Professor Kohaku

Mini-Interlude 56 – Klassin Roe

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“I just… I just want to explain, you know?” The voice of Russell Bailey, formerly monikered as Virus, was quiet even in the small room that amounted to Klassin Roe’s therapy office. The headmistress had offered to make it larger, but Roe had declined. He didn’t need an enormous room to work in. It was best that the students he worked with feel secure, not overwhelmed.

Now, he sat back slowly in his chair while lifting his chin to the boy. “You want to tell your family what really happened to your father.” His voice held no judgment, no condemnation.

The boy flinched a little bit, running a hand up through his newly shortened hair. At one point not long before, it had been long and dyed an obnoxious bright red, but Russell had taken most of it down to a short crew cut, and it had grown out to its natural light brown. He also no longer wore the facial piercings that had been such an extensive part of him at the beginning of the year.

“They think it was just some crazy cult initiation or something,” the boy mumbled, his gaze dropping to the floor. “They’ll never really know. They’ll never understand that it was… it was…” His voice caught a little, mouth working before he gave a little shudder. “That it was my fault.”

“You still think that it was your fault?” Again, Roe did not correct the boy, not in this particular situation. He believed that Russell was wrong, of course. But simply telling him that would accomplish nothing. What the boy really needed right in that moment was someone to talk to, someone to sit and listen to his turmoil without correcting or inserting their own opinion.

Russell gave him an incredulous look for a second anyway, blurting, “Of course it is! I–Just think about it. I hang out with a bunch of psycho gangbangers to look cool. My parents tried to tell me to leave them alone. Everyone tried to tell me to leave them alone. But I thought they were badass, so I made ‘friends’ with them.” His fingers jerked up to form the air quotes while mouth twisted in derision at that word. “I fucked around with those guys cuz they were sooo cool.”

He went silent for a few seconds then, his face contorting a little as his head shook violently. There were tears forming in the boy’s eyes, tears that he angrily blinked away. “Then I become a Heretic. So I go back over Christmas to hang out with my old ‘friends’, and guess what.”

Roe remained quiet. He knew this story, of course. He’d heard it many times. But talking it through, repeating it, helped Russell deal with everything. It seemed to help him cope.

“They’re monsters,” the boy spat, his hard gaze glowering at the desk between them. “They’re a bunch of fucking monsters, most of them. Strangers. And they know what I am as soon as they see me. They know I’m a Heretic, so I get the hell out of there. I’m freaking the hell out, so I run away. I didn’t know what to do. I should’ve called you guys. I should’ve called Crossroads. But I just ran to the arcade and screwed off for awhile. I had to think. I was just… I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. So I just hung out. I fucking–” His face twisted once more, and the tears threatened to come back. It was clearly all he could do to keep it somewhat under control.

When he finally continued a few seconds later, his voice was hollow. “I walked back home. I walked home and… and my dad… those assholes. Those fucking motherfuckers, they… they went to my house looking for me while I was hanging out at the arcade. But they found my dad instead. They found my dad and they… they murdered him. They killed my dad and–and–and tore him apart. The cops thought it was some kind of devil worshipping cult initiation because of all the–the blood and how they–how they just…” Trailing off, Russell lowered his head, no longer fighting the tears as they fell freely down his face.

As far as Klassin was aware, only the staff and the boy’s team were aware of exactly what had happened. And even some of his team might not have known the whole story. Most of the school was entirely unaware of the trauma that had caused the formerly-named Virus to change so much after that first semester. It was his choice to tell them or not, just as it had been his choice to continue attending classes so soon after everything that had happened. The headmistress had, of course, urged him to take some time off. She had almost insisted on it. But in the end, Russell had made the point that he needed to feel useful. He needed to keep himself busy, not dwell, and that the longer he spent just sitting around, the worse he actually felt. The creatures responsible for the murder and dismemberment of his father had completely disappeared, which meant that the most Crossroads could do was get his mother and little brother out of there, move them to a new city with a job transfer, and thus hopefully keep them away from any further reprisals from Russell’s former friends. The attack and murder had happened at the very beginning of the holiday break, and Russell had spent the remainder of it coming to terms (as much as he could) with the loss of his father.

