Professor Kohaku

Second Hunt 16-06

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

“God knows I need the help.”

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Medical Leave 15-02

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

 

 

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-06

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re not going with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kid?” Seller asked, looking toward Koren.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gabriel help us.”

Previous Chapter            Next Chapter

 

 

Interlude 11 – Wyatt

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

For most people, opening their eyes upon waking up was a natural response, the first thing they did even before their minds were fully conscious. It was an entirely instinctive action as the brain woke.

Wyatt Rendell was not most people, and he had long since trained himself to keep his eyes closed while waking. That had required some elaborate conditions. Specifically, he had, as a teenager, positioned an enchanted mirror in front of his face at night before going to sleep. If his eyes opened and the mirror caught sight of them, it would trigger an electric shock. It wasn’t too bad, just a reminder to keep his eyes firmly closed until he had worked his way up to cover the mirror with the nearby blanket.

It wasn’t like a mild little shock was the worst thing he’d ever woken up to, after all. Not in his family. Better to give himself just a little bit of pain and than risk letting his parents realize he was awake.

After all, his parents not realizing he was awake was the only reason he ever overheard enough of their conversation to realize that they truly didn’t care if he lived or died. Which was, while upsetting at the time, incredibly useful information to have. It brought sense to their punishments and erased any thought the boy had that if he just did the right thing long enough, his parents would love him.

Realizing that his parents, the people who raised him, were only doing so because some unknown third party that they reported to had ordered them to do it was almost liberating in a way. Once he stopped crying, of course. His parents (though they weren’t really that, another revelation his secret eavesdropping had uncovered) were ready and willing to kill him if they were ordered to. And since his young self had had no idea who they were reporting to, there were no authorities for him to seek help from. It made him constantly afraid of anyone who came to the house. But it also freed him from having to care about what his supposed parents thought of him. He no longer worried about their disapproval or punishments for the most minor of transgressions. He only worried about staying alive.

By this point, many years after he had left home, the enchanted mirror wasn’t necessary. The man never gave a single indication that he had woken up until he was absolutely certain that the room was empty.

Fully awake, but with his eyes still closed, the man first took a few seconds to simply listen. Sometimes that was enough to reveal an unwanted visitor. Throughout the many different jobs he’d held (he never stayed in one place long, lest the mysterious figure whom his parents had reported to stick more spies and potential assassins around him, or simply corrupt those that were already there) he had learned to hear a person’s breathing and subconscious fidgeting even while they were doing their best to be quiet. His hearing was enhanced enough from the Strangers he had killed to pick out most such people.

That very simple trick had been enough to reveal someone spying on him more than once. After which simply searching their room or locker while they were otherwise distracted usually revealed a journal or some other method they had been using to take note of his actions and report them to their superior.

This time, he heard nothing. Not that that by itself was proof that he was actually alone, of course. That was simply the second layer of his multi-step security verification process after keeping his eyes shut.

Once the man was sure that he couldn’t hear anything, and that any potential spy or assassin wasn’t the type to make noise on their own, he began the next step. Shifting his weight as subtly as possible, just enough to be interpreted as normal unconscious movement, he moved his feet together. Pressing each of his big toes against one another through the obnoxiously bright yellow socks that he wore, the man focused on the enchantment he had renewed on them before going to sleep, just as he always did.

As the spell on his socks activated, it sent out an invisible, undetectable pulse through the room to seek out one simple thing: heartbeats. After about three seconds, Wyatt felt his socks vibrate a single time before stopping. One vibration meant one heartbeat, his own. His was the only heartbeat in the room.

Most would have taken that as proof that they were alone and that everything was safe. Wyatt, on the other hand, knew that nothing was ever completely safe, and that there were ways to trick that measure. So he moved on to his final layer of security by shifting his hand under the pillow. Pressing his palm up against the underside, the man activated the spell there, the other one he renewed before sleeping.

As soon as the enchantment was activated, Wyatt experienced a brief twisting sensation. Then he was standing upright, catching himself easily. Finally, the man opened his eyes. He was standing in a small, closet-sized space. Directly ahead of him was a window into the room beyond where he had been sleeping. From the other side, the window appeared to be a painting of dogs playing poker. He liked those paintings. On the bed, his escape spell had replaced him with an extremely life-like mannequin.

For a few seconds, Wyatt studied the room. The mirror was enchanted to expose people who were invisible or in shapes other than their own. Still, there was nothing to see. Even checking how many times his door had been opened revealed that it had remained closed since he had gone to bed.

Wyatt still wasn’t sure he completely trusted it, considering how many other times his security had been compromised by someone he made the mistake of trusting for awhile, only to find out they were secretly reporting on him. But this was the best he could do. After giving his room one final once-over, he pressed a hidden button recessed in the wall. The window-painting and part of the wall it was attached to popped open, and he stepped out before allowing it to close behind him. At the same time, his mannequin in the bed disappeared, returning to where it had been in the hidden space before Wyatt had swapped places with it. The room was returned to its normal state, ready for the next morning.

Whistling to himself, the man began to get dressed. No spies so far. Maybe this job would actually last the whole year before he had to disappear and cut everyone out of his life yet again. He hoped so. He liked this job. The Headmistress was kind to him, and so far he had no reason to think she was a spy.

******

“Wyatt, calm down.” Risa Kohaku insisted a short time later, after the man discovered what took place the night before, while he was sleeping. “Listen, it’s all right. It wasn’t your fault. You were asleep.”

“Exactly!” he blurted, feeling that paranoia creeping its way into his brain like a spider. Wyatt knew he had problems, he knew that he didn’t always act right. But there was a difference between understanding that his reactions and thoughts were… to most people, strange or off-putting, and actually doing something about it. Most of the time, he couldn’t help it. Despite every effort he made and all the time he took to tell himself to act ‘normal,’ he inevitably ended up acting like a crazy person.

“I was asleep,” he went on, trying to stop himself from shaking. “I wasn’t doing my job. I should’ve done my job. I should have found a way to stop that boy from controlling anyone. Someone could have died, you could have died, all because I wasn’t doing my job. You and the headmistress hired me because of my security enchantments, but what good were they last night? What good were they?!”

Kohaku’s hands moved to catch him by the shoulders, and the man belatedly realized that he was doing that ‘hysterical’ thing again. “Wyatt,” she spoke firmly while squeezing his shoulders. “Calm down.”

He tried to do so, repeating his three step mantra to himself. Breathe, think, focus. Breathe, think, focus. He took in a breath, let it out, and thought about what he was doing before focusing on what was going on around him. Listen to what someone else said when his paranoia was clearly getting the best of him. Even that was often hard because of how many people had turned out to be working, knowingly or not, with whoever the people calling themselves his parents had been reporting to. He constantly doubted what he was thinking, unable to tell if his distrust was legitimate or brought on by paranoia.

Still, he found himself trusting Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire. And she trusted Risa Kohaku. So Wyatt focused on forcing back his instinctive feelings of doubt and suspicion. Trust Kohaku. Listen to what she said. She wasn’t a traitor. She wasn’t a spy. She wasn’t compromised. She didn’t want to hurt him.

Once he had stopped fidgeting and got his breath under control, the woman slowly released him. She went on without breaking his gaze. “The Headmistress wants to talk to you about how the boy broke in. She has some ideas about what can be done to stop it from happening in the future. But I want you to calm down and take a little walk around the grounds before you report to her office. Get your head on straight, do a quick patrol to clear your mind, then go and see her. Don’t rush, Wyatt. She’s busy right now anyway, so you don’t need to hurry. Meet her in her office in forty-five minutes, all right?”

Wyatt nodded once. “Yes,” he confirmed as sharply and confidently as possible. Stay strong, he told himself. Don’t let her know how scared you are that you’ll lose this job and have to move on again.

It would happen eventually, of course. It always did. Inevitably, the man who had been sending spies after him his entire life, who had corrupted the people calling themselves his parents and made them into Wyatt’s wardens and possible executioners would manage to insert another threat into his life.

“I will do my patrol,” he informed his superior as carefully and firmly as he could. “I won’t let you down this time, Professor. I promise.” At the last, he gave his best approximation of a smart salute.

Kohaku sighed, long and slow. “I told you not to do that anymore, Wyatt. We don’t salute. And call me Risa. You’re not a student, we’re co-workers. I’d like to be friends.” Before he could say anything to that, she held up a hand. “I know. I know how you feel about that. It’s okay. Just… try to take it easy.”

