Professor Kohaku

Interlude 11 – Wyatt

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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.

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Facing Evil 11-07

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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?”

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Facing Evil 11-02

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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 mad 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 about what 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!”

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Interlude 8 -The Girl In The Arcade

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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 drowned 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.”

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Basic Training 7-08

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In the end, it was Sands who spoke up first. “What are we doing in here?” She echoed the question while stepping forward. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl reached up to tug the masker off. Which was fair, since the fact that we were all holding our weapons made the disguises pointless. “You wanna know what we’re doing here? We’re looking for answers, that’s what. Answers about Deveron.”

Professor Kohaku’s eyebrows went up noticeably. Her eyes shifted fractionally toward the silent headmistress before she responded. “Exactly what questions regarding your team mentor did you believe you were going to find inside the security control room, if you wouldn’t mind elaborating?”

“He’s useless,” I put in while taking my own masker off and smoothing out my ponytail with one hand. “He’s a joke, and you guys know it. But you won’t take him off our team. We wanted to know why.”

Yes, my mother’s note had said to trust Gaia. But she hadn’t said a word about trusting Gaia, the security chief, two of her subordinates, the replacement Heretical Magic instructor, and the brand new Stranger Truths teacher. Now wasn’t the time to start confiding. Especially when we still had no idea who had sent those zombies after us.

Columbus, a little bit slower on the uptake, managed to get his own masker off while nodding emphatically. “Seriously, you want us to do all this dangerous stuff, which is hard enough with a real mentor who actually helps out, but with Deveron? You’ve gotta be kidding. He’s the worst mentor ever. Do you wanna know how many times he’s even worked with us outside of your official tests? Zero.”

For the first time, the headmistress spoke. Her voice was calm where Professor Kohaku’s had been suspicious. “Your dissatisfaction with Deveron Adams led you to sneak out of your dorms after hours so that you could break into the security control room? What did you hope to find in there, exactly?”

“The reason for why you won’t demote him or change our mentor,” Sands answered immediately.

I nodded along with Scout (who had already taken her own masker off when her sister had) and Columbus. “Yeah, maybe this was stupid, but what else could we do? Every time we complain about how he doesn’t work with us, it just gets ignored. We thought if we saw his security record, it might explain… why he’s acting this way, or at least why you want him to stay on as our mentor so much.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” one of the security guards muttered under his breath before falling silent as several pairs of eyes looked his way. Closing his mouth, he resorted to staring at us disbelievingly.

Nevada, who had stowed her massive chain-sword by that point and had returned the bracelet to her wrist, bounced up and down a little. “Aww, can you really be that mad at them? Three of them are in the investigation track! They’re supposed to be investigating things that don’t make sense. And you’ve gotta admit, training them to fight monsters and then leaving them with a crappy mentor doesn’t make sense. Are they just supposed to turn off that urge to find answers because it’s inconvenient for us?”

“You have a point,” Gaia conceded with a nod before turning her gaze to us. Her eyes were soft, the concern in her voice obvious. “Before we say anything else, are all of you all right? No one is hurt?”

“Tired,” I replied after glancing toward the others. “Sore. Dirty. But no, we’re not hurt.” The cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries from the zombies that had gotten hold of me were already clearing up.

The red-haired woman gave a soft smile of genuine relief. “Good. Your safety is more important than any wrong you might have done. Yes, you have violated the rules, but we have failed to maintain your safety the way we should have. That is our fault, one that has been repeated more than once this year. For that, and for the lack of a proper response to your ongoing mentor issues, I am very sorry.”

“The headmistress is correct,” Professor Kohaku agreed. “You were where you should not have been, but the fact that someone was able to summon zombies into the school to attack you is much worse. You could have been hurt or… worse.” Her expression darkened a little bit. “I promise you, we will find the person or people responsible for these attacks. But if you know anything about who they might be, we need you to tell us. We cannot do our jobs properly if the people we are trying to protect lie to us.”

Before I could say anything, Columbus spoke up. “Why were the zombies here?” When everyone’s attention turned to him, the boy went on. “I mean, everyone said that those other attacks were focused on Avalon. The peridles in the training room and those guys from Eden’s Garden, they were after her. But she’s obviously not here, so why were the zombies attacking us? Are there two different people or, you know, groups that can summon monsters past your security screens and all that?”

“You were not the target,” Professor Kohaku answered. “There were six other incursions of zombies throughout the grounds at the same time in addition to this one. We were attending to those areas, which is why it took time to get here. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Or someone wanted to make sure it’d take you awhile to get to us so they summoned a bunch of others to distract you while siccing a group on us,” I pointed out without taking my eyes off of Gaia.

It was Professor Carfried’s turn to finally speak up. The magic instructor had been silent up to that point, but now shook his head. “The method with which these creatures were summoned past the security screens is… without going into detail, complicated. It required a good deal of forethought and preparation, including carefully selecting the locations of the incursions far ahead of time. Hours would have been required, at least. If the zombies were meant to attack any of you directly, they would have appeared in your dorm buildings, not here where no one was supposed to be. As Risa said, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever did this was likely attempting to test our security responses and see how many creatures they could push through our defenses at once.”

“Unfortunately for them,” Gaia spoke again, “they have shown their hand. Our security enchantments will be updated and we will strive to ensure this does not happen again. That, however, does not excuse the fact that the four of you were in real danger due to our failure, both in maintaining your safety and in providing adequate response to your mentor situation. You never should have been put in a position where you believed that this sort of behavior was the only way to properly protect yourselves.”

Professor Kohaku was nodding before she spoke. “However, that does not excuse your actions entirely. You could have come directly to one of us and made your position clear. You could have gone through several other avenues to voice your concern that did not involve this level of rule breaking. We failed to keep you safe, but at least part of that responsibility falls to you as well for being where you should not have been. We have failed, but you have compounded that failure through your own actions.”

The urge to speak up was almost irresistible, but I pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time to argue. Especially since most of the things I wanted to say weren’t things that should be blurted out in public.

“For being out of your dorms after hours,” the security head continued, “I believe the standard punishment is two weeks of Saturday detention. For extenuating circumstances, one week is probably sufficient. For breaking into the main building, I believe the last offender received one month of Saturday detention. Again, we will halve that for your reasoning which, while not perfect, does provide you with some excuse. Three weeks of detention. Does that sound fair, Headmistress?”

Gaia nodded. “You cannot simply be left without punishment. The rules exist for a reason, and if they are not enforced, others will believe that going around them is in their best interest. We are here to help you, to educate you, and to protect you. But we can’t do that if our students continue to go around us.”

“Then you will all come to the security office at nine in the morning for the next three Saturdays,” Professor Kohaku informed us. “From there you will be assigned your jobs for the rest of that day.”

Obviously we weren’t going to get a better deal than that, so the four of us mumbled our acknowledgment. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly, what amounted to three days of detention wasn’t bad. It did, however, remind me of just how different this school was than any others I knew from the Bystander world. They were so accustomed to having students fight for their lives, kill, and generally be involved with violence that being attacked by zombies in the hallway barely seemed to faze them.