“But I can’t tell them any of that,” the boy spat angrily, pushing himself up out of his chair rather than sit any longer. “My mom, Jake, I can’t tell them why Dad’s dead. I can’t—I can’t explain. I can’t tell them about the monsters, because they won’t remember it anyway. I just–” Turning, he lashed out, punching the nearby wall with both of his fists. The wall was reinforced, yet the twin blows still dented it visibly while the boy slumped, head shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Russell.” Standing as well, Klassin moved that way, laying his hands on the boy’s shoulders from behind. “You know how easy it is to repair the walls around here.”

For a moment, the boy just stood there, fists partly indented into the wall while he shuddered. “I told you the story before,” he mumbled. “You already knew it anyway. I just–I want to tell them. I want to tell them so bad, but it won’t do any good. And I can’t—I can’t handle letting them know the truth once, just so they can forget it again right after. I can’t handle that. What if they hate me and then completely forget about it? I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. I just–I can’t.”

Silence filled the room for a few long seconds then, before Klassin finally spoke up, his voice soft. “The Runners haven’t stopped looking for the Strangers who murdered your father. And they won’t stop looking. They will find them, especially with all the information you’ve given.”

“For all the good it does,” Russell muttered darkly. He turned from the wall, facing Klassin with a forlorn, empty look. “It doesn’t bring my dad back. It doesn’t–” He stopped then, biting his lip while his head shook as he changed to, “You know why I really wanted to keep coming here instead of taking time off like the headmistress wanted?”

Klassin had his guesses, but he simply inclined his chin curiously and let the boy speak. That was what Russell needed right then. He needed to talk. That was why he had brought up the entire situation again, despite the fact that they had already been through it several times.

“Because I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Russell’s voice was firm, his hands tightening into fists. “I can’t bring my dad back. I can’t go back in time and stop myself from being such a stupid fucking–” Cutting himself off, he gave a violent headshake once more, forcibly pulling himself back from the precipice of that emotional crater. “I can’t undo anything I did. But I can be a good Heretic. I can help other people.”

Smiling just a little bit, Klassin gave a slight nod. “That is an admirable goal, Russell. One that I think your father would approve of. And so would your family, if they understood the situation.”

For his part, the boy simply swallowed hard while looking down, folding his arms against his chest uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, can we talk about something else? I don’t wanna talk about that anymore.”

“Of course.” Nodding once more, Klassin asked, “What would you like to talk about?”

At first, Russell was quiet. He shifted, clearly unsure of whether he should really ask what he wanted to. “The umm, the car you were working on before.”

“The Sixty-Nine Mustang Boss 429?” Raising an eyebrow with a tiny smile despite himself, Klassin nodded. “Of course. It’s been a nice little project car for awhile.” Magic, of course, would have made the work pass much faster than the months that this had actually taken. But Klassin preferred doing this kind of thing the long, slow way. He enjoyed working on the cars with his own two hands, no powers or spells involved.

“Do… do you think I could–I mean I don’t know if you need—or want–or…” It was clearly hard for Russell to find the words, his face flushed.

Saving him from floundering even more, Klassin reached out to squeeze the boy’s arm. “Why don’t we get out of this place before we both develop claustrophobia, huh? Come on down and take a look at the car with me. If you’re up for it, maybe you could help me get some of the rebuild done.”

Gaze lifting at that, Russell managed a tiny smile. “You… you’re sure?”

Grabbing his leather jacket from the nearby hook, Klassin nodded while gesturing to the door. “Absolutely. Figure between the two of us, we should be able to get the old girl purring again in just a couple weeks.”

As the two of them started out of the office, the boy hesitantly volunteered, “My dad had a muscle car before he had to sell it a couple years ago. I helped him fix it up so he could sell it. That’s how he paid for our trip to Hawaii. I— I was pissed at him for selling it. I wanted it. I–I didn’t… I treated him like shit.”

