care about the roommate anniversary either. People who wear those aren’t targeted by the security and alarms after hours. It means you don’t have to listen to curfew.”

My eyes widened and I turned my attention back to the thing once more. “Wait, really? The request finally went through?” I rubbed my thumb over the runes curiously before muttering a little under my breath, “I thought I’d end up with less privileges when I got back from that trip, not more of them.”

“Gaia made sure it happened,” Avalon replied. “She pointed out that locking you in the room all night isn’t going to do anything, and that if you’re going to be getting in trouble, you should be able to use all the extra time you have to train instead of sitting in the room twiddling your thumbs for eight hours.”

“Well, that should be useful,” Deveron smiled faintly and nudged me. “Now we’ll have plenty time for extra training sessions. You better be ready, because I’m gonna use it to put you through your paces.”

“Oh good,” I shot back while making a face at him. “Cuz I was afraid I’d be bored.” After that reflexive retort, I blinked as something occurred to me. “Wait, are you saying you have curfew clearance too?”

He winked before waggling his fingers at me. “We mentors have many vast and mysterious powers.” Shrugging then, Deveron added, “Besides, I already spoke to Gaia about what’s going on. She agrees that you need a lot more training. And since I’m available, I’m afraid you’re kind of stuck with me.”

Heaving a long, dramatic, put-upon sigh, I made myself nod sadly. “I suppose I’ll just have to deal with it.” Glancing up to give Avalon the best puppy-dog eyes that I could, I added, “See what I deal with?”

“You’ll survive,” the other girl replied in a voice that was so dry it was probably flammable. Then she looked toward Deveron with a pointed gaze. “And if you don’t train her right, I’m coming after you.”

He smiled easily then. “Well, then I’ll just have to make sure I make her good enough to protect me.”

“Pfft,” I made a dismissive noise. “If she comes after you, I’m gonna be on the sidelines with popcorn.”

Before he could find a response to that, Avalon nodded past us and murmured quietly, “Incoming.”

Turning to glance over my shoulder, I found Malcolm Harkess approaching. The big Bystander-born boy was still the only person in our grade besides Shiori who had a chance of keeping up with Avalon during training. I didn’t know what kind of life he’d had that let him know how to fight so well even before we’d gotten here, but he was clearly incredibly competitive. He hated the fact that Avalon constantly beat him no matter how close he seemed to get, and kept challenging her to another match.

And Zeke was with him. Joy of joys. The Heretic-born boy gave me a brief, considering look as the two of them approached before speaking up. “Still trying hard to get the hang of that big stick, I see.”

Making a considering noise, I pretended to examine my staff critically. “Yeah… but you know, I don’t think it’s long enough.” Looking to him, I added brightly, “I know, could I borrow the one in your ass?”

The pompous boy stiffened at that, giving me a hard squint. “I’ll tell you what you can do with that sti-”

“Damn it, Zeke,” Malcolm interrupted with obvious annoyance. “Flirt with blondie on your own time.”

I don’t know whose outraged ‘WHAT?’ in response to that was louder: Zeke’s, Deveron’s, Avalon’s, or mine. They all came in a single chorus as the four of us whipped our attention toward the big jock.

Personally, I was going to need an entire session with Klassin Roe just to wash away the dirtiness of that insinuation. But if Malcolm even noticed the glares he was getting from… well, everyone, he didn’t acknowledge them. Instead, his focus remained fixed on Avalon. “Sens—I mean, ahh, Professor Katarin says he wants you to meet him in the gym for a few tests. Has to make sure you’re healing up right.”

Smirking, Zeke nudged his teammate a little. “Well, I bet you could beat her if you fought now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm shot back with clear disgust and annoyance. “Because that’d mean a hell of a lot. Just like if I beat her while she was tied up and unconscious. Shut the fuck up, Zeke. I don’t wanna beat her because she can’t fight back. I wanna be good enough to beat her.” Turning his attention to Avalon then, he added pointedly. “And I will be. One of these times, I’m gonna beat you. After you’re all healed.”

“Good,” my roommate replied coolly. “I can’t get any better without a challenge. Keep training.” Then she looked to me. “See you later, Chambers.” Her mouth opened like she was going to say something else, but a glance toward the three boys stopped her. Instead, she just gave me a nod before turning.

Malcolm and Zeke left then too, going back the way they’d come. That left me alone with Deveron again. He looked at me curiously before asking, “You heard anything about Roxa yet?”