“With that in mind,” Gaia interrupted my thoughts. “We will take your concern about Deveron into advisement. If he is not performing his job properly, then you deserve a mentor who will.”

Well, at least some good had come out of this whole situation, if it would get us a real mentor.

“I’ll take them back to their dorms,” Nevada cut in, still smiling broadly. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do, Headmistress, Professor.” She nodded to each of the other women in turn. “I’ll take the maskers back too. Might as well get them back to the lab before any of them get… lost again.”

“Indeed,” Professor Carfried agreed. “You take the girls, I’ll make sure Columbus makes it back to his room.”

“Oh,” Professor Kohaku added as we were starting out. “Flick, Columbus, when you get back to your roommates, tell them that they can join you in detention. We wouldn’t want them to feel left out.”

******

“So it could’ve been worse,” I finished giving Avalon my summary of what had happened a short while later. The two of us were alone in our room, though I hadn’t sat down yet. I wasn’t going to until I had a chance to take a long, thoroughly hot shower to get every trace of zombie stuff off me. “I think your mom’s hands were pretty tied. I mean, with all those other people there, she couldn’t just let us off.”

“We broke the rules,” Avalon acknowledged flatly. “She has to maintain her authority or the Committee will find out about it. Believe me, the last thing you want is to give Ruthers an excuse to shove more of his own stooges in here. I’ve heard about how it was before Gaia took over. You… wouldn’t like it.”

“Oh!” I flinched at a sudden realization. “Damn it, we probably should’ve mentioned that our communications were blocked right when the zombies appeared. I was trying to keep you and Sean out of it. Which was obviously pointless, but we should’ve told them that the pins stopped working.”

“That’s probably relevant information,” the other girl agreed. Her expression softened slightly then more than I was accustomed to seeing from Avalon. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you. I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought someone would actually summon zombies on top of you.”

“Hey,” I shrugged, trying to maintain a casual air. “We killed them pretty good. If you were there, we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to do anything. You would’ve been all, ‘yow chop suey fwapow!’” I mimed a few goofy karate chops. “While the rest of us just stood there basking in your awesome.”

Rolling her eyes, Avalon turned back to the bed. By that point, I knew her well enough to realize that she was using the movement as an excuse to hide her blush until she had her expression under control again. “Take your shower, Chambers. And get some sleep. Even you must need it after all that.”

Grabbing my phone off the desk, I nodded. “I’ll call the security office too. Might as well tell them what happened with the pins. Maybe it’ll help them figure out how assface summoned those monsters.”

Avalon turned back to me, hand on the controls for her privacy screen. “I’m glad you’re all right, Chambers. You’re not the worst roommate I could’ve been assigned.”

“Aww,” I held my arms open wide, beckoning with my hands. “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. Come on, bring it in. Have a zombie-gunk covered hug, you know you want one.”

To my surprise, Avalon took a step toward me, then another. She crossed the room slowly, never breaking eye contact. As she approached, I felt my own heartbeat start to pick up as heat spread over my skin. She was getting closer with each step, staring directly into my eyes the whole time. My teasing voice faltered, and I felt tongue-tied. Further words died in my throat while my arms remained raised and open mostly because I was too distracted to lower them. My mouth felt dry.

Coming straight up to me, Avalon stopped so close I could smell the peach shampoo that she used in her luxurious hair. She stood there, directly in front of me, and cocked her head to the side a little while regarding me with what looked like a curious expression. “You want me to hug you, Chambers?” Her voice was soft, the tone sending a little thrill through me in spite of myself.

My mouth opened and then shut, words failing me entirely. I saw the slight smile, barely noticeable, appear at the edges of Avalon’s mouth as she lifted a finger very gradually. My eyes followed the finger as she raised it… to push against my forehead. Her tone turned abruptly casual, dropping the… whatever she had been doing with her voice a moment earlier. “Too bad you’re covered in zombie guts.” Winking, she stepped back. “Go take your shower. Some of us actually need a full night’s sleep.”

Feeling like a bucket of cold water had been tossed in my face, I stared as she walked back to her side of the room and flicked on the privacy screen, disappearing into the resulting darkness.

Physically shaking myself, I picked out my bed clothes and walked into the hallway while dialing the number for the security office. I’d memorized it after getting back from my house, considering how much help that would have been while everything with Ammon had been going on.

By the time I reached the showers, Professor Kohaku had answered and took the information about the pins. I had the feeling she was restraining herself from dressing me down for not saying anything earlier, but in the end she promised that they would look into it and thanked me for the information. Then she reminded me to show up for detention on time and not to get into any more trouble before hanging up.

Which left me standing alone in the shower room, thinking about how crazy my life had become in the past couple of months that something like a zombie attack seemed so relatively normal. It was practically just another day at Crossroads Academy, a place where you could have legitimate debates about whether nearly being killed by monsters was a targeted attack or just bad luck.

And then there was my roommate. As I raised my hand toward the shower to turn on the hot water, my thoughts went back to what had happened in the room a couple minutes earlier, and I felt another flush cross over my face. Swallowing hard, I moved my hand from away from the H-labeled knob to its C-labeled neighbor.

I’d take a cold shower first.

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Basic Training 7-07

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A couple of months earlier, I’d thought that the size of the corridors in this school was excessive. As I’d seen it through that portal doorway in the middle of that mostly empty field, a hallway large enough to drive the bus I’d been stranded with through it had seemed totally extravagant. Now I was finding myself wishing that the hallway was even bigger. Preferably the size of an airplane hangar if it meant keeping these things away from us even longer. Bonus if the airplane itself was included.

We’d learned in Nevada’s class that despite the titular ‘slow zombies’ generally being, well, slow, they could still move quickly in very short bursts. They’d shamble gradually toward their targets, then lunge and sprint forward the last couple of yards to take their prey by surprise with the sudden speed.

And the nearest one to us was within that couple of yards. With a sudden screeching noise that came from somewhere in the back of his throat, the upright corpse abruptly flung himself toward me.

In mid-leap, however, a blast of silver-blue concussive energy shot over my shoulder and plowed into the zombie. It was sent hurtling backward down the hall, crashing into the nearest of its companions.

“Thanks!” I called to Columbus while pulling my staff the rest of the way out of its case. Behind me, I could hear Sands free her mace while my finger found the button to start charging the staff’s kinetic energy. “Avalon, Sean, we need help. There’s—hello? Avalon, are you there? Sean, hell—crap.”

There was no response, and the rest of the zombies were approaching. Hearing a thud, I chanced a quick glance back and found that the hallway behind us was covered in a wooden wall, courtesy of Sands’ mace. The girl herself was quickly making a second wall while the zombies pounded at the first.

Scout, meanwhile, had her rifle out and was pointing it toward the ceiling. She pulled the trigger, and the bullet leapt from the gun. Rather than hit the ceiling, however, it vanished and I heard the loud squelch of a zombie on the other side of the wall getting their head blown in. Obviously, the quiet girl had managed to set one of her bullet portals on the other side of the wall before Sands put it up. Now she could shoot at a portal on this side and hit the monsters on the other without exposing herself.