“Hey.” Klassin stopped in the doorway, looking to the boy. “You helped your dad rebuild a car. I guarantee you, that’s what he remembered. Everyone knows that their kids are going to lash out and say stupid things. Especially teenagers. But I promise you, that’s not what he focused on. That’s not what he remembered. The time you guys spent working on it, that’s what your dad thought about. That’s what mattered to him.”

Russell’s voice cracked a little bit. “You… you think so?”

“I know so,” Klassin assured him before teasing, “Now come on, if I’m gonna exploit our time together to get free work out of you, we better be quick and quiet about it.”

“It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, sir,” Russell retorted. “I’m pretty sure she knew how we were going to spend our time today before we did.”

Chuckling despite himself as he stepped out of the office, Klassin bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You know what, you’re probably right. That headmistress is one smart cookie. But you know what I think?”

“What?” Curious, Russell stepped through and watched as the man closed the door to his office.

Klassin winked. “If we do get in trouble… we’ll just bribe her with the car.”

******

“So, how did it go today?”

Later that evening, Klassin was stepping out of his office and flicking the light off on his way when the voice spoke up from nearby. Smiling despite himself, he looked that way.

“Hey, Risa,” he greeted the woman, stepping that way. “You mean with Russell?”

Risa Kohaku nodded, stepping in to embrace him. The two exchanged an initially brief kiss that lingered slightly more than Klassin had intended before they both stopped to catch their breath. “Wow,” the security chief murmured under her breath with a tiny smile. “Looks like someone really needed that.”

“Long day,” Klassin agreed. He stepped back, still holding the woman’s hands. “I got Russell working on the car with me. It was even his idea, pretty much. I just…” He sighed. “I wish we had better news for him. Your contacts in the Runners, they don’t have any more news?”

Risa winced, shaking her head a little. “No, they’re still looking but… honestly, I’m not sure how much more they’ll actually find. The Strangers who murdered his father are… they knew enough to get the hell out of town afterward.”

“At least it means they’ll probably leave the rest of his family alone,” Klassin noted. “They’ll know that we’ll be watching for them.” Heaving a long, heavy sigh, he shook his head before asking, “Anyway, I thought we could go out for dinner tonight. You know that little place in Italy with the great seafood? What was the name of that village?”

“Atrani?” Risa supplied. “Sure, we haven’t been there for awhile. But umm….”

Lifting an eyebrow as the woman trailed off, Klassin poked her forehead. “This isn’t really you, is it?”

“It’s me,” she retorted a bit defensively. “Duplicates are totally me. But uh, yeah, it’s a duplicate projection. Sorry. I couldn’t get away yet, but I still wanted to meet you. I missed you.”

“And your duplicates can’t leave the island without you,” Klassin finished for her. Some types could, he knew. But Risa’s were limited to the same universe (or pocket universe, in this case).

“I promise,” the woman assured him, “it won’t take much longer. I just have to listen to Rucker’s report. Twenty minutes, tops. I’ll meet you by the Pathmaker?”

She offered him another kiss, and Klassin took it, giving her a little smile despite himself. “Sure. But you tell him that he’s gotta give you a couple hours without any interruptions unless it’s the end of the world. I want to have you to myself at least for a little while.”

Her smile, embarrassed as much as it was proud, lit up the little corridor. “I promise,” she agreed. “We’ll have some time to ourselves. Just you and me.”

The duplicate disappeared then, leaving Klassin standing in the hall by himself. The man smiled slowly, anticipating not only the upcoming meal, but everything else that the evening promised to bring.

Whistling softly, and just a little off-key, he shrugged into his jacket and started down the hall. As busy as things were, as much work as they still had to do (especially when it came to finding Chambers and the rest of the missing students), it was still possible to find bits of joy here and there. It was important to have those moments.

His phone rang a moment later, and the man glanced to it. Unknown number. Shrugging, since that didn’t mean much in his work, he answered it. “This is Roe.”

“Klassin Roe?” an unfamiliar voice on the other end replied. “The man who used to be Jonathan Ruthers?”

Pausing, Roe frowned. “I don’t go by that name–who is this?”

“It’s okay,” the voice replied, “I just got your name from… let’s call her an old, old friend of yours. She said that you could help me with something.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name… is Denuvus.”

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out of him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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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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