Biting my lip, I replied, “According to Sean’s uncle, the pack was spread out for the holidays. But they’re supposed to be introducing her to them… today, I think.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “From what I know about them, that should be interesting.”

Nodding slowly, I sighed. “I wish I could be there. I wish I could… do anything to help. I wish–”

He stopped me. “You didn’t mean for her to be pulled along. And as for what those assholes did, it’s on them, not you.”

“I know…” I frowned despite that. “But I still wish…”

“Yeah,” Deveron’s hand squeezed my arm briefly. “She’ll be okay. Just give her time. You focus on taking care of yourself right now. And that means…” He tugged the escrima sticks back out of his pocket, tapping them against each other. “Let’s go.”

Tilting my head from one side, then to the other to crack my neck, I nodded. “Right.” Readying my staff, I took a breath and watched him for a second before throwing myself into another series of attacks. The sound of our weapons clashing against one another filled the air once more.

Throughout the rest of our training, however, I couldn’t help but be distracted. I hoped Roxa was okay. I wondered what she was doing, what being around that pack of werewolves was like, and how she was handling all of it. I meant what I’d said to Deveron: I wished I could be there with her, help her in at least some… small way.

Good luck, Roxa, I thought to myself while hoping yet again that the girl’s meeting with the werewolf pack was going all right. Just give us a little time. We’ll find Pace’s necklace.

I promise.

******

Then it was the next day, Saturday. The rest of the team and I were following Professor Kohaku toward the Pathmaker building for our little field trip to the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies.

“I thoroughly disagree with this entire endeavor,” the security chief was informing us. “The six of you are students, not investigators. You should be kept here where it’s…” she paused. “All right, I was going to say safe, but I’m well aware of how you would rightfully react to that. But it is still safer than sending you out on some orokana mission to investigate a woman that has been in a coma for months.”

“Maybe we won’t find anything interesting,” I admitted. “But you guys can’t go because it would draw too much attention. Right now, they’ll just see us as students on a field trip. You know, for training.”

The woman looked at me briefly before letting out a sigh. “Be careful,” she instructed firmly. “That goes for all of you. You’ll be meeting with a Doctor Therasis. Listen to what he tells you and do not get in anyone’s way. There are plenty of security measures in the hospital itself, but you also have the emergency beacons I’ve given you. If anything happens, anything, we’ll be right there. Understand?”

She waited until the six of us confirmed her words before ushering us into the building. “Fine then,” the woman spoke under her breath while still not sounding very happy about it. “Let’s get this over with.”

As promised, after we stepped through the Pathmaker portal a few minutes later, we found a man in a doctor’s lab coat waiting for us in the receiving room. He was a short, older man who kind of looked like Colonel Sanders with his neatly trimmed, pointed white beard and mustache. He was also smiling broadly as we appeared, his face jolly. “Welcome! Welcome. Good to see you.” Stepping forward, he proceeded to shake all our hands enthusiastically. “I’m Doctor Therasis. Thank you for coming.” He even took the time to rub Vulcan’s head, and produced some kind of treat from his pocket that the robot dog quickly devoured.

“Uh, thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” I managed, surprised by the man’s cheerfulness. “Sorry if we’re, you know, interrupting. We know you guys must be really busy here.”

The man just smiled even more broadly. “Of course, of course. We work hard to save lives, and it’s a never-ending process.” His smile faltered just a little and I saw the toll that working in such a place must have taken on him before he shook it off. “But the point is, we need as many new recruits to our little medical haven as possible. So we love when Crossroads students show an interest in our work.”

To Avalon, he asked, “And how are your muscles feeling, dear? Everything coming along all right?”

“Not fast enough,” she muttered with clear annoyance.

“Ahh, well, we can’t rush these things.” Doctor Therasis smiled at her like a kindly grandfather. “Your muscles have to heal correctly. Better to do it slow and right than quickly and wrong. Don’t you worry, Miss Sinclaire, you’ll be in full fighting shape before you know it.”

Clapping his hands together once, the cheerful man pivoted. “Now then, shall we start with a standard tour? After that, we’ll move into the more interesting and specific areas of our work.”

We were going to have to go through at least the first part of this before finding an excuse to slip away and look for Professor Tangle. So, we agreed and began to file out of the room after the man as he led us on a tour of the hospital.

I just hoped that, by the end of this visit, we’d have some actual answers.

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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 ends, 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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