By that point, the nearest of the zombies on this side had come back within leaping range. I glanced toward Columbus and the two of us nodded at each other before moving to meet them. Two months ago I would have frozen in terror at the sight of this. Now, after such a short time, I launched myself forward into a leap that turned into a dive to carry myself beneath the flailing arms of the nearest zombie. An instant later, while it was still turning to try to grab me, Columbus caught it with a blast.

Hitting the floor, I rolled and came to my feet, swinging my staff in a wide arc while triggering the kinetic charge that it had been building. The wide-angle wave of force crashed into the approaching figures. It wasn’t enough to knock them all the way to the floor, but the force did make them all stumble and lose their footing. I used that time to close the distance to the nearest zombie and spun myself around into a wide swing to build up momentum while simultaneously charging up the weapon again.

Generally speaking, attacking the traditional zombie with a blunt weapon is a pretty bad idea, unless you happen to be strong enough to pulverize the head in a swing or two. Being a girl of ordinary physical strength (though in much better shape than I had been at the start of the year, to be fair), me hitting a zombie with a normal staff would have been about as effective as throwing marbles at the Empire State Building in order to knock it over. Thankfully, my staff wasn’t normal. As I came out of the spin, an instant before the weapon connected with the undead monster’s head, I released the charge on the staff. It collided with the zombie with so much force that the head exploded like a watermelon being hit by Gallagher. Blood, bits of skull, and… other stuff went spraying in every direction. Some even splattered across my face even as I was turning my head away, which, god damn it, eww.

On the plus side, at least I wasn’t distracted in the midst of battle by another unbelievable rush of pleasure when I blew that walking corpse’s head off. As we’d learned in Nevada’s class, killing one of the first two types of zombie (the ones like these who were brought back by magic after their death and were generally slow, or the ones that were prepared before their deaths and were generally fast) didn’t transfer any kind of power upgrade to a Heretic. Because the actual power came from the person who raised and controlled them. They were just mindless tools following magical commands. Strangely, they did still give off that mind-clouding Stranger fog, which was a subject I wanted to look into at some future point when a bunch of the damn things weren’t right in the middle of trying to eat me.

So the minus side was that killing these things wasn’t going to make us any stronger. The plus side was that I wasn’t going to end up being that… distracted right in the middle of a horde of monsters.

Another blast from Columbus caught the legs of the next zombie, knocking them out from under it. As the thing fell to the floor, I brought my staff down as hard as possible on its exposed head, triggering another kinetic burst that popped the damn thing like a giant zit. Gross. Just… seriously gross.

Two were down, and Columbus had managed to knock back another one that tried to lunge forward while I was bent over with my staff buried in the collapsed skull of the second. But that was nothing. Lifting my gaze, I saw at least a dozen others and probably more than that. And that was just the ones coming from this direction. Behind us, Sands was working to keep the wooden walls up while Scout fired again and again. Yet they both had to keep backpedaling, because the zombies were breaking through every barrier Sands put up. It was a gradual retreat, but these things were strong enough to punch and claw their way right through those wooden walls within a few seconds of them going up. I could hear them on the other side of the barrier, pounding and tearing violently at the wood.

“I’m fine, help the twins!” I called over my shoulder to Columbus. “Make the horde back off long enough for Sands to find something stronger to make a barrier out of. Buy them some time to think!”

With that said (and hoping that I wouldn’t regret sending away the person watching my back), I pointed my staff behind me and used a burst from it to launch myself up into the air and over the heads of the approaching zombies on this side. The staff-aided leap carried me right into the space between the ones that were already up in this hall and the ones that were still eagerly climbing the stairs to get at us.

As I landed there with my staff already charging up again, I looked to the left at the stair-climbing zombies, then to the right at the ones that were shuffling and turning to face me once more now that I was behind them. “You guys really wanna play, huh?” I asked flatly. “All right then, let’s play.”

Spinning to the stairs, I shoved my staff down, quickly depositing two kinetic mines on the top step. Then I spun back the other way just as the nearest of the zombies that were already up here reached me, swinging out with his hands. The bottom of my staff came up to smack his incoming arms out of the way. While it spent a couple seconds charging up, I did a quick lunge-turn to put myself beside the flailing zombie rather than directly in front of it. Another groping zombie was there, but the front of my staff came up and around with my turn to hit the thing across the face hard enough that it stumbled.

The one behind me was turning back, another one behind the one that I’d just smacked was lunging past his stumbling companion, and two more were coming around his other side. All of them lunged for me.

Swinging backwards with my staff, I felt the blunt end collide with the eye of the creature behind me. As soon as it connected, I triggered the charge. The kinetic force exploded through that end and into the zombie’s eye as if it had been struck point blank by a shotgun. But I wasn’t done. Without slowing down, I set the staff to charge again before lashing out with it. The staff hooked around the back of the stumbling zombie’s neck, and I gave a hard jerk. He was yanked forward and down, throwing himself into the path of the two that were coming in from the side. The three zombies were tangled up with each other. Meanwhile, the remaining one that had been coming in went right up and over the other three, mouth open while he let out a wild moan, mindlessly intent on eating me. Not just my brain, but all of me. These kind of zombies were essentially undead cannibals. According to Nevada, certain ancient necromancers had used them as garbage disposals for corpses, easy ways to simultaneously get rid of all those pesky dead bodies without having to bury them, and provide food for their troops. It was win-win. Every person they killed either became food for their army, or part of the army itself. Apparently the most successful necromancers weren’t necessarily always the most powerful, but the ones who most effectively managed the whole ‘army-food’ balance properly. Most tended to get carried away with making their horde as large as possible, and forgot that they needed to actually feed the resulting army with some of those corpses that they were turning into more soldiers. And a zombie horde that wasn’t fed properly quickly turned into an uncontrolled zombie horde that attacked everyone in sight, even each other. More necromancer armies were taken apart by their own starving forces turning on one another for nourishment than any great army of light and good or whatever.

All of that went through my head in a quick rush while the leaping zombie came at me, a vision that would have terrified me into complete inaction not that long earlier. Now, however, I just sidestepped the mindlesssly flailing monster and smacked his grasping arm away before turning myself in a kick that put my foot against the back of the thing’s knee. He was strong and didn’t feel pain, but the human body was still the human body, and the kick knocked his leg out from under him. He fell into the pile.

In the background, I heard both of my planted mines go off as the zombies on the stairs reached them. At the same time, I raised the staff above my head and brought it down into the pile of fallen figures that were still trying to extricate themselves from each other. As the weapon came down, I triggered the charge that had been building. The staff struck the nearest head and the kinetic force went off like a bomb, propelling the weapon down through the rest of them as easily as a spoon going through ice cream. Which was a mental image and connection that I really, really wished my brain hadn’t made.

Extricating myself from the pile of corpses, I quickly planted three more bombs along the top of the stairs that time. Unfortunately, before I could turn back around, a hand grabbed my arm and nearly yanked it out of socket as the nearest zombie hauled me toward him. I felt his fingers claw into my skin hard enough to draw blood (and thanked every conceivable deity in every conceivable existence that real zombies didn’t ‘transfer’ their condition to people the way the movies portrayed it, real zombies had to be specifically created) before I was yanked off my feet and toward his wide open mouth. He was intent on getting those teeth around my exposed throat so that he could bite and tear through it.