It wasn’t the first time they’d had the same conversation or a similar one, and it wouldn’t be the last. Still, Wyatt nodded, telling himself to just try harder to control his impulses. He knew he was weird, he knew his reactions put people off. But by the time he realized what he was doing, it was often too late.

“Thank you, Wyatt,” Kohaku gave him a slight smile. “Take your patrol, let me know if you find anything. And don’t forget to stop by the cafeteria to get something to eat before you get too involved.”

Wyatt agreed, properly resisting the urge to salute that time before pivoting to walk out of the security office. On the way, he passed Reid Rucker, Kohaku’s second-in-command, along with a couple of the other security guards who were waiting to talk to their boss. Most looked away as Wyatt passed, but Rucker gave him a quick wave to get his attention. “Hey, Wyatt,” the man spoke up. “If you’re heading out on patrol, could you give that spot in the north-east corner of the gym a quick once-over? I think some of the juniors were messing with it again, trying to make a blind spot for their little games.”

Wyatt, for his part, did his best not to notice how attractive Rucker was. The man looked young and fit, with broad shoulders and an equally broad smile. He was competent, quick, and charismatic. And he got along with everyone, making friends equally among both the staff and the students. Normally, that would have brought Wyatt’s hackles up as being too good to be true. But in spite of himself and everything he kept insisting to himself, he just couldn’t help but develop a little bit of a crush.

Not that anything would ever come of it. Rucker was simply everything that Wyatt wished he could be. He had to take a moment to breathe out, reminding himself not to salute (and barely remembering not to remind himself out loud). “Yes, sir,” he confirmed sharply, to prove he could stay on task without allowing himself to get distracted. “I’ll check that spot and make sure those traitors don’t know what-”

“Not traitors, Wyatt,” Rucker reminded him. “Just teenagers trying to be teenagers. No need to do anything too nasty to them. Just make sure their spells don’t stop us from doing our job, all right?” Belatedly, the man added with a casual smile that seemed to light up the room. “And it’s Reid, not sir.”

Once again reminding himself not to salute, Wyatt made his way as quickly as possible away from the security office. He tried to tell himself that this security breach had nothing to do with him or the mysterious man who had been in the background of his entire life, but the voice in the back of his head just kept repeating that he needed to be ready to leave. He had to be prepared for the inevitable time when he was going to have to take off and find a new job once again. As much as he loved this position, as much as he respected the headmistress and his superiors, it couldn’t last. It wouldn’t last. Good things never did. His boogieman always always found another way to infiltrate his life. Maybe it had already happened. Every new student, every co-worker, every visitor, all of them made Wyatt wonder if they were the one who would start reporting on his every action. Every person he met made him question if they were stalking him, writing down everything he did, every conversation he had. No one could be fully and completely trusted. He’d learned that the hard way when he was a child, and the lesson had been hammered home over and over again. Whenever he started to settle too much into one place, whenever he let himself start to think that this time would be different, he was inevitably proven wrong. Don’t get accustomed to places. Don’t get too attached to anyone. It was the only way to be safe.

Making his way to the cafeteria to grab something to eat while doing his rounds, Wyatt had just picked up a bagel and started to spread cream cheese on top of it when a voice from behind called his name.

Pivoting, the man blinked at the sight of two girls standing there. One of them he knew by name. “Chambers,” he spoke aloud to the blonde. “Today isn’t the hike,” Wyatt reminded her. “That’s tomorrow.”

Chambers nodded before gesturing to the girl beside her. “I know. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve got another member. Koren wants to go too. Right, Koren?”

The other girl (Koren Fellows, he reminded himself), shrugged and muttered something under her breath before looking up at him. “Yeah,” she said while meeting his gaze with a squint. There was something else there, something behind her stare that he couldn’t interpret. Another spy, maybe?

If she was, he’d figure it out. He always did. “Aha!” he blurted, going for enthusiasm to hide his suspicion. “Of course, of course, everyone’s welcome to go on our little jungle hike. As long as you come on time and ready to learn.”

“I’ve gone on the hike before,” Fellows muttered. The other girl kicked her foot, and she gave him an obviously forced smile. “I mean, I can’t wait to learn what you know. Eight o’clock, you said?” When he nodded, the girl gave him a thumbs up. “Perfect. See you then.” She turned, looking at Chambers for a moment then before starting off.

“Don’t worry,” Chambers said to him quietly. “She really does want to go. Koren’s just… not really good at the whole ‘talking to people and being personable’ thing. You kind of get used to it.”

Well, he knew how that was. Wyatt finished spreading the cream cheese on his bagel before giving a short, sharp nod. “Just be on time, Chambers. I’m a busy man. Lots to do. Come ready to hike. No whining about being too hot or scared of the Caipora.”

The blonde had just started to nod when one of the other girls came running up. It was that Porter girl, the Asian one. She gave Wyatt a quick look before focusing on Chambers. “Flick,” she called while grabbing the girl’s sleeve. “I really, really need to show you something.”

“Something bad?” Wyatt interrupted sharply. “Something dangerous? Something like–”

“It’s just a little project,” Chambers assured him. “I promise, everything’s fine.” She gave him a reassuring smile, then took the other girl’s hand before leading her away.

He watched them go before taking a bite of his breakfast. There was something going on there. Some reason the Chambers girl had suddenly volunteered to go on a jungle hike with him, and had somehow convinced Koren Fellows to do the same. He didn’t know what it was yet, exactly. But he would get to the bottom of it. If they were traitors or spies, he would figure it out. He’d catch them in the act.

He always did.

Previous Chapter               Next Chapter

Facing Evil 11-07

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

Stepping into the lounge beside Avalon, I saw the others immediately. Shiori and the boys were sitting at one end of the room, on a couch beside one of the pool tables. They seemed to be deep into a whispered discussion. Meanwhile, Koren was sitting by the window at the opposite end of the room, intently staring out at the grounds beyond. She had a pillow from one of the other sofas held against her chest like it was some kind of shield, and both of her weapons were set on the windowsill beside her.

They all looked up when the two of us came in, and Shiori was on her feet immediately. “Flick,” she spoke up in a voice that was near-panicked in a way that made it clear just how unhappy she’d been at the fact that I was alone in a room with Ruthers.. “Are you okay? What did he say? What happened?”

Flushing a little at the attention (specifically her attention), I coughed. “It’s fine. I mean, it’s okay. I think it went about as well as it possibly could. Actually, he didn’t really ask me much about what happened tonight. It was more about, uhh,” I paused briefly before continuing, “what Ammon might actually be. I’ll tell you guys about it later, but I think I convinced him that he’s a real threat, at least.”

It was obvious that Shiori and the others all had questions, but I focused on Koren. The other girl had pushed the pillow aside and was now standing there by the window, her eyes focused intently on me. Before I could actually say anything, however, she spoke up instead. “We need to talk, Chambers.” Gaze flicking toward Avalon briefly, she added, “Without your bodyguard, if that’s okay with you.”

I blinked once, looking toward Avalon. The other girl was tensing up, but I quickly put a hand on her arm (and subsequently tried not to be distracted by how firm and toned it was, I mean jeez). “It’s okay,” I said quietly, without looking away from the girl across the room. “Ammon won’t be back tonight.”

To Koren, I made a nodding gesture toward the nearby door. “Is the hallway private enough for you?”

For a moment, I thought Koren might say something. In the end, however, she just gave a short, curt nod. Collecting her Hunga Munga from the windowsill and hanging them from her belt, she walked past me and into the hall without saying a word to or even looking at any of the others on her way.

Squeezing Avalon’s arm before looking toward the others, I gave them a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, guys. I’ll be right back so I can tell you what happened with Ruthers. Just… give me a few minutes.”

That said, I left the four and moved into the hallway where Koren was waiting. The other girl was standing by the entrance doors, looking out at the grounds once more. When I emerged from the lounge, she glanced back at me for just a second before returning her gaze the other way pointedly.

After taking a breath and letting it out again, I started by stepping forward. “What did Gaia tell you?”

Her response was flat. “Why, are you trying to figure out how much you’ll be able to keep to yourself?”

I blinked at that before shaking my head. “No, Koren, I don’t want to keep any of it to myself. I just–”

“Bullshit,” she retorted, finally turning to face me. “Don’t. Don’t try. You knew.” Lifting a hand, she pointed at me. “You knew already. You knew before tonight. You knew before yesterday. How long?” Her voice turned to a demand. “How long have you known, Chambers? How long have you known?”