I made him eat my staff instead. Rather than panic, I shoved the weapon into that open mouth. The force knocked him back a bit, and I started charging it up while taking a few running steps. My own momentum shoved the choking zombie backwards and into the one behind him. Just as they collided, the staff had charged enough to go off again. I triggered it while still shoving, and the resulting blast took off not only the head of my attacker, but the one I’d shoved him backwards into as well.

From there, I was right in the middle of the rush of them. I stopped thinking and just reacted. A hand reached for my face and I smacked it aside. Another hand raked sharp claws down my back, sending a spasm of pain through me and I ignored it while putting my staff into the stomach of the offender to double him over, then spun into a wide swing while setting off my charged weapon to take off his head. A face came into view and I smacked it once, twice, three times to drive the mindless creature back while desperately flinging myself out of range of another corpse that tried to latch onto my leg.

Every target I saw, I attacked. Here a face, there a hand, a stomach, a throat. I swung over and over again, triggering the kinetic burst from the staff every time it was ready. More and more gore surrounded and covered me while I was fighting. I was at war, and my enemies were everything I could see. Even then, I took damage. I got hurt. They clawed and scraped at me from all sides, and I couldn’t turn or attack fast enough to keep all of them off me. It was all I could do to keep myself vaguely upright as more and more of them kept coming. Every one I killed seemed to be replaced by two more. Everything I’d learned from Katarin, everything that Avalon had taught me beyond that, all that we’d practiced these past months was on full display in a way that I’d never previously managed in training. I was a whirling dervish of death that literally exploded her enemies into little gooey bits every few seconds, and yet it wasn’t enough. I was going to collapse under the sheer weight of their numbers.

Then, just as I was on the breaking point, bleeding from several open wounds that hadn’t yet had a chance to heal, the head of the zombie nearest to me exploded into a fine mist right on the heels of a gunshot. A second later, a mace crashed into the face of the next zombie, just before a beam of concussive energy plowed into two more of them, clearing out a little space. A hand caught my arm, this time belonging to my friends, and yanked me away from the pile of corpses. Columbus pulled me clear, then fired another wide-angle shot into the monsters while calling out, “Need some help?”

I chanced a look back the other way. Sands had used the time to construct another wall. This one was made of some kind of metal that was apparently enough to slow the zombies on that side much more than the wood had. She’d also added some kind of bracer support system to hold it steady against their attacks.

Another shot from Scout exploded the head of the next zombie, and Sands had put herself where I had been. Her mace couldn’t charge up kinetic force and blow them apart the way my weapon could, but the spikes on it meant she could actually do more damage on each normal blow than I’d been able to.

Working together, the four of us cleared out the zombies on this side. Now that I had help, we could herd the ones on the stairs up a bit at a time, use mines to choke off the top of the stairs once more each time a small group had made it up, then deal with those ones before the next group made it. Every time we had a big enough collection of zombies to fight, I simply put more mines down to slow the rest of the group. Slowly, yet inevitably, we took them down.

Unfortunately, by the time we managed that, even I was tired and panting. All of us were doubled over to catch our breath when the barrier that Sands had created simply vanished.

Right. Her walls were temporary. Shit. We were… well, kind of screwed. There were just as many zombies on that side of the wall as had been on this side, and they were coming at us all at the same time. Plus there was the fact that we were exhausted.

“Fuck it,” Sands muttered beside me before readying herself. Her voice betrayed her exhaustion, yet she still shouted, “Come on then, you stupid bastards! Come get me!”

They didn’t have a chance. Before the zombies could take more than a single step closer, a new voice spoke up from behind us. “Oh, Mister Zombies! Excuse me.”

Nevada. She was standing at the top of the stairs, wearing a curious expression along with a pair of pink hotpants and a white shirt with a purple bunny on the front with the word ‘YAY’ written under it in bright glitter. She was also barefoot.

“Yeah, hi there!” She waved at the horde of monsters, smiling perkily. “Here’s the thing. Those are my students you’re trying to eat.” As cheerfully as ever, she asked, “Do ya wanna know why that’s a bad idea?” Abruptly, the cheerful smile dropped and her voice was hard. “Lemme show you.”

She moved so fast in the next instant that she almost seemed to teleport. I could barely track her motion as she closed the distance between herself and the nearest zombie in a single second. Her fist lashed out, punching straight through the monster’s head like it was tissue paper. I’d seen that kind of speed and strength not long before, when I met Asenath.

That was just the start of it. With her left fist still buried in the remains of the collapsing zombie’s skull, Nevada pointed with her right hand. A half dozen small flickering flames appeared in midair before shooting straight at six respective zombies. As each tiny, candle-sized flame connected with its target, they were literally engulfed with fire, going up in a miniature explosion that left nothing but ash behind. Seven zombies were dead, and roughly four seconds had passed. And she hadn’t even drawn her weapon.

Things just got worse for the zombies from there, because Nevada finally did take out her weapon. Her hand moved to the silver bracelet that she wore on her left wrist, and she tugged it off before tossing the thing beside her. As it fell, the bracelet expanded and transformed into a tall metal crate that had a bunch of odds and ends sticking out of it. An entire supply closet worth of equipment, and she had been wearing it on her wrist.

Her hand dipped into the crate while the remaining zombies shambled that way, too stupid to know when they should retreat. And a second later, the perky blonde retrieved what she had been looking for: a massive sword that was so enormous it would have made one of those Japanese RPG characters cry with envy. The blade on its own was almost as tall as the woman herself, and was wide enough to use as a shield.

But it wasn’t even just a normal (if enormous) sword. Rather than a simple blade, the weapon had jagged edges all along its edge. And as Nevada’s hand tightened around the hilt, those jagged teeth began to move, rotating around and around along the massive weapon. It was a giant, ludicrously sized great sword that had been crossed with a literal chainsaw.

“Okay, boys.” Nevada flipped the sword around in a single hand like she was twirling a simple baton. “Now we can dance.”

With the chainsaw-sword combined with a vampire’s speed and strength, the zombies stood literally no chance. Nevada went through them like a wheat thresher. A half dozen more were dead and on the ground by the time they actually started to react. She was a blur of motion, graceful and perfect. Exhausted as I was, all I could do was stand there with the rest of the group and stare at the sight.

“Is it wrong that I’m kind of aroused right now?” Columbus asked in an awed voice.

“If it is, we’re both in reaaaaally deep trouble,” I replied without thinking.

That made the other three turn to look at me, and I realized what I’d said just as Nevada took the head off the last of the zombies, saving me from having to say anything else.

She faced us then, standing over the carnage. “Well then! I guess they get the point now. You guys okay?”

“Ummm…” It took me a few seconds to find my voice, blushing in spite of myself. “Uhh, y-yes…”

Nevada was staring at us. “Thank gods. But what were you doing up here anyway? Why weren’t you in your dorms?”

“Yes,” another voice spoke, and we turned to find Professor Kohaku standing there, along with two of her security personnel, the headmistress, and Professor Carfried.

“I believe we’d all like to know the answer to that.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-06

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“When I got home with my dad, Ammon was gone,” I finished giving my story a couple hours later. “I checked the house he was staying in with Rose, but there was no sign of him or where he went.”

The room I was telling my story in was the same one that I had been interviewed by Runner Kine in after the peridle situation. Kine himself was even one of the people sitting across the wooden table from me listening intently to every word I said, though he wasn’t alone this time. Sitting on either side of the very tall, almost skeletal-thin man were Professor Dare and Professor Kohaku, the former of whom had seemed to be in a pretty good mood ever since I met up with her again after spending the hour with Miranda. I didn’t know what she and Hisao had talked about, but the blonde woman’s unconscious smile had only dimmed once I progressed enough in my explanation of what happened.

It wasn’t just me mechanically reciting the events, either. Each of the three adults had taken turns asking questions about not only the important parts of the story, but also seemingly inconsequential details like what color shirt Ammon had been wearing, or what kind of pizza we’d had.

The suspicious part of me figured they were trying to trip me up and see if I was leaving anything out, which I was, of course. The optimistic part (and the fact that I still had an optimistic part of myself after everything that had happened over the weekend was kind of a thrilling discovery, believe me) figured that it was meant to prompt more relevant and important details to come to mind as I focused.

Practical me figured it was a bit of both, and told the other two sides to be quiet.

“To reiterate and make certain we have this correct,” Tribald Kine spoke up after the three of them had exchanged glances. “You arrived home and interacted with a young boy named Ammon who had been living in the next door house for several weeks. Your Heretical Sense did not warn you that he wasn’t human, but you believe now that he attempted to use some sort of mind control ability on you, which failed. At some point, you left the house to visit with old friends and to walk around your hometown. When you returned, your father and the bystander woman this Ammon boy had been living with made an excuse to leave for the evening, citing medical issues with the woman’s father. They left you and Ammon in the house alone. At a certain point post-midnight, you entered the living room of the house and were attacked by mind-controlled bystanders who had been your coworkers at your previous job.”

The man fell silent then, looking up and waiting until I gave a quick nod. His eyes ran over me searchingly for another moment before he continued, his tone more thoughtful now. “During this time, the boy boasted to you that your father would shortly be murdering the bystander woman, going so far as to tell you the exact location in an attempt to torment you with the knowledge that you would not be able to stop what was going to happen. He then ordered the bystanders to hurt you. Fortunately, before they could fulfill this command, you managed to kick and squirm your way free and escape the house.”

Again, I nodded, and Runner Kine went on. “From there, you… borrowed the car of a friend and drove to the motel, arriving just in time to render your father unconscious before he could fulfill his orders. Ammon then used your phone, which you had lost in the process of all this, to call your father’s phone. He informed you that he would be ordering the local police force to murder innocent civilians as punishment for your escape and rescue of your father and the bystander woman. To prevent this, you drove to the police station and engaged with Ammon in an attempt to retrieve your phone in order to summon Heretic-assistance. In the process, however, your phone was lost and Ammon escaped.”

“Yes, sir,” I confirmed, glancing from the man to the other two to avoid making a suspicious amount of eye contact (which itself makes lying as obvious as avoiding all eye contract does) “That’s right.”

We went over more of it. I told them I didn’t know why Ammon’s power didn’t work on me, why he targeted me, or why he was immune to my Stranger sense. I asked about other Strangers being immune, thinking of Twister, and was told that it happened occasionally, for reasons that I’d learn in time.

When that was done, Professor Kohaku spoke up. “I do have one more question, Miss Chambers. While the deaths of the civilian bystanders are very tragic, the fact of the matter is that there were not nearly as many as there could have been. Looking at the number of people who were killed and comparing it to the number of deputies who simply woke up within their own vehicles with no memory of what had happened, the death toll should have been much higher than it was. Yet from your depiction of events, you had no contact with these deputies and did nothing to stop them. Which leads me to ask, who did?”

Looking that way, I forced myself to blink with as blank an expression as I could manage. “Well, I sort of thought it was you guys at first. Heretics who didn’t know who I was, or something. If it wasn’t you, maybe it was people from Eden’s Garden? I mean, we saw–”

In mid-sentence, I noticed two things. First and most obvious, the word ‘stop’ appeared in glowing, three foot tall letters in the middle of the table. The word pulsed once to grab my attention. Yet no one else reacted to it. Their eyes remained focused on me, as if the big glowing word wasn’t even there.

The second thing I noticed was Professor Dare. Her hands were clasped in front of her on her side of the table. Her left hand covered her right, blocking it from the view of the other two adults, but I could see her right index finger tracing along the wood as though she was writing something out.

“Miss Chambers? Are you all right?” Runner Kine asked gently. “What did you see, exactly?”

Professor Dare finished tracing with her finger, and the word ‘stop’ was replaced by ‘do not mention our meeting.’ She then met my gaze directly, her earlier smile gone as she simply nodded.

I took a second. When I’d met up with the professor again after leaving Miranda, we hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. A couple of other Runners were already there, waiting to investigate the situation, so we didn’t have any privacy. After we went through the portal to come back to school, Professor Kohaku had been waiting nearby to escort me up to this debriefing with Runner Kine. There hadn’t been an opportunity for Professor Dare to say anything private to me, like the fact that she didn’t want me to say anything about meeting up with a couple people from Eden’s Garden for some reason.

Right, some reason. Don’t be dumb, Flick. You know exactly why she didn’t want them to know. The rivalry between this place and Eden’s Garden was obviously so bad that finding out we’d had a pretty peaceful meeting with a couple of them would probably look pretty bad to certain people. Hell, for all I knew, it might even put Professor Dare’s job at risk. I didn’t know how seriously they took this stuff.

Besides, if it meant not having to argue with people about renewing my friendship with Miranda, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d been a little bit worried about just how that was going to go down.

In the end, I just shook my head. “Sorry, I was just gonna say that we saw how quickly you guys sent people in as soon as you found out what happened, and you were swamped all weekend with emergencies. Maybe Eden’s Garden was just quicker or—err, you know, they happened to send in a Heretic or two while it was happening.” It was a little bit of a lame correction, I had to admit, but hopefully it was good enough to pass. I was hoping that my awkward pause would be chalked up to being uncomfortable or worried about implying that Eden’s Garden was faster than Crossroads.

The three of them exchanged a short series of silent glances with one another before Runner Kine stood up a little abruptly, plucking his notebook up to put in his pocket. “I think that’s about it for now. I’ll go over what you’ve said and if I have any more questions, I know where to find you.”

Quickly, I raised my hand. “Actually, uh, Runner Kine? I had a couple things I wanted to ask you about. I mean, not related to this, but a private thing?” It was my chance to get more information out of the man, considering he’d been the one that directed me to that picture of my mother to begin with.

He paused, glancing at me before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to send me an e-mail with your questions. I’m sure you understand how busy we’ve been with everything. It’s lucky that I had time to stop by here at all. If it’s about anything that I can answer, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

He and Professor Kohaku were out the door a few seconds later, discussing something about revising the security and safety measures for any more students that left the school for any reason.