Biting my lip, I started to respond before stopping myself. My gaze turned slightly toward the door down the hall where the headmistress and Ruthers were having their own little meeting, and then I stepped past Koren. “Let’s go outside,” I murmured to her under my breath. “I need some fresh air.”

Thankfully, the other girl didn’t object. She looked the same way I had been and paused briefly before giving a single nod. Without talking, she walked through the main doors with me until we were out on the grass. Then she focused again, her eyes narrowing pointedly as she spoke two words. “How long?”

Knowing about how she was probably going to take the answer, I met her gaze anyway. “About two weeks. You remember when the headmistress had my group, uh, do something for her instead of going on the November hunt? There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s when I found out that we’re related.”

“That you’re my aunt, you mean,” Koren shot back immediately. “That’s when you found out that my mother is your mother’s daughter. You’ve known for two weeks, two weeks that we’re related. You knew we were related last night. When I was telling you about what happened to me as a kid, what happened with the Hiding Man and all that shit, you knew. You knew that whole time and you never told me.”

Before I could say anything to that, she went on. “Were you ever gonna tell me? Or was my knowing the truth about my own family just too inconvenient for you? How long were you going to wait before telling me the truth? When it happened to fit into your personal schedule? How many different conversations were you planning on having with me before you let me know, ‘hey, by the way, I’m your fucking aunt’?!” At the end, her voice had risen into a stage-whispered shout, more of a hiss than a yell. Even as angry as she was, Koren at least had the sense not to actually go around shouting that out loud.

My mouth opened and then shut as I took a moment to avoid floundering or babbling. When I spoke, it was as calmly as I could make myself talk. The last thing this situation needed was both of us losing it. “You’re right,” I said quietly, but firmly. “I knew for too long and I should’ve found a way to tell you before now. It wasn’t fair to wait for so long, and I know it must look like I was hiding it from you. I don’t know, maybe it even looks like I was lying to you by omission or using you somehow or… or… I dunno. I don’t know how it looks, exactly. All I know is what I did. I knew you were my niece and I didn’t tell you. It never seemed like the right time. Because, let’s be honest here, Koren, finding the right time to drop a bomb like that is kind of hard. Would you have believed me, or would you just call me crazy? Would you run off and start babbling about it to people that shouldn’t know about any of it?”

“Let me guess,” she retorted, “Everyone you want to know about it is allowed to know. But anyone I want to trust, I need to run it by you and the Official Committee For Flick’s An Awesome Person.”

Wincing at that, I hesitated, looking at her seriously for a second. Various responses ran through my mind. In the end, however, I just shook my head. “That’s not fair.” Her mouth opened to retort, and I pressed on. “I mean it’s not fair to either of us. It’s not fair for me to expect you to just toe the line and never tell anyone anything. And it’s not fair for you to throw something like that at me just because you’re upset. You’re entitled to be upset, Koren. I would be too. But please, just… let’s just talk, okay?”

For a second, I thought she was going to snap at me. Her mouth opened while her eyes narrowed, but she stopped herself. She just stood there like that, squinting at me before heaving a long, heavy sigh.

“Fine,” the girl muttered. “You’re right, okay? I got all pissed off and worked up and I wanted someone to throw it at. You were convenient. You still are. I’m still not happy with you. You should’ve told me. But I get it. Hard to find the right time, hard to be sure I’m not gonna blab because I’m such a stupid gossip—oh shut up, I know what you think. And you’re probably not wrong. I don’t think before I talk. I’m not some perfect little angel. I never claimed to be. But I deserve to know when I’m talking to my own family. I deserve to know when my family has been in danger, before it blows up in their face.”

“I didn’t really think your family was in danger before now,” I started to point out. “And I told Gaia she needed to get someone to take care of them as soon as Ammon left. I’m sure he’s telling Fossor all about it, but up until that point, I don’t think he really knew who you were or what your family was–”

“Not them!” Koren blurted. “You, you fucking idiot. I deserve to know when you’re in danger. I deserve to know that the girl that’s running off after that psychotic piece of shit is my aunt. What if something happened to you and I only found out the truth later, huh? Don’t you think that maybe, maybe I deserve to know that I’m related to you? Or that my grandmother has been in the hands of some evil fucking plague causing bastard? Who, by the way, happens to be the son of a bitch that we were just reading about for our project! Don’t you think you could’ve mentioned that at some point?”

My mouth fell open. “You’re mad because you didn’t know we were related before I was in danger?”

Her arms flailed. “I think I’d rather know the truth before you end up getting kidnapped by some mind-controlling piece of shit or the plague-starting monster that helped spawn him!” Again, she restrained herself from actually shouting, turning it into a hiss. “You could’ve told me at any point last night. I confided in you. I told you the truth about what happened to me, and you just stood there and listened. You could’ve told me we were related. You could have trusted me. But you didn’t. You chose not to.”

Her eyes were blazing with emotion. “You chose not to tell me. I could’ve lost—I mean—you could’ve disappeared before I even knew we were related. So yes! Yes, I’m mad about that. I’m mad because I have family here and they didn’t tell me. You didn’t tell me. And now, because you didn’t tell me the truth, my parents might be in danger. I exposed myself to that bastard. Now he’ll know there’s someone else that’s immune to his power, and when he tells his daddy about it, he’ll figure it out. And when he does, my parents are gonna end up right on that piece of shit necromancer’s fucking ‘to-do’ list!”

Ouch. Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but Ammon finding out about her was at least a little bit my fault. The fact that she didn’t know why she was immune, that she hadn’t known any of it, meant that she had exposed herself to Ammon without knowing how bad that could be. And Koren’s immunity being revealed put her mother, my own sister, right into Fossor’s crosshairs.

“You’re right,” I said quietly. “I should have found a way to tell you about it. Especially last night. I was waiting for the right time, but I don’t think there was going to be a better one. You confided in me, you told me about the monster. I should’ve found a way to just tell you the truth about our family.”

“But?” she prompted, still meeting my gaze with her hands clenched into tight fists at her sides.

I shook my head. “But nothing. I should have found a way to tell you, a way to bring it up. You do deserve to know the truth. I just didn’t know how to bring it up in a way that you would believe without running off. I didn’t know if I could trust you, Koren. That’s the truth. I don’t know you that well, and what I do know is that you like to gossip. I’m not trying to attack you or anything, that’s just the truth. You like gossip and you don’t really think about what you’re saying before it comes out. I didn’t know if I should tell you the truth, because if other people find out, it could put all of us in real danger. Do you understand that? Do you know what Ruthers will do if he finds out you know the truth? That we all know the truth? Do you really understand how bad that would be, Koren? Because this isn’t a game.”

I saw the way her expression twisted up defensively, mouth opening to spit out a retort. But she stopped herself. Visibly and audibly breathing out, the girl took a moment before giving a single, short nod. “Yes,” she said shortly. “I know it’s not a game. I know how bad it would be. The headmistress made it really clear, believe me. I just…” She heaved a sigh, deflating a little. “I wanted someone to blame. I wanted someone to be mad at. Don’t get me wrong, I still think you should’ve told me. But I guess I overreacted a little. Like I said before, I wanted someone to be mad at and you were convenient.”

I hesitated, then slowly nodded. “Can we just say that we both screwed up a little and leave it at that?”

“Okay,” Koren agreed in a quiet voice before squinting at me a little. “So, what do we do now?”

After thinking about that for a minute, I offered, “Why don’t we start with you telling me exactly what Gaia told you, and I’ll fill in the blanks.” Before she could say anything, I added, “I promise, I won’t leave anything out. What you do with the truth is up to you. I have to trust you. I owe you that much.”

******

So we talked it through. Afterward, Koren said that she needed time to think about everything. She also said that she was going to call her parents as soon as it was late enough and make sure they were okay. I resisted the urge to ask to talk to her mother. That was a conversation that would have to wait.

At the moment, Gaia and Professor Kohaku were escorting me back to the dorms to make sure everything was clear while the others stayed in the lounge. On the way, Kohaku had taken me aside to apologize rather stiffly for what happened. Apparently she had been checking the beach to make sure there weren’t any underage students down there having midnight make out sessions when Ammon took her by surprise. Her first hint that anyone was behind her was the boy’s voice. Which, considering all the powers that Kohaku had, said some pretty scary things about Ammon.