That left me with Professor Dare, who remained silent until the door had closed, then straightened up. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I would prefer that our interaction with Hisao and your friend remain off of the official record. While there is nothing outright forbidden about it, some would be concerned.”

I was pretty okay with that, considering how little I felt like being interrogated about my loyalties toward Miranda. “That’s okay,” I assured the woman. “But what did you and Hisao talk about?”

Professor Dare’s mouth opened, then shut. I saw the slightest hint of a blush touch her cheeks before she stood from the chair. “Nothing of particular relevance. He had no new information.”

Before I could ask anything else, she changed the subject. “On a serious note, Miss Chambers, you have been through a very traumatic experience. Even if your father does not remember what he almost did, you remember it all. So I want you to visit Klassin Roe for a few weeks. He’s our school therapist, who specializes in talking about this sort of thing with our students, bystander-kin in particular.”

“You’re sending me to a shrink?” I asked a bit blankly. “But you’re part of the great big secret magic school full of adventure and mystery. Are you even narratively allowed to know what therapy is?”

That earned me a smile as the woman shook her head. “I’ll set up your first appointment for Thursday evening, Miss Chambers. You and Mr. Roe can discuss the best time for further meetings there. For now, I suggest you meet up with the rest of your team and talk about what happened. I’m sure they’ll want to know.”

Nodding while straightening up, I asked, “So if you and Hisao didn’t really exchange much information, what did you guys do while you were waiting for Miranda and me to finish?”

Pivoting on her heel, Professor Dare strode to the nearby door. “As I said, nothing of importance. Now if you’ll excuse me, the headmistress will want to have a discussion about the situation.”

“But what did you guys–” I started, only to find myself speaking to a closed door.

“Boy,” I remarked to the suddenly empty room. “For people who wanted to ask me so many questions, they sure disappeared pretty damn fast as soon as I had a few of my own.”

*******

“Hey, there she is!” Sean waved easily at me from where he was lying on a towel on the beach a few minutes later. “How was your trip, Flick? Get any decent birthday presents?”

Sue me, I took a second to appreciate his toned form before answering. The guy was wearing little more than a pair of green swim trunks, and the way he was stretched out on the towel was… distracting.

Snapping myself out of it with a physical shake of my head, I managed, “Not exactly a real vacation.”

“What happened?” The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find a distraction on the other end of the spectrum. As good as Sean looked in his suit, Avalon in a bikini almost made me wonder if I had lesbian tendencies, because god damn. Between the two of them, they could probably effectively capture the attention of anyone, no matter where they were on the Kinsey scale.

Not that they were alone in that. Even then, I could see Sands and Columbus emerging from the water. Though neither completely filled out their respective suits quite as well as Avalon and Sean did (Sands would have had to pack in a couple extra cantaloupes in her case, considering her petite size extended there as well), they weren’t exactly slouches either.

It probably helped that, while none of the rest of the team had received quite as much of a stamina upgrade as I had for the death of the amarok, killing those chamrosh had given a bit of a boost. Enough that everyone had more energy during morning exercises, and were less wiped during breakfast.

“Flick!” Sands jumped over to embrace me. “You’re back! Did ya have fun? Get anything good?”

I returned the embrace briefly, knowing that what I had to ask her about might end up taking her out of the hugging mood considering the opinion she had expressed before about Eden’s Garden.

Then I laughed and pushed the girl away. “Ew! You just wanted to get my clothes all wet.” Raising a finger to point at Columbus, I warned, “You don’t even think about it. Sands already got me wet enoaaaaaahhh…. I’m not even gonna finish that statement because I just realized what I was saying.”

Both boys looked briefly disappointed while Avalon rolled her eyes. Columbus lamented, “I would’ve treasured that sentence for a long time.”

Sands, meanwhile, simply cackled with amusement before dropping onto the empty towel next to Sean. “Maybe you should just change and join us. The water’s great today and we’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Actually, I kind of need to talk about what happened while I was home,” I announced while trying not to fidget too much. “It’s important, but we should have everyone. Where’s Scout?”

“Library,” Sands replied. “I can shoot her a text if you want. But what’s wrong, are you okay?” she asked while already picking up her phone from the nearby pile of supplies, tapping at the buttons on it quickly.

I pushed back the doubt and insecurity I had. They were my team, my friends. It had been a long time since I really understood what that meant. But Miranda’s instant acceptance of my story and willingness to put herself into danger to find out anything she could, her desire to help me find my mother, had reminded me. If I wanted them to ever trust me, I needed to take the plunge and trust them first, even with something as important as this.

“Like I said,” I replied, “we should really talk about it with everyone here. But trust me, you guys need to hear this.”

“It’s about time I told you everything about what’s been going on this year.”

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Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discus smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.

Asenath.

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First Hunt 4-02

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“Let’s contain the giggles and gossip for just a few seconds here so I can talk, all right?”

The moment that Deveron said those words, all while continuing to flash that cocky and uncaring smirk, I immediately caught Avalon by the arm before she could throw herself at him. The muscles in her bicep flexed against my grip, and she turned her death glare from the boy to me until I released her. Still, it was enough of a delay that she wasn’t about to lose control completely and choke the prick.

And it gave Sean time to speak up, drawling a casual, “Well fine lil sweetness, if you insist. But only if you promise that we can do our hair up all nice and get some mani-pedis if we do a good job.”

Beside him, the metal dog made a soft little ruff noise of agreement, and Sean added, “Right, and Vulcan wants treats for not biting your ass for being such an unbelievable dick. Personally, I’d go with something jerky based because, let’s face it, your dick level is high enough to warrant the good stuff.”

We were standing outside what was apparently one of the portal rooms of the Pathmaker building, waiting for our turn to go through while Professor Kohaku and the Headmistress spoke quietly with each other a short distance away. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but the word ‘committee’ had been said multiple times, usually by the baroness and in a somewhat raised voice before she quieted.

The area we were in just looked like any ordinary office corridor to me. The floor was lightly carpeted and the walls were an off-white color. The door into the portal room was the only bit that stood out. It was a gleaming silver metallic color, and looked extremely durable. Beside it was was a black circle about half a foot in diameter that I couldn’t figure out the use of.

And speaking of things whose reason for existence I couldn’t fathom, Deveron was spinning his weapon around on one finger. It looked basically like a flintlock pistol, and as far as I could tell, that was his only weapon. Which, even setting aside his attitude, seemed kind of odd for someone whose track was based around exploration. Was a pistol really a good fit for the idea of going onto multiple unknown alien lands to face hostile creatures of any shape, size, and strength? Or did the annoying laziness of our team ‘mentor’ extend all the way into how little he took care of himself too?

Before he could respond to Sean, Deveron was interrupted by Professor Kohaku. She had approached silently before clearing her throat once she was right beside us. “Here are the rules that your team must follow throughout this hunt. First, the quarry that you are facing have been isolated away from bystanders. This will not always be the case, but for a first hunt, it’s more important for you to get the basics down. Later hunts will require you protect civilians from the very creatures you are hunting, even as those very bystanders may mistakenly believe that you are the aggressors. In this case, your hunt will be limited to only these targets, so long as the battle remains within the confines of the safe area. Should any of your quarry escape that space and proceed into bystander occupied territory, you will be notified and full Heretics will step in to ensure the civilian populace remains safe. You will not lose points for such an event, but you will not gain them either. No penalty, no bonus.”

She looked toward Sands, whose hand was up, and nodded. The other girl hesitated before asking, “You said targets, plural. So there’s more than one? Do we get to ask how many or what they are?”

Professor Kohaku, proper as always, gave a very faint smile before responding. “Yes and no. I can tell you that there are five secondary targets and one primary target. You will receive twenty points for each of the secondary targets you dispatch and one hundred for the primary. Each other team has had their points divided accordingly to add up to two hundred total. You may earn both penalties and bonuses to alter that score further. You may at any time ask what creatures you are facing if you cannot identify them, but doing so will detract ten percent from your final score. However, should you fail to eliminate any of your targets specifically because you did not know what you were facing and did not ask after having the opportunity, then twenty percent will be removed from your final score on top of that failure.”

Right. They were trying to encourage us to identify the monsters on our own (particularly on future hunts, thus pushing us to study a lot), but also penalizing the idea of taking that too far. It was worth some extra points to try to identify what the things were, but not worth waiting too long to ask for help.

Beside me, Sands whispered under her breath, “Vanessa’s team probably adores her right now.”

I coughed, realizing how right she was. Thanks to that absurd memory and her habit of reading ahead, the blonde girl could probably immediately identify any Stranger her team ran into.

The Security adviser went on. “You will have one hour from the moment you pass through the portal to eliminate all six targets. The area that you are being dispatched to is a forest surrounding a lake in southern Colorado. There are a half dozen cabins spaced randomly around the lake, along with various other camping and outdoors related buildings. Civilians have already been evacuated from the area, and the territory surrounding the lake will be empty save for wild animals and the Strangers themselves. If at any point you wish to stop, request the Stranger identification, or for any other reason wish to speak with a faculty member, you may simply start talking. We will hear you, as we are monitoring.”

“What about him?” Columbus jerked a thumb toward Deveron. “Is he considered part of our team?”

“He may be a resource if you wish him to be,” Professor Kohaku answered simply. “To start, he will simply accompany you and observe. You will receive no penalty for requesting that he attempt to identify the targets for you, and no penalty for requesting his aid in combat. However, should you not ask for his information, you will gain a five percent bonus upon elimination of the targets. Do not request his physical aid, and you will gain another five percent bonus. As before, should you fail specifically due to a refusal to accept such aid or information, those will become five percent penalties instead. If you are capable of completing this hunt without aid, you will gain more points. But if you need the aid and fail to accept it, you will lose more points than if you had simply asked for help.”

There were no other questions (besides my own worry about whether my heart was going to literally pound its way out of my chest), so Professor Kohaku stepped around us and moved to the door. She pressed her fist against the black circle on the wall and held it there. After a couple of seconds, her hand sank into the black spot like it was tar. The woman allowed her arm to be taken all the way to the elbow before it stopped and held there. Then she explained, “This security system will identify me. If I am not allowed access to this room, it will not release my arm until building security can be dispatched to handle the situation. Most of the time, such an event is a result of either being in the wrong place, or a mix-up in the system, and nothing goes wrong. Occasionally, however, more strict action is required. In such cases, the system may inject my arm with a powerful sedative, remove it entirely, or extract blood to be deposited into a pre-built spell artifact which will allow me to be tracked if I escape this position. In certain cases, the extracted blood from these security devices may even be used as evidence at a trial. It is very difficult to properly claim that you were not the one who attempted to infiltrate the secure facility when your blood and its contained genetics is literally on display.”

The black circle turned white then, and the professor withdrew her arm before reaching out to open the door. “Proceed inside. You may think of the portal room as an airlock. Step in and wait for this door to close and lock itself. Mr. Adams will then initiate the second door. Over the following sixty seconds, the air pressure and temperature within the room will shift to match the area that you will be arriving in. Once it’s done, the second door will open and you may all proceed. When you arrive by the lake, your mission will begin and the timer will count down. After one hour, any remaining targets will be eliminated and your points will be tallied. Should you eliminate all six targets before the hour is up, you will be brought back here to wait for the rest of the teams to complete their missions.”

When no one else asked anything, the professor withdrew a box from her pocket that looked entirely too large for where it had come from. Popping it open, she held the box out, allowing us to see the handful of small dark blue pins inside. They were about the size of my thumbnail, each perfectly circular with a small white dot in the middle of a blue background. “Each of you take one pin and secure it somewhere to your clothing. It will allow you to communicate with your team. Say ‘team’ and they will all hear what you say. Speak specific members names before your message, and only those members will hear it. The system will not update who you are sending your message to if you speak a name in the middle of a message. If Sands is speaking to Flick and asks ‘where is Columbus’, the message will continue to be sent to Flick. If Sands wishes to add Columbus to their conversation, she must stop speaking for a moment, then say ‘Flick and Columbus’ separately before continuing her message. The pins will allow only their wearer to hear what is sent. Another person may be standing directly beside you, and they will not hear the given message unless they are wearing their own pin and were included as a recipient.”

She waited for each of us to take a pin, then gestured for us to head in with a simple, “Good luck.”

After taking in a long, nervous breath, I accompanied the rest of my team through the doorway and into what looked an awful lot like a doctor’s waiting room. There were a couple of couches and chairs, a table full of old magazines and a few paperback books, and soft classical music was playing in the background. Across the room, I could see the second door with its own black circle waiting.

“So the upshot here is that we have no idea what we’re facing yet,” Columbus spoke up while carefully attaching the pin to the underside of his rumpled uniform lapel. “But if we want to sacrifice points, we could just ask and start with the advantage of knowing what we’re walking into. Wouldn’t that be better than stumbling in blind, even if we do end up losing the chance at maximum points?”

“Not yet,” Avalon replied in a firm voice. “We see if we can identify them first, then go from there.”

Columbus blinked. “Really? I didn’t take you for someone that cares about how many points we get.”

“I don’t. Fuck the points,” she shot back. “The only way I could physically care less about the points is if they were being handed out by people whom I find so utterly pointless that I have erased all memory of their existence from my brain in order to spare myself from all the time I would have spent trying to understand why they were ever born to begin with.” She finished with, “So no, I don’t care about the points. But I do care about what the point of this exercise is, and that’s to prepare us. We try to identify these Strangers on the fly. If we can’t, I don’t give a shit if we need to ask for help. Full Heretics do that all the time. But only after we give it a shot and attempt to identify them ourselves.”

“As long as you princesses have that worked out,” Deveron put in while stepping to the other door. “I’ll just go ahead and…” He had raised his hand by that point and held it close to the black circle, but didn’t move further. For several long seconds, the boy just stood there doing nothing but staring at it.

“You’ll go ahead and… what?” Sands gestured for him to continue. “Stand there some more?”

It didn’t seem like he’d heard her at first. He gave no response beyond the slightest lift of his chin. I saw his hand tremble just a bit, almost like he was afraid of what was going to happen when he touched that circle. But before I could say anything, Deveron gave a full-body shudder as if shaking it off before pushing his fist up against it. His tone was as uncaring as ever as he replied to Sands, “In a rush, babe?”