The grounds were being pored over with a fine-toothed comb by not only the security team, but the rest of the staff as well. That amounted to a lot more teachers than I had ever interacted with, considering there were different instructors for the higher grade levels. They were all looking over every inch of the grounds to make sure there were no more surprises. And they were also interviewing everyone who had ever even possibly been within range of Ammon’s voice. Just to be safe, everyone that the staff hadn’t personally seen unconscious since then were being made to sleep temporarily to make sure that any possible commands would (hopefully) disappear. They weren’t taking any chances with this stuff.

Professor Mason was emerging from the building with his daughters as we approached. Sands and Scout both took one look and broke away from their father to come running toward us. Scout was out ahead at first, but as she got close, the girl slowed before coming to a stop. Her expression dropped visibly, and the quiet girl squirmed there on her feet. I could read the shame and worry in her eyes.

“Scout,” I said softly, my gaze meeting hers. “It’s okay. It wasn’t you. It was him. You weren’t the one pulling the trigger, he was. I’m.. I’m sorry. I’m sorry he took control of you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him from… from violating you like that. I’m really sorr–” My words turned into a yelp as Scout lunged to hug me. Her arms wrapped around me before squeezing tightly while her head shook violently.

She was upset. More than just upset. I could actually see the way Scout was physically shaking. Being controlled like that, being made to hurt someone, made to hurt a friend, she was taking all of it really hard.

Sands latched on as well, both of them hugging as tight as they could. “You’re okay? I mean, really?” the girl asked, and I could see the same question in Scout’s expression as they finally released me.

“Good enough, I guess,” I answered honestly. “Though I’m not sure what they’re going to say to… everyone else…” My gaze lifted, and I watched as more of the students that Gaia had put to sleep slowly emerged from the building. They were all staring at us… at me. They remembered. They remembered the voice telling them to hurt me specifically.

Gaia was the one who spoke. Her voice rose to fill the whole area even though she still seemed to be speaking in a conversational tone. “Yes, we have had a breach. A Stranger who has taken a specific interest in Miss Chambers, the same as could happen to any of you. But he’s gone now. Do any of you still wish to inflict harm upon Felicity here?”

When no one raised their hand, the headmistress nodded in satisfaction. “Good. I believe Chef Escalan is preparing a special very early breakfast. Would all of you please go there now while we return your dorm to its normal state. Then you may return and sleep, or remain up, whichever you prefer. We will relax curfew, detentions, and all other scheduled events for the rest of the day. If you have questions or concerns about what happened and what we are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again, speak with your track adviser. Is there anything else?”

There were more questions, lots of them. Gaia answered a few before repeating that they should see their track advisers. She sent them on their way then. They went, but most of them continued to stare at me on the way.

Sighing, I looked toward the headmistress. “Can you really fix the dorm that fast?”

She smiled at me. “Felicity, do you believe this is the first instance of people losing control and damaging part of the dorm? Considering the powers we work with, not having a method of easily and quickly rebuilding would be grossly incompetent.”

That said, she gestured for me to follow. The twins came after, followed by their father. Gaia led us to a corner of the girls’ dorm, crouching there before laying her hand against it. “This,” she announced, “is the keystone. Do you see this inscription here?”

I leaned close before nodding. “Uh huh.” The inscription was written in some old language. Latin, I thought.

Carefully, Gaia ran her finger through each of the grooves in the inscription while murmuring under her breath. I could feel the power in the air as the letters started to glow with soft red light.

Once she reached the end of the inscription, Gaia slapped her hand against the stone. The power I’d been feeling turned from a slight trickle to a massive flowing river, and I heard the building itself move.

Stepping back to look up, I watched with wide eyes as various windows that had been broken magically repaired themselves. Bits of wall that my classmates had shattered in their attempts to find me were replaced and looked as good as new. It was like time was rewinding itself to put the building back to the way it had been.

Finally, Gaia lowered her hand away from the building. Her voice was light as she explained. “Every evening, each building is… I suppose the best explanation would be that it is recorded. We record it and if anything happens, we simply reset the building back to the state it was in at the time of the recording. It is–”

“Oh my god,” I interrupted. “It’s like a computer’s restore point. You do back up and restore with buildings!

Professor Mason chuckled behind me, and Gaia smiled as well. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I suppose that is an apt comparison.” Looking to me and the twins, she gestured. “Now that we know you are safe among your peers, you should go to the cafeteria as well. Eat something. They will stare, but the best thing you can do is endure it. Believe me when I say that you are not the first and will not be the last to be singled out like this.”

Swallowing, I nodded. The twins and I started to walk back after they each gave their father another hug.

“You sure you’re okay?” Sands asked, making a face. “Fuck, I know you said that kid could control people, but… I guess I just sort of figured I’d be able to resist, you know? But… when he said to hurt you, there was just no… I couldn’t think about anything else. I wanted to make you suffer.

Noticing Scout’s cringe, I nodded. “It’s okay, guys. Like I said, it was him, not you. Hell, the only reason I’m immune is because he’s–” I stopped talking.

“Uh, you were saying?” Sands prompted, looking toward me. When she noticed my squint, the girl frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Because he’s my brother…” I said slowly. “Ruthers was asking why Ammon claimed to be my brother, so I told him it was probably because some splinter group turned my mother into a Heretic after she abandoned us and he’s their failed experiment or something.”

“Good thinking,” Sands complimented, but I could already see Scout’s frown start to match my own.

“That’s not the point,” I replied while shaking my head. “The point is, he brought it up. Ruthers is the one who asked why Ammon was claiming that. Only I didn’t say that in my report when I got back from my birthday. I never said anything in the official report about Ammon calling himself my brother. And tonight, there wasn’t time. Kohaku was unconscious after Ammon used her. Everyone who could have heard him say something was. There wasn’t anyone who could tell him the truth and was conscious.

“So how did he know? How did Ruthers know that Ammon calls himself my brother?”

Previous Chapter                Next Chapter

Facing Evil 11-02

Previous Chapter                Next Chapter

Confession time. I’ve been a babysitter before, and some of the kids I’ve looked after made me want to strangle them. Not that I ever had, or would, but the fact is that there are kids out there that are so intensely and purposefully annoying that the urge to smack them can be really strong. And yet, I held out. Through gum in my hair, dead flies in my soda, and being kicked repeatedly in the shin (and that was all just one kid), I restrained myself. I showed patience and didn’t lash out. I made gum-storing, fly-sharing, shin-hating boy stay in his room after taking the power cord for his computer and television. I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t think, up until a short time ago, that I was capable of hitting a kid.

But if Ammon hurt Avalon, I swore to every power great and small that had ever or would ever exist, I was going to shove my staff so far down his throat, I’d poke myself in the foot when I kicked his ass. And then I’d detonate the damn thing.

Get-” I started, freeing my weapon and charging it as the words erupted from me. “–away from her!

Ammon shook his head. “You don’t want me to do that, sis. Trust me, it’s a bad idea.” He nodded to the other girl. “She’s really rude, so I told her to shut up. But if she could talk, she’d say the same thing.”

Still charging my staff, I glared, resisting the urge to lunge at him (though it was a near thing). “What the hell are you talking about? Why are you here? What do you want? Didn’t you get in enough trouble the last time you came after me? Because I’m pretty sure your dad made it clear. I’m free for a year.”

My mind was racing. I needed help—but wait, I couldn’t get help. I couldn’t involve anyone else. As far as I knew, I was the only one who was immune to Ammon’s control. Maybe Koren or Wyatt, but this really wasn’t the right time to involve them. Not when I wasn’t absolutely sure they would be immune, and without being able to explain any of this to them. Besides, involving one of them meant possibly exposing Ammon to more people who definitely weren’t immune to him. And the thought of this kid having complete control of a bunch of Heretics was even more terrifying than seeing him near Avalon.

“You ask too many questions,” Ammon complained. “And you talk too fast. Shouldn’t you be happy to see me? You’re my sister. Family’s supposed to care about family. That’s what Mother says. Don’t you believe her? She misses you. She wants to know if you’re okay. Do you want me to tell her anything?”

My hand tightened painfully around the staff. I had to keep myself under control. I knew that. I knew it. But he was sitting there, so close to a motionless Avalon. It was hard to think straight. “What I want is for you to give me one reason why I shouldn’t find out just how good that regeneration of yours is.”

If the boy was intimidated at all, he didn’t show it. Instead, he just smiled at me. “Oh, that one’s easy. It’s because that would make me go away from your friend.” He patted Avalon on the head, a move that made me bristle. “And I told her that as soon as either one of us isn’t sitting on this bed, she should use one of those neat glove things to make a blade and cut her own throat as soon as she gets a chance.”

Announcing that as simply and matter-of-factually as someone describing an order they had placed at a restaurant, the kid actually smiled at me. “See? Pretty smart, huh? You could fight me, or you could rescue her, but either one would make us go off the bed. And then she cuts herself, and that would make you sad.” Slowly, his head tilted sideways, his expression turning curious. “It would make you sad, right? It’s hard to tell sometimes. But that sounds like something that would make you feel bad.”

I stared at him. Honestly, words failed me for a few seconds. I had no idea what to say to that. Would it make me feel bad? Just how fucked up was this kid? What the hell had his father done to him? And worse, what was he doing to my mother? The thought made me cringe inwardly, a sharp sort of shudder escaping me before I focused on the problem right in front of me. “Yes,” I said simply. “It would.”

“See?” He was positively beaming by that point. “I knew I did it right. Father says I do things without thinking, but I had a plan this time. Aren’t you proud of me, sis?” He was honestly, genuinely staring at me as though I should compliment him. There was no hint of shame or mockery in his words or his expression. The kid was absolutely asking if I was proud of him for coming up with a plan to confront me in a way that made sure I couldn’t fight back against him in spite of being immune to his power. He thought threatening someone I cared about was worth a pat on the head for thinking outside the box.

This kid was insane. He was broken. And I completely believed him when he said that Avalon would cut her own throat if either of them were removed from that bed. Nor did I think he’d actually let me call for help, even if there was someone I could contact that could get here in time to do something.

Gaia. She could help. I fully believed that she and probably some of the other teachers had countermeasures to protect against the kind of control that Ammon could manage, particularly if they were aware of it. At the very least, they could hit him hard enough to stop him from being able to give orders. After all, he did have to introduce himself to use his power. And I was sure they could find some creative ways to stop him from opening his mouth to give any actual commands. But that would involve taking the time to contact them and explain things, which Ammon wasn’t going to allow.

“Why are you here?” I managed through gritted teeth. Letting him talk would give me time to think, to come up with something to stop Avalon from hurting herself long enough to take care of Ammon.

“Man, you don’t listen very good,” he complained. “I told you, it’s my birthday. Don’t you know what happens on my birthday?” The boy asked as though it was common knowledge, as if someone not being aware of every nuance of his life was strange. “On my birthday, I get no consequences day.”

I frowned, my gaze shifting from Avalon to the boy and back again. “No consequences day? What?”

“No consequences day,” he replied as though the concept was just that simple and obvious. “I get to do anything I want, and Father won’t stop me or get at me. I don’t get in trouble for it. It’s my present.”

His present, his birthday present from his sick piece of shit of a father, was a day where he was allowed to do anything he wanted with no consequences. I felt sick. “But the day’s almost over. You’re late.”

The kid giggled at that, head shaking. “No, silly. My birthday starts twenty minutes ago. That’s when I was born. And I get twenty-four hours after that to do anything I want to. Isn’t that great?”

Swallowing, I glanced to Avalon, then back again, trying to think. “And you decided to come here?”

Ammon shrugged absently, his voice disturbingly calm. “I wanted to talk to you. But I knew you’d be all silly and try to fight or something, so I made sure you wouldn’t do that. See? I’m pretty smart, huh?”

My staff felt hot in my grip. “Ammon,” I managed to get out, my voice hard. “I don’t care what your psychopath of a father says about no consequences. If you hurt my… anyone here, I am going to–”

“What?” he interrupted, his voice genuinely curious. “Would you hurt me? Would you hurting me make me sad? If I hurt your friend and made you really sad, would you try to make me sad too? Would you try to share your sad with me? Is that what happens if you care what about happens to someone?”

There it was again, that complete lack of understanding when it came to feelings. What the hell had been done to this kid? He couldn’t have been born that way. No. Something awful had been done to him. Something that made him this way, but what was it? And what was I supposed to do about it?

Finally finding my voice, I took a breath before forcing the words out. “You said you wanted to talk to me, right?” When the boy nodded, I went on. “So talk. You could be doing anything right now, no consequences. But you came here. You broke into the school and came to my room. You went through all this just to talk to me. So tell me what you want to talk about. Say what you came here to say.”

Ammon shifted on the bed, absently petting Avalon’s hair in a way that made me want to forget everything I said and take his damn head off, brother or no brother. When he spoke, his tone was as innocent as ever. “I wanted to tell you that I’m not mad at you anymore. Even if you were rude when I came to visit you before. You were mean and you ruined my game. But mother says we’re supposed to forgive family.” Spreading his arms, he gave me that bright, disturbing smile again. “So, I forgive you.”

“You… forgive… me?” Something in my head snapped. “You came here, broke into my school, attacked my roommate, and threatened to have her kill herself, all to tell me that… you… forgive… me?”

“Boy,” he muttered. “You must not be doing good in school if they’ve gotta repeat things so much.”

One thing and one thing only stopped me from losing it right then: the knowledge that it might mean losing Avalon as well. And that was something I just wasn’t willing to accept. So I forced myself to keep it under control, as much as the kid made me want scream at him (at the very least). “Look, Ammon. You’re not the one who needs to forgive me. You’re the one who tried to frame my father for murder. You’re the one that tried to kill a bunch of other people. You’re the one who killed that innocent girl at that gas station, and I’m sure you did a lot of other evil, fucked up things. So you don’t get to forgive me. You are the one who did something wrong—everything wrong. You don’t get to forgive me for stopping you from hurting and killing people.”

He just blinked at that, totally clueless. “But I wanted to do those things. And you stopped me. You were mean and you messed up my game. And I forgive you. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

“What about them?” I demanded, resisting the urge to flail as I stared at the kid who was supposed to share half my genetics. “What about the innocent people you hurt and kill? You destroy lives, Ammon.”

If he was hurt by that, or even felt anything at all, the kid didn’t show it. He just blinked at me once, those eyes bright with curiosity and false innocence. “They’re not me,” the boy answered, as though that explained everything. They weren’t him, so they didn’t matter. They were just toys, just amusements that were there for him to play with and discard. It wasn’t even malevolence on his part. Not really. He literally could not comprehend the idea that other people’s lives mattered at all. He wasn’t a villain trying to take over the world or anything. He was just a fucked up, psychopathic kid.

That didn’t make what he did any less evil, of course. Not in the least. Whatever his motivation, the things he had done were disgusting and vile. But it did remind me of who the true villain was throughout this. Fossor. His father. I knew without at doubt in my mind that Fossor was the one who had destroyed this kid’s mind so much that he ended up like this. It wasn’t his birth. I’d seen too much evidence to believe that any kid, let alone a half-human one, could just be born evil without help.

Of course, there was always the fact that some people really were just born broken. That didn’t require any kind of help. Some people were born psychopaths, regardless of their home life. But in this case, I figured it was safe to lay the blame for all of this, for everything that Ammon did, at Fossor’s feet.

But maybe I could at least get some kind of answer. “How did you get in here? You shouldn’t be able to cross onto school grounds, Ammon. What did you do? Who did you hurt?” I demanded, feeling the tension rise in me again at the thought of my blood relative doing anything to the people that lived here.

In response, Ammon just shook his head at me, still smiling. “Our mom used to come and go from this place any time she wanted to. It’s really not very hard to get past the security stuff if you know how.”

“She wouldn’t have told you how to do it,” I insisted, tightening my grip on my staff while glaring at him. “Why would she tell you how to get through the security? That doesn’t make sense.” I didn’t want it to, anyway. The thought of what kind of position my mom might be in that would lead to her giving up that information almost made me launch myself at that little piece of shit. It was a very near thing.

Ammon had little concept of playing coy, because he answered immediately. It was like he couldn’t wait to share. “She didn’t have to tell me. It’s all in the Writing Room. I just had to find the right book.”

Blinking at that, I squinted. “Writing Room? What the hell is the Writing Room?”

Again, the boy seemed eager to tell me. “It’s great! Father made it. When you go in the room and someone asks you a question, you have to write down the answer, no matter what. It has to be really detailed, and you can’t lie about it. There’s all kinds of books in there. Father puts everyone he can in it and asks them all kinds of questions. It’s–” He stopped, considering. “Oh, but you’ll see when you come next year. I’m sure Father wants to ask you lots of questions. And then we can play together.”