Before Sands could retort, her twin caught hold of her hand and tugged her away with a shake of her head. Apparently Scout had caught the brief look of fear before the boy could disguise it as well.

Over the next minute, no one said much. I don’t know about everyone else on the team, but I was too nervous to do much chatting. I had no idea how this was going to go, but I’d never so much as hunted deer before, let alone actual monsters who could actually hunt us back. Yeah, the real Heretics would be watching to make sure nothing went wrong, but there were always accidents. And who could say that things wouldn’t go wrong too quickly for the faculty to intervene? They were good, but I doubted they were perfect. This, as much as the danger was downplayed, was not something to take lightly.

Throughout the portal’s cycling time, the air had grown a bit more chilly. By the time the second door opened, I was glad that we were going to be moving around a lot. A lakeside cabin in October wasn’t exactly the warmest place in the world to take an evening stroll around, even with our uniform jackets.

I felt worse for Avalon and Scout, since they were both wearing the skirt version of the uniform. Neither complained though, and a minute later we had all passed through the open doorway and were standing on the edge of the lake that Professor Kohaku had mentioned. Behind us, the doorway we had just come through led into what looked like an outhouse, making my nose wrinkle.

“Your show now, ladies and less lady-like ladies.” Deveron informed us while stepping aside. He was still spinning that simple-looking pistol on one finger. “Give a shout when you need me to save you from yourselves.”

Avalon pointedly ignored him. Instead, she focused on the quiet twin. “Scout, can you get us a view from up high so we can see what the layout looks like?” For once, her voice was actually more gentle than I remembered her talking to anyone.

Scout nodded silently before hoisting her enormous sniper rifle into position. She held the gun to her shoulder and leaned back to aim up high over the lake, sighting in through the scope. Her left hand moved to flick a switch near the front of the weapon, and then moved to a dial a little further back, adjusting it by a few turns. Finally, she pulled the trigger.

I barely saw the puff of nearly-invisible energy leave the barrel, and I had been watching for it. In the distance, there was the slightest flicker of light in the air far above the middle of the lake that lasted for a split second. Then there was nothing to indicate that anything had happened.

I knew better by that point, however, and stepped back a few feet behind Scout along with the others. We watched for a second before the quiet girl pressed another switch on her weapon. The butt of the rifle began to glow faintly, and then a small screen was projected into the air behind it, like a hologram. The image showed a view of us from the point of view of that spot above the lake that had been shot, where that flicker of light had very briefly been.

Scout, who was seeing the same thing we were through her scope, slowly turned one of the weapon’s dials. The view gradually rotated, moving away from where we were to give a birds-eye view of the surrounding area. We could see every cabin, all the grounds surrounding the cabins, the few boats that had been left on the water or tied up at various small docks, all of it.

Essentially, one of several things that Scout’s rifle was able to do was create small portals in the air, exactly where it was targeted. Those portals could only be traveled through by the gun’s own projectiles. They could also only be seen through the weapon’s scope, or through the hologram the gun projected so that others besides the shooter could watch. For everyone else, the air looked as normal as ever beyond that initial slight flicker of light.

“Wait,” I spoke up quickly as the view continued to rotate. “Go back to that last cabin, the one on the opposite side of the lake.”

The other girl obliged, and the view was centered back on the building where I thought I’d seen a hint of movement through the curtains. Sure enough, something moved past again, just a hint of motion.

“Closer,” Avalon ordered. “We need to see what that is.”

Again, Scout did as she was instructed. Her fingers worked the controls of the rifle, and the view through the projected hologram moved a bit to show the area a few yards away from the window. I saw a small yellow dot appear as the girl touched the dial she had used earlier, and as she adjusted it, the dot moved on the screen without moving the scope view. She was sighting in exactly where she wanted the shot to go.

Then the quiet girl pulled the trigger once more. This time, the shot left the gun, traveled to the first spot in the air where she had created that small portal that was allowing us to see out over the lake, traveled through that portal, and ended up on the other side of the lake right where she had placed the yellow dot.

If she wanted to, Scout could lay on the roof of one building and aim through the window of another building across the street, creating a scope-portal inside the room there. Then she could aim through that first scope-portal, turn her view to face an open doorway within the room and shoot a second scope-portal into the attached corridor. From there, she could attach several more line-of-sight scope-portals until she reached a man in his office on a completely different floor. Once she had them all lined up, she could switch to lethal shots, aim through the various connected portals, and fire. As long as nothing happened to step into its path while it was traveling, her bullet would pass through each linked scope-portal before finally embedding itself in her target.

Yeah, the things that Heretics could do kind of scared me sometimes.

Through the second scope-portal, we were able to see the window a bit more clearly. This time, it was obvious that there were things inside. Hulking figures that moved back and forth, obviously agitated.

“That’s… definitely not humanoid,” Columbus put in, squinting as what looked like a wing smacked against the window. “A really big bird? But… I think there’s a tail…”

“Zoom in a little more.” Avalon instructed. Scout complied, and we all leaned closer, trying to make out what it was that we were seeing.

Abruptly, the figure that had been pushing its way back and forth leapt fully into view, lunging up against the glass of the window with such suddenness that Columbus, Sean, and I all yelped and flinched.

“What the fuck is that thing?” Columbus demanded. “It looks like a… dog with a bird head and really big wings.”

It was Sands who answered. “The Persians called them Chamrosh. You know how the Greeks had their Griffin with the whole half-eagle, half-lion thing? Think of these things as like… their little cousins. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Like part chihuahua, part cockatoo. Or a doberman with the head and wings of an owl. Whatever works.”

“They usually hunt in packs,” Avalon added. “So these are probably the five that were mentioned. The sixth thing… I’m not sure.”

“Well, let’s deal with these ones since we know where they are, then go from there,” Sean suggested. “One step at a time?”

“Right…” Avalon waited a moment, then straightened. “Mason, you stay here and cover your sister just in case. Let us know if anything happens.”

Sands looked like she wanted to object to being left behind, but forced it down and gave a reluctant nod.

“Meanwhile,” my raven-haired roommate continued, “the rest of us will circle around from both sides. Porter, you’re with me. Gerardo, stay with Chambers. One melee focus alongside one ranged focus. Once we’re close enough to cut off their escape or counter-attack, Scout will take the first good shot she gets. As soon as she does, we move in because they’ll come tearing out of there to look for what’s attacking them.”

There was a general murmur of agreement, and we broke apart. Sean snapped his fingers, grinning down at his metallic companion. “Hey, boy, you ready to go show these wannabes what a real monster dog can do?” Vulcan gave a proud woof, and Sean patted his head. “That’s what I thought. Let’s do it.”

He gestured to make sure I was ready, and then the two of us started to walk around the side of the lake. I moved alongside the boy, eyes moving constantly. Every shadow made me almost jump, and I couldn’t help but wonder what other thing was here besides these bird-dog monsters.

Whatever it was, I just hoped we would see it before it saw us.

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First Hunt 4-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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