Before I could say anything else to that, there was a cracking sound, and a whip abruptly wrapped itself around the boy’s neck. He made a strangled noise of surprise just as the whip jerked, sending him flying off the bed to crash into a nearby wall so hard it left deep cracks along the wood.

Gaia. She withdrew the whip, standing tall in the middle of my room, between the two beds. “You come to my school,” she spoke darkly. “And threaten my daughter’s life? Your father clearly made a mistake in not giving you sufficient warning to stay away from this place, child.”

Avalon was already sitting up, her hand coming up with the gauntlet to create a blade. I shouted a warning and started to move. But Gaia simply glanced that way, cupped a hand around the side of her mouth, and blew hard. I saw a cloud of yellow fog shoot toward my roommate. It caught Avalon full in the face, making her blink once before collapsing, unconscious.

Ammon, by that point, was back on his feet. “You’re mean!” He called, face red. “You’re not supposed to be here! It’s my birthday! You’re not playing by the rules.” He glared, then blurted, “Watermelon!”

Watermelon? I blinked. What was—And then it happened. A geyser of water erupted from the opposite corner, solidifying into a thick ice spear partway before stabbing right toward the headmistress.

But Gaia wasn’t there. She disappeared and reappeared a few feet away, just as that thick ice spear literally tore through the opposite wall. I could hear a scream of surprise from the room next door.

Professor Kohaku was there. Had she been there the whole time, hidden? Whatever the case, she was there now, already launching another attack at… Gaia. Ammon had gotten to her. She was his failsafe, his protection. Watermelon had been some kind of code.

Just as I processed that, I realized that the kid himself was already running for the door. He was gone by the time I started to move.

“Go!” Gaia called to me while struggling with Professor Kohaku, clearly hindered since she didn’t want to seriously injure the woman (who herself had no such problem). “Stop him from talking to anyone else.”

Looking briefly toward the unconscious Avalon, I narrowed my eyes at the thought of that psychopath, my little half-brother, having his way with everyone else in this school.

No. Not now. Not this time. Holding my staff, I went for the door, sprinting through and into the hall.

Ammon!”

Previous Chapter                Next Chapter

Interlude 8 -The Girl In The Arcade

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

Sunday, May 29th, 1983.

The blonde girl stood in a room full of noise and light. Surrounding her were testaments to mankind’s ingenuity and drive for both innovation and entertainment. These feats of technology, these ‘arcade machines’ with their loud and colorful games had always astounded the girl. For the past five minutes, she had stood staring at one machine in the middle of this busy, crowded room full of similar feats of technology. She wasn’t playing it, she wasn’t even touching it. She was simply watching and admiring.

Unfortunately, not all the arcade’s customers were so enthralled, as a voice from behind the girl heaved a long and clearly annoyed sigh before demanding, “Hey, come on! Are you gonna play it or what?”

The girl turned around, looking toward what turned out to be a collection of half a dozen boys, all them around thirteen or so. Several years below her own apparent age. Most looked doubtful, and the biggest of them, a boy with shockingly red hair, sneered. “She’s a girl, they don’t play video games, stupid.

“We can,” the girl replied quietly, her eyes widening as if in surprise at the sound of her own voice. Speaking up unbidden still felt like a new concept. She wasn’t used to that kind of freedom yet. Openly and audibly disagreeing with someone, that felt even more alien. Not allowed. Harmful. Bad. She had meant to say something else, but instead flinched, expecting a shock of painful punishment that never came. The fact that no chains wrapped around her throat to cut off her oxygen for the transgression was almost almost surprising, and the reflexive urge to discipline herself anyway was hard to resist.

“Hey, are you… okay?” The boys had clearly noticed at least some of her reaction, and one of them spoke up, the concern evident in his young voice. “You don’t like—need help or anything, right?”

“Yeah, are you like, on drugs or something?” Another boy put in. “Is that why you’re dressed funny?”

That boy was immediately elbowed in both sides by two different boys. One of them shook his head. “Idiot, that’s just how high school girls dress.” He looked her up and down with approval. “It’s fresh.”

The girl blinked down at her clothes. She wore white pants that were loose around her legs and a dark blue stomach-baring shirt. The urge to ask if there was something wrong with them was so strong she actually opened her mouth to start talking before catching herself. “I– am quite well. Thank you, sir.”

For some reason, that started a wave of snickers as the boys reacted, slapping and nudging the boy as if it was strange that she would call him sir. They were teasing him more than her, which seemed odd.

The tall, red-haired boy finally rolled his eyes. “Shut up, you dweebs.” To the girl, he demanded, “So are you gonna play, or are you gonna move? Cuz we’ve only got ten minutes til the movie starts.”

“Movie?” The girl’s head tilted, her face blank. “What movie?”

All of the boys stared at her like she’d just come down from Mars. “What movie?” One of them echoed, the shock and disbelief written across his face. “You know, the movie! The only movie that matters!”

Still, the girl just stood there, staring blankly until all of the boys crowed together, “Return of the Jedi!”

She had the feeling that asking what a Jedi was would be met with even more disbelief. Apparently this was something everyone was supposed to know, and not knowing would make her stand out. Which… was a very bad idea, especially at this point. She had to learn to blend in a lot better than she was.

“May I go to this movie with you?” she asked politely. After all, if everyone was supposed to know everything about it, she should probably put in the effort. She needed to learn to be more human.

The boys seemed a little surprised that an older girl wanted to see this important movie with them, but they didn’t object too much. After a brief huddle, they separated and the boy with red hair gave a sharp nod. “Aight, you can go in with us. But you gotta either move or play, cuz we’re running out of time.”

Turning her attention back to the machine, the girl stared at it briefly. Her gaze flicked toward its neighbor, where another boy had a stack of coins sitting on top of the console. As she watched, the boy took one of the coins, shoved it into the slot near the bottom, and then started to play the game.

She duplicated his crouch, leaning down to face the slot. Her empty hand moved toward it, and she stared at her palm. She focused until another coin appeared there, right between her waiting fingers. With a smile, the girl pushed the coin into the slot, then straightened and put her hands on the controls.

The coin wouldn’t last forever. None of the magic that she did for herself ever lasted long. As small and inconsequential as it was, the coin would probably last about an hour, but then it would vanish.

As the game started up, one of the boys sidled in closer. “So what’s your name anyway?”

Name. Her Master had always had many different names for her, none of them all that pleasant. And none suitable for interaction in the real human world. Slowly, the girl looked to the left of the machine, searching for inspiration. Her gaze found a wall full of movie posters. One in particular appeared to star Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields. Peter and Fonda were out. Brooke? That was possible. She looked to the title of the movie. Two words. Wanda? Brooke and Wanda were both possible. But no, not right. Not… her. She wanted something special to be her name, something that really felt like her.

She looked at the second word in the movie’s title, reading it through in her head before nodding. Not Wanda, not the first word of the title. But the second. That one felt right. That one felt like her.

“Nevada,” the girl answered, making one of the first choices of her free life. “My name is Nevada.”

******

Thursday, July 11th, 1984.

A little over a year ago, she had stood blankly in front of this machine. Now, the girl called Nevada confidently worked the controls, guiding the little spaceship back and forth across the screen. More and more alien ships were blasted apart as her score rose even higher. Not that it mattered all that much, considering the high score list was already entirely filled with the letters NEV. She held all the spots.

When her last ship was finally destroyed, she quickly filled in the letters to replace her sixth place score. Not the best she’d ever done, but still in her top ten. Then Nevada turned to the boy who stood open-mouthed next to her. “And that,” she declared with an easy grin, “is how you win twenty bucks.”

The boy sighed, but produced the money, laying it into her expectant hand. “Yeah, yeah, you smoked me. Jeeze, how’d you get so good at this game anyway? Your dad own the arcade or something?”

“Nope,” Nevada replied truthfully before sparing a wink for the boy. “But I have fixed all the machines in here.” She’d spent most of the past year learning exactly how this human technology worked, and how to integrate it with the magic that she already knew. Without a master, her magic was temporary. But it worked enough to get her by until she was able to learn how to work on these machines. After that, she earned money by repairing things. Not just the arcade games here, but cars, televisions, radios, anything that people either brought to her or had her come to them. Over the past year, she had become an expert in that sort of work. Her magic never lasted, but the technology she fixed was permanent.

“I knew it. You hustled me, you fucking hustled me.” In spite of his words, the boy didn’t sound that upset. Instead, he simply shook his head and chuckled. “Well, if you’re gonna hustle me,” he offered with a smile, “could you at least let me buy you lunch too? You didn’t take all my money, after all.”

Her mouth opened to agree. It could be fun, after all. She liked spending time with humans, especially the interesting ones, or the ones that she could learn something from. And this boy seemed interesting.

Unfortunately, just as the agreement started to pass her lips, Nevada’s gaze moved over the boy’s shoulder. They centered on the sight of a tall dark-skinned man standing at the entrance to the arcade, staring directly at her. And even as she met the man’s gaze, the girl felt that cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. The cold feeling that only came for two different reasons. Either she was looking at one of the Reapers of Death, which seemed unlikely since no one here had died. Or she was looking at a Heretic.

Okay, don’t panic, Nevada quickly told herself. If he’s one of the subtle ones, she might still have a chance to slip out before he figured out a way to get across the room to her without attracting attention.

Or not. Instead of waiting, the man simply looked up toward the lights. Almost instantly, they went out, along with all of the machines. The room was plunged into into near-complete darkness, as the familiar and comforting sounds of all the games were replaced with cries of surprise and dismay.

No. He was coming for her. No, no, no, no. Even as the boy in front of her tried to make a joke about the power going out, Nevada was turning away from him. The cold feeling in the pit of her stomach had morphed into terror. She’d been so careful, she’d tried not to stand out, and she hadn’t hurt anyone.

Still, the Heretic was here for her. Whether because he’d been passing by and noticed her or because he’d been openly hunting didn’t matter. He was here now, and he wouldn’t stop until she was dead.

Without hesitation, Nevada immediately called upon her power to teleport, trying to send her body to the parking lot outside of the mall. Unfortunately, she felt the power fail, her fear spiking even more at the realization that whoever this Heretic was, he was capable of blocking teleportation, either through a power of his own or a spell he had activated.

Okay, absent teleportation, she was going to have to escape manually. Spinning, Nevada ran straight through the pitch black room. She still bumped into several people, who shouted their own complaints but were drown out in the sea of similar noise. As quickly as she could, the girl made a beeline for the side door that would lead into the mall’s staff hallway that ran between this arcade hall and the theater next door. With every step she took, Nevada expected to feel the shock of a blade between her ribs or feel the impact of a Heretic gun.

But no. She made it to the door, shoved her way through, and sprinted down the empty hallway, leaving the sound of yelling behind her. Run, Nevada. Just run. Don’t look back, don’t check, don’t check.

She checked. A quick glance backwards as she ran down the hall revealed nothing. The Heretic wasn’t there. With a slight, almost hiccupy breath of relief, she began to plan her escape from the mall itself.

The whistle of a blade caught her attention, and the girl dove for the floor, rolling under the massive sword that the Heretic was swinging. Somehow he’d gotten around in front of her. Teleportation, super-speed, something else? It didn’t matter, and there was no way to tell. Heretics, terrifying as they were, could have any power. With any other creature, you could plan for what you were dealing with. You could prepare. But Heretics? They could have any power at all, and they used both technology and magic on top of that. There was no way to prepare for them, no way to practice, and no way to negotiate. Heretics didn’t even try to negotiate. They didn’t talk. They didn’t listen. They just killed.

Still, she tried. Springing back to her feet as the blade cleaved through the wall beside the spot she’d been running through, Nevada held her hands up. “I didn’t hurt anyone!” she called out, her eyes wide with terror. “Listen to me, listen! I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t going to. I’m just trying to live!”

“You’re a monster,” the Heretic spat the words as though even saying that much to her made him feel dirty. “You prey on humanity. You really think you can do that forever without paying for it?”

Hands still up defensively, Nevada shook her head. “I’m n-not a monster,” she insisted, her mind already thinking back to everything her former master had called her. Monster had been the least of it. “I’m not hurting anyone. I’ve never hurt anyone. You have to listen to me, I’m not like that. I’m–”

“A vile, disgusting creature,” the Heretic finished, eyes blazing with hate. “And you’ll never hurt anyone again. We aren’t your prey anymore, beast. Now you pay for your crimes against humanity.”

That sword was swinging, and Nevada quickly looked to the wall. At a thought, a small part of it disappeared. She leapt through the opening into what turned out to be the bathroom of the theater. Once there, she didn’t slow down or even hesitate before running for the next wall. Three steps in and the Heretic appeared directly in front of her, that sword of his already swinging. She narrowly avoided having her head taken off, diving sideways through one of the stalls. A quick look at the wall there created an opening, and she dove through it to enter the theater proper. Two teenage boys were standing there, their eyes wide with surprise at the sudden hole in the wall. That lasted a second before the Bystander effect took hold and they forgot that there had been anything strange about her appearance.

She couldn’t fight. Not now, not a Heretic. Where there was one of them, there was usually more. And Nevada didn’t know how to fight. She’d never hurt anyone in her life. She’d obeyed one master after another for many, many years before finally escaping. Then, for the past year she’d simply enjoyed life. She’d spent the time learning, playing, just being free for the first time. And now this Heretic was going to kill her. He would hunt her down remorselessly and inevitably, using his stolen powers to hunt her down for the crime of living, the crime of simply being born something other than human.

So she ran. Putting her feet under herself once more, the girl ran through the crowd, racing to the main hall of the theater. If she could put enough distance between them, if she could just escape for long enough to make the man lose track of her, there was a chance.

The thought occurred to her briefly that hiding in the crowd might work. But no. She had no idea how the Heretic would react to that, or how opposed to friendly fire he was. If she put herself inside a crowd of humans, there was every chance that they might get hurt, and she didn’t want that.

So rather than turning left to join the crowd in front of the snackbar, she turned right, running for the exit. Just a little further, a little bit more and she could be safe, she could stay free.

A hand caught her arm in mid-sprint, flinging her sideways into the wall. She hit hard, rebounding off it before slumping down with a groan.

The Heretic was there. And as he stood in front of her, the man twitched a hand. Fire appeared around them, covering all the walls, as well as the corridor behind and in front of them. She was trapped here, trapped in a small space with nothing between herself and the Heretic’s sword.

She tried one more time. From where she had fallen on the floor, Nevada pleaded. “Please. Please stop. I didn’t hurt anyone, I swear. I’m not like that. I just… I just want to live. Please.”

“Your tricks will not fool me, beast,” the man declared in a hard tone as he stood there imperiously. Flipping that massive sword of his around once, he raised it up high above her head.

Then… he simply stood there, motionless. For a second, the terrified Nevada peeked up at him, heart in her throat as she stared with wide eyes.

“You wanna live, huh?” A voice behind her announced, and she spun her head that way to find herself staring at a handsome man with dark hair, extending a hand toward her. The fire was gone. “Well, then you better come with me.”

Heretic. He was a Heretic. The terror returned, even as Nevada looked back to the first one. Frozen. He was frozen in place.

“Yeah, he’s not gonna move, don’t worry,” the dark-haired young man assured her. “And I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not here to hurt you. I’d explain more, but keeping this guy frozen like this is kind of taking a lot of effort, so if we could just get out of here while we’ve got the chance?”

“Rebellion,” she realized then. “You’re part of the rebellion.”

“Guilty as charged,” the man replied, though his teeth were gritted from apparent strain. “Seriously though, we need to move right now.”

Quickly, Nevada scrambled to her feet. She gave the frozen Heretic one last look before turning to run on down the hall. Her savior joined her a second later, and they ran together to the side exit before pushing their way through and into the lot. Once there, the man led her to a van and hopped behind the wheel before pulling away.

Only then did Nevada let herself breathe. She sat in the passenger seat of the van, exhaling before slowly turning to look at the Heretic who had rescued her. “I thought the rebellion was dead. I thought it died with–”

“Joselyn?” The man shook his head. “She’s not dead, just captured. And it’s not over, just quieter.” His gaze turned toward her. “My name’s Deveron. Pretty sure you call yourself Nevada.”

Suddenly nervous again, Nevada straightened a bit stiffly. “How… how did you know that?”

“Because I’ve been watching you for awhile,” Deveron replied before wincing immediately. “Crap. Sorry, that sounded creepier than I meant it. I don’t mean in a bad way. I mean I’ve been watching you trying to figure out if I should approach you or not. Jackson back there kind of forced my hand.”

“That still sounds kind of creepy,” Nevada informed him carefully.

He nodded acceptingly. “Fair enough. But I really did just want to talk. Well, not just talk. I want to make you an offer. You’re a, uhh, a genie, right?”

“Oh god,” Nevada slumped in her seat once more. “We call ourselves Djinni, not genie. And before you say anything else, our magic is way overblown. Yeah, I can make objects, summon objects, or alter objects. Material possessions. But it’s temporary unless I’m doing it for someone that’s claimed me as a master. And even then, it’s still just material possessions. I can’t change people’s minds, alter ideas, create life, end life, make you an all-powerful god, or anything like that. The only living thing beyond that I can change is myself. Because masters like it when their slaves can change themselves on a whim. Older, younger, look like that movie star, look like that person I saw on the street. Which, I suppose since we’re objects to them anyway, maintains that whole… only affect material possessions rule.”

“I’m sorry, Nevada.” The man’s voice was soft and sincere. “That’s awful. But I promise, that’s not why I need your help.”

Swallowing as she forced back the memories of her long years of servitude, Nevada forced herself to focus. “The point is, I can make you rich, but I can’t make you the Queen of England.”

“That’s a shame,” Deveron deadpanned. “I’d rock those dresses she wears.”

He winked sidelong at her before shaking his head. “That’s still not what I need you for anyway. I just need to make one wish, that’s it. One alteration to an established physical object.” He paused, glancing toward her. “Make that two wishes. But you can refuse the second one if you want to.”

“What are they?” Nevada asked slowly, her curiosity piqued.

Rather than answer right away, Deveron drove on in silence for a few minutes before finally speaking. “First, do you know how the Heretics become… well, Heretics?”

“Some kind of… ummm, light?” Nevada answered a little hesitantly.

The man nodded. “Right, the lighthouse. We call it the Heretical Edge. Well, technically that’s what they call the lighthouse and the ability to absorb Alter powers. They’re both called the Heretical Edge. But the first one is the thing I want you to use your power on. I want you to change the Heretical Edge.”

Nevada promptly choked. “I—wh-what? Okay, first of all, for something that big, I’d have to actually touch it. And… and… second of all, what do you want me to do to it? I couldn’t… destroy it or… or anything like that.”

Deveron smiled. “I can get you inside it, don’t worry. We’ll have to be careful but… we have our ways. And I don’t want you to destroy it. I want you to make one little change to it.”

“What… what little change?” Nevada asked slowly, uncertainly.

The man glanced to her, his arm draped casually over the wheel. “Right now, the Edge only chooses pure humans to work its magic on. Only pure humans get to become Heretics. I want you to change that. I want you to change the Edge so that it chooses human-Alter hybrids too, and makes them Heretics.”

Frowning a little, Nevada shook her head. “But why? Why would you want to do that?”

“Joselyn, she had a plan for if she was ever captured,” Deveron replied. “Call it a long-term vision. This is part of it. If we’re ever gonna change the Heretics, really change them, we need allies. The best way to get allies is to let people with connections to Alters, who could see the good in them, become Heretics too. We need to get those kind of people into positions of power in the Heretic organization.”

“She planned for finding a Djinni?” Nevada asked doubtfully. “I’m pretty sure we don’t grow on trees.”

Deveron chuckled. “It could’ve been anyone with enough magic to change the Edge. But you’re right, I’ve been looking for someone like you for over a decade now. Got close a couple times, but they always fell through. You though, you seem like the real deal.”

“What about the second wish?” Nevada’s voice was careful as she considered what the man was asking.

He met her gaze, stopping the van at a red light. “I want you to change yourself. Wish yourself into not being a Djinni anymore. Make yourself human, so no one can use you for your power again. So no one has any reason to hurt you or chase you. So you can be safe.

“Like I said, you can refuse that wish if you want. Refuse both of them if you want. But we need your help if we’re going to change how the Heretics work. If we’re going to make real, lasting change, we need you.”

Nevada’s hand was covering her mouth. Change herself? She couldn’t use her magic that way of her own volition, but if someone else used it as a wish… “But… if I wasn’t a Djinni, what would I be?”

“Human,” Deveron offered. “You could go and live a normal life, a free life, if you wanted to. Or you could go through the Edge yourself. Become a Heretic and help us change things even more directly.”

She just stared at him. “How would I become a Heretic?”

He shrugged casually. “Let’s just say we have an in with the headmistress. She’ll make it happen. If you want it to.”

“You want me to go from being a Djinni, to being a Heretic? An Alter who hunts other Alters?”

“A Heretic who changes that,” Deveron corrected. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy or anything. But we need help, so I’m asking. Will you please help us?”

She didn’t answer for almost five minutes. They continued driving in silence until Nevada finally exhaled audibly. “I’ll do it. I’ll use my power on the Edge, and… and then turn myself into a human so I can be a Heretic. I’ll help you.. change them.”

Deveron was smiling broadly. “That’s great, Nevada. I can’t promise it’ll be easy, but it will be worth it.

“It’ll just take a lot of hard work.”

******

Present Day

“I can’t remember him,” Nevada spoke slowly while gazing out the window of her office at the rest of the school grounds. In the reflection of the window, she caught sight of her own appearance. Different now, ever since she had turned herself human. Not dramatically so, she still had blonde hair and the same general build, but her face was just altered enough so that no one would recognize her as the Djinni who had hung around that mall thirty years earlier. Particularly a certain Heretic that had tried to kill her.

Behind her, Gaia Sinclaire replied, “The man who brought you into this?”

Nevada nodded at that. “I remember that he existed. I remember what he said to me. But I don’t remember his name, and I can’t remember his face.” Turning, she squinted at the headmistress. “Do you?”

To her dismay, the woman shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Something erased that memory, but clearly did not do as thorough of a job as they did with Joselyn.”

In spite of herself, and the situation, Nevada smiled. It always felt better to smile than to frown. She’d always felt that, even when she was one of the Djinn. Ever since she’d become human, though, her urge to smile had felt almost overwhelming. Maybe it was just the feeling that she would never be someone’s slave again, never be magically bound into being nothing more than a tool. Whatever it was, she always felt like laughing and enjoying life. Even in bad situations, she still tried to find a way to be happy.

“You asked me to come here, to take over for Zedekiah after he was murdered, because you thought I could help you find out who killed him. But you haven’t said much about it since then.”

Gaia nodded faintly. “I asked you here for that, and because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I can trust you, Nevada. That’s… something rather rare right now. I can trust you, Risa, Virginia, and Ulysses. The rest I’m… not entirely positive about. But you are one of the very few that I trust implicitly.”

“And yet,” Nevada pointed out, “still with the not talking about it since you brought me in.”

The headmistress chuckled softly. “I’m sorry. I suppose you just grow accustomed to keeping things to yourself when you do it for long enough.”

Taking in a breath then, she let it out again before continuing. “I also wanted you here because I know that you will help protect the mixed-race students we have in case anything goes wrong. You can help guide them.

“As for Zedekiah’s murderer… I had hoped to have that handled by now. Unfortunately, whoever they are, they’ve hidden their tracks well.”

It was harder to smile. “So we have no idea who killed him… and we still don’t know who the man was that was working with you and Joselyn, the one who brought me here in the first place. There’s no record of him and no one remembers his name.”

Gaia’s voice was quiet. “That does appear to adequately summarize the situation.”

Before Nevada could say anything else, there was a knock at the door. Then Risa Kohaku poked her head in. Her voice was grim. “We have another situation. Shiori and Flick have disappeared from the island.”

“What?!” Nevada yelped. “What—how!?”

“It’s all right,” Gaia raised a hand to calm them both. “I was aware of their disappearance in this particular instance. I allowed it to happen.”

Now Nevada was staring at the woman, her mouth open with shock. By the door, Risa was doing pretty much the same thing. “Wh-what do you mean, you allowed it to happen? Why? What if something happens to them? What if–”

Gaia was smiling a little bit. “Calm yourselves. I am keeping an eye on the situation, but thus far it does not require our interference. As for why I allowed it to happen, let’s just say I believe that this trip will be good for both of them. After all, if the birds are going to fly, you have to let them out of the nest.

“And I’m fairly certain that these particular birds are going to need all opportunities to fly that they can get.”

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter