Professor Mason

Winter Wonderland 18-01

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“And after a week in Rome, we’re gonna go up to Germany and see the old nuckelavee massacre memorials.”

Sands, who had been going on for awhile by that point about all the things that she and Scout were going to do with their father over the holiday break, blinked sidelong at me. “Uh, Flick? You okay?”

No. No, I wasn’t. There was so much I wanted to say to both of them about what I had found out. But I still wasn’t willing to put them through that right before they went on vacation. That wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I gave an awkward shrug and smiled apologetically at both Sands and Scout, who was standing nearby while giving me a curious look. “Sorry,” I murmured. “Just thinking about going home.”

It was the next day, Saturday morning. I’d spent most of the previous night walking around the school grounds with Wyatt, talking to him about… well, everything. And now, in a short while, I’d be heading home for the winter break. Which meant three whole weeks away from Crossroads. I honestly wasn’t sure how that was going to go. Part of me had been afraid that Ruthers and the rest of the Committee would swoop in at the last second to tell me that it was too dangerous for me to be away for that long, with the Fomorians out there. Supposedly Gaia and Dare had convinced them that the immediate threat had been dealt with since the Fomorian who had known about us was killed. But I didn’t exactly trust that to last forever. Every noise I heard, I thought it would be someone telling me to stay on the island.

“Oh…” Sands looked a little abashed. “Dude, I’m sorry. Going back and having Christmas with your dad while you know your mom is…” She winced, lowering her head briefly before putting her hand out on my arm. “It sucks. I know that’s a stupid, fucking inadequate way to put it, but it does. I—I’m sorry you can’t tell your dad the truth, Flick. I mean—I’m sorry he wouldn’t remember or believe you. It’s–” She stopped talking, looking ashamed for a moment that she couldn’t find the right words to say.

And that, of course, didn’t help my own feelings of shame for how I felt about her father. She was trying to help, and all I could do was think about how angry the thought of the man she loved most in the world made me. It felt like lying to her. Fuck, was there no way to get through this without hurting her? Either I didn’t tell her about it and hurt her by keeping it secret, or I hurt her relationship with her father by telling her what he had done. Which just felt… vindictive. Fuck, she was right. This sucked.

“Thanks,” I finally managed to get out while meeting her gaze. The next bit I could actually say with complete truthfulness. “I hope you guys have a really good trip. It sounds fun, going all over Europe.”

Sands brightened and started to explain more about all the stuff they were going to do, the moment of awkward seriousness fading. Scout, however, continued to watch me with a somber, yet curious expression that made me think that she knew there was still something I wasn’t telling them about.

Before I could find anything else to say, however, I felt someone approaching. Well, okay, the truth was that I could sense the clothes the person was wearing as it entered the range of the item-sensing power I’d inherited from fighting the skeletblineists. It was something that I’d noticed wasn’t always active. If I wasn’t thinking about it, I wouldn’t constantly know about absolutely everything that was in range. But when something or someone new that I wasn’t expecting entered my range, it tended to warn me. Which was convenient.

At least it seemed like that would make it hard to sneak up on me. Unless the person was completely naked at the time, in which case, ew. And clearly that would mean that I’d have whole new problems.

Turning slightly at the feel of the clothes and shoes approaching, I found myself looking up at the man who was responsible for my conversation with the twins being so awkward and confusing: their father.

Professor Mason stood there. As always, I thought he looked more like a football player than a teacher. He was tall (at least a couple inches past six feet), with a heavy, muscular build and dark blond (almost brown) hair that reached his shoulders. It was normally tied back into a ponytail, but at the moment it was worn loose. He actually looked a lot like Christian Kane if the actor had been a few inches taller.

“Hey, girls,” the man greeted his daughters with a smile before his attention turned to me. Something uncertain crossed his expression then before he nodded. “Morning, Flick. You ready for a vacation?”

Words sprang to mind and inched their way toward the tip of my tongue. None were all that smart or nice, and a few probably would have resulted in a lot more problems for all of us. So I clamped down on it and offered the man as much of a smile as I could. “Sure, though it kinda sounds like you guys are gonna be the ones that have all the fun. I mean, a European trip? I’ve always wanted to see Europe.”

The man gave a slight smile, hand gesturing acceptingly. “Believe me, you’ll get your chance. Hell, if nothing else, maybe you can come with the twins for a couple weeks over the summer if they wanna go back.”

Wait, was he offering to take me with his girls over summer vacation? I was confused. Wasn’t this the same guy who had been working to have Sands and Scout taken off my team and away from me because he was afraid that being around me was too dangerous? Was he just saying this as a completely empty gesture, or… I didn’t know what else. He seemed pretty sincere, but then, what else could it be?

Luckily, Sands interrupted before I had to find a response. “Well, duh! Of course we’ll wanna go back, old man.” Giving her dad a punch in the arm, she grinned at me. “See? Told you Dad was the best.”

Swallowing slightly, I managed something approaching a smile, weak as it was. “You’re pretty lucky.”

For a moment, Professor Mason simply rubbed both his daughters’ heads, smiling faintly down at them. Then he glanced to me before giving the girls a little push. “Listen, could you two give Flick and me a few minutes alone here?” He shrugged easily and stage-whispered, “Just private teacher-type stuff.”

The twins both blinked at each other for a brief moment before looking toward me. “You good, Flick?” Sands asked, sounding somehow strangely uncertain about the idea of leaving me with her father.

In spite of myself and my hesitation (and deep, troubling thoughts about the man), I nodded. “Sure, I’ll try to catch up with you one more time before we all take off, but in case I don’t, have a great trip.”

Both of them moved over to give me a quick hug, Scout holding on longer while leaning up to whisper in my ear very quietly. “It’s okay.” Then she patted my arm before moving away with her sister.

That left me standing in front of Professor Mason. For a few seconds, the man just stood there looking at me, like he was waiting to see if I said anything first. When I just remained silent, he let out a long, low breath. “Flick,” he started slowly as though testing out the words. “I think I owe you an apology.”

Well, that made me blink in confusion. Of all the things I’d expected to hear… “Err, an apology, sir?”

He nodded, his eyes still not leaving mine. “Yeah. I don’t know if you umm… I don’t know what you’ve heard. But I um–” The man paused, looking distinctly uncomfortable for a few seconds before managing to push on, stating as flatly as possible, “I’ve been worried about my daughters being on the same team as you, Flick. Well, the same team as you and Avalon. You two… this whole year you’ve been attracting a lot of trouble, a lot of really dangerous attention. And I know, that’s not exactly rare around here. Believe me, there’s plenty of students besides you guys that have their own problems.”

Before I could say anything in response to that, the man pushed on. “But, somehow, the stuff that’s coming after you two, it just seems…” He breathed in and then let it out again. “It seems more real, more dangerous. And I just—I’ve been trying to get my girls away from that next semester. Not because I don’t care if you’re hurt, or if anyone that replaced them would be hurt, but because… they’re my daughters. I didn’t really focus on anything else. All I could think about was protecting my kids.”

Folding his arms across his chest, the man looked away for a moment while clearly gathering himself. His voice was soft and thoughtful. “I haven’t always made the best decisions, even when I thought it was the right thing to do. Sometimes when you care so much about protecting the people you care about, it–” He stopped talking then, grimacing for a moment before looking straight at me. “The point is, taking Sands and Scout away from your team would be wrong. They’re your friends, and… and I’m not going to ruin that for my own peace of mind. I’m not going to throw someone else into danger just to make myself feel better. You—they’re your team. Just–” Taking in a breath before letting it out, the man looked briefly emotional before managing to control it. “Just be careful, and keep each other safe.”

It took me a second, but I eventually managed to make myself nod. “Yes, sir. Of course I’ll help keep Sands and Scout safe, just like they help keep me safe. They’re my friends. We protect each other.”

Before the man could say anything else in response to that (and before I could manage to work my way through my complete confusion and uncertainty about what was going on), my eyes caught sight of Professor Dare making her way toward us. Her eyes watched me briefly as if checking to make sure I was okay with the conversation before she spoke up. “Liam, Miss Chambers, is everything all right?”

Professor Mason glanced to me before giving me a slight nod. “Yeah,” He murmured. “Everything’s fine.” His hand found my shoulder, squeezing slightly. “I meant what I said before, Miss Chambers. If you want, and if you get your dad’s permission, we’d love to have you come with us this summer.”

“Thank you, sir.” I met his gaze, steadily refusing that quiet voice in the back of my mind that still wanted to see the look on his face if I flat out asked if he thought tattling about my mother’s friendship with Alters was a good idea after all the problems it had caused. “I hope you guys have a great trip.”

Then the man was leaving, jogging to catch up with his daughters. As he left, Professor Dare moved closer to me. Her hand found my arm while she looked after Professor Mason, and she touched something in her pocket (my skeleblineist power told me it was a round, mostly smooth stone) before asking in a low, confidential tone, “Are you really okay, Flick? Did he say anything— do anything-”

“It’s okay,” I assured her, even though I was still mostly confused as to what had prompted all of that. “He just wanted to come tell me that he wasn’t going to take Sands and Scout off my team after all.”

Professor Dare raised an eyebrow at that, her eyes curious as she looked that way briefly. “He’s not?”

“Apparently.” I shrugged helplessly before looking over at the woman. “I mean—um, sorry, Professor, did you need something?” Realizing belatedly, I started a bit. “Oh! I called my dad last night and asked him about having a teacher visit. He-uh-he didn’t actually find it that weird. Which I think says more about me than it does about him or you. But anyway, any time you wanna come over for dinner and meet Asenath, it should be okay. That is—you know, if you still wanted to do that. But if not, I’ll just-”

“Flick,” Professor Dare smiled. “Calm down. Breathe. Of course I’ll visit. I want to meet Tiras’s daughter. I have your phone number. I’ll call and set it up as soon as I see how things are going, okay?”

After I nodded, she went on. “I didn’t come to talk about that. There’s something I want to give you.”

“Give me?” I echoed, blinking at her. “You don’t have to give me a present or anything, Professor.”

Chuckling at that, Dare shook her head. “It’s not exactly a present, Flick. Think of it as… a bit of extra protection. Just in case you need it.” She nodded toward me. “May I see your staff for a moment?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Reaching into my little container, I pulled the staff out and offered it to the woman.

Accepting the weapon with a nod of gratitude, Professor Dare turned it over in her hands. Her expression was curious as she examined the thing. “Nevada upgraded this for you, didn’t she?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I quickly nodded. “She connected it to my sand container. And made it turn into a bow.”

Glancing up to me, Dare paused. Her eyes seemed to search mine for a moment before she smiled faintly. “Good. Every little bit helps. And speaking of little bit.” Sliding the staff down to get at one end, the woman took a black marker from her pocket and showed it to me. “This isn’t a normal marker. It’s something Heretics call a ‘field-engraver.’ Basically, it’ll let you put spells that actually require a written component on your weapons or anything else that might be a bit hard to actually write on. Or when you don’t want the writing to be permanent. Since you probably don’t want a bunch of useless writing filling up your staff after the spell’s used up. Once you activate it, the writing will disappear.”

After explaining that much, she took a minute to carefully draw out an elaborate design toward one end of my staff, showing me as she went. It looked like a circle with a triangle around it, then three squiggly lines leading out from the middle of each side of the triangle. In the spaces between each of those squiggly lines, she drew an angled equals sign, all pointing in the same direction. At the point above and to the right of the whole thing (where the equals signs were all pointing), she drew something that looked like an upside down pitchfork with an infinity symbol drawn around the handle.

Once she had finished, Dare ran her thumb over it before looking at me, her expression somber. “If you touch this here, right on the infinity symbol, and invest enough power into it while saying the words that I’ll give you, your weapon will be able to harm incorporeal creatures for about fifteen minutes.”

I blinked once, then again while my eyes snapped from the spell to Dare. “You mean incorporeal, like-”

“Like ghosts,” she confirmed. “Listen, from what you said, I don’t think Fossor is going to do anything. I don’t think he’ll come after you. Not yet, anyway. But just in case… use it if you have to, all right? When you get back, we’ll make sure you learn how to do it yourself. It’s advanced magic, but you’re already starting to learn that from Gaia anyway. Again, only in an emergency, all right? If something happens and you can get away, don’t stand there and fight just because you have this. Use it to get away.”

Swallowing, I took the staff back as she held it out to me. “I—yes, Professor. I understand. Trust me, I don’t have any intention of being that stupid.”

Dare took a few more minutes to teach me the words to the spell. What she’d done was basically almost exactly what Gaia had done with the animal spell. She did most of it herself and just left the actual last second casting part to me, like preparing the gun in every way except pulling the trigger.

By the time she was satisfied that I had the words down pat, Avalon had joined us, standing off to the side while watching silently. Dare took a few more seconds to remind me that she’d call to see about dinner, then laid her hand on the top of my head. “Flick,” she said my name softly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else. But in the end, she just murmured, “Have a nice holiday. You deserve it.”

Then she left, and Avalon and I stood there for a few seconds in silence. My roommate just waited, arms folded while she stared at me expectantly.

“So,” I finally managed, “Three weeks apart, huh? I bet you’ll be glad to have the room to yourself. Think you’ll be able to resist selling off all my stuff or remodeling everything while I’m gone?”

For what had to be a solid thirty seconds, Avalon didn’t say anything. I trailed off from my awkward teasing, and she just continued to stare at me. Her mouth opened once before shutting, and it looked like she was struggling with something. Finally, however, she pointed to the staff in my hand. “Good, you’re ready.”

“Ready?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly.

“You didn’t think I was going to let you go without one more training session, did you?” The other girl gave me a hard look before pivoting on her heel to walk away. “We’ve still got an hour before you leave. Time to try to whip you into shape one more time.”

My mouth opened, but she interrupted without looking back. “Don’t say it, Chambers. Just follow me.”

Closing my mouth, I smiled just a little bit while I watched Avalon walk ahead of me. Then I followed.

Spending my last hour at Crossroads letting my roommate beat the crap out of me? Yeah, that sounded fun.

And the fact that I wasn’t being in any way sarcastic about that might’ve been one of the strangest parts of the entire semester.

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A Learning Experience 17-06

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“You guys do know that this isn’t really fair, right?” I half-joked while holding my staff in front of myself as I looked first to Avalon in front of me, then over my shoulder toward where Deveron had positioned himself. Both held wooden staffs and wore nearly identical smirks. “Both of you at once?”

It was Friday, the next morning. Or rather, a few hours later. I’d finished my training with Gaia and slept for an hour and a half (clearly showing how exhausted I’d been), waking in time for this training.

Deveron just shook his head when I looked at him. “You think the people you’ll be fighting care about fair, Flick?” Spinning the staff expertly in his hands, he added, “You’re lucky we’re all using the same weapon. Eventually, you’re gonna have to figure out how to fight both of us with different weapons and adjust your style. And once you get used to that, we’ll see about adding in more people. Like Shiori.”

“He’s right,” Avalon spoke up before I could respond, and I turned back that way to find her tossing her own staff from hand to hand. “You want to get better, you have to keep making your training harder.”

“In that case,” I replied, “how many people are you training against at this point to keep improving?”

Her response was an almost feral smile. “How many people are in our class?” Sobering then, she clarified, “I train with the older students whenever I have a chance. And,” her gaze flicked to Deveron. “Now that we have a mentor who isn’t a completely meaningless waste of space, he helps too.”

Deveron snorted at that, bowing his head in acceptance. “I deserve that. And probably even more. But I’d deserve a lot worse if I didn’t push your training, Flick. You need to get better, so let’s get to it.”

Holding up a hand, I quickly put in, “Wait, I wanted to ask. Have you guys ever used that, um, the animal projection thing?” It took a moment to remember what Gaia had called it. “The um, theriangelos spell?” I’d already told them about how it had gone, and how it had been all I could do to focus on seeing through my fox’s eyes without getting a headache. Gaia had said that it would take time and practice to do it properly, and that eventually I’d be able to easily switch my attention back and forth.

Avalon shook her head, spinning her staff behind her back and to the front again. “No,” she replied simply. “I haven’t done any extra magic. Eden’s Garden starts learning it this year, so I’m not ahead of you on that. Actually,” the girl added with a tiny smirk, “I guess that means you’re ahead of me.”

Flushing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “I’m sure Gaia’d teach you if you ask her.” At that point, I was positive that Gaia would do almost anything if Avalon asked her to. “She really cares about you a lot.”

I actually managed to catch sight of the other girl blushing slightly before she got it under control, clearing her throat as she focused past me toward Deveron. “What about you?” she asked, pointedly.

“Yeah, I’ve done it,” he replied. Eyeing the enchanted coin that was lying nearby to ensure our privacy, he added, “Jos thought it’d be a good way to communicate when we couldn’t be with each other.”

Intrigued by that, I asked, “So what was your animal thing? What is the ‘spirit animal’ of Deveron Adams?” Smiling a bit, I added, “And just to warn you, if you say ‘sloth’, I might just die laughing.”

Snorting clearly in spite of himself at that, Deveron shook his head. “No, it’s not a sloth. It’s–” He paused then, obviously bracing himself for something before actually answering. “It’s a weasel.”

I blinked once, then again. A gradual smile rose on my face as I fought to control the burst of laughter that tried to come out. It escaped in the form of a snicker. “Weasel. A weasel? That—you know, not that long ago, I would’ve said that a weasel was completely appropriate for you. Almost as much as a sloth.”

“Laugh it up,” he retorted, through his own self-depreciating smile. “Go on, get it out of your system.”

Behind me, Avalon started to hum softly. It was a familiar song, one that was right on the tip of my tongue for a second before my eyes widened. “Pop goes the weasel!” I blurted. Then I really started to laugh. “Oh my god. Oh god. Mom. Mom’s a monkey! Mom’s animal is a monkey!” Half-doubling over from my own snickering, I recited, “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel!”

Poor Deveron shook his head slowly, groaning as his hand waved. “Yeah, yeah, it’s hilarious. Trust me, your mom thought it was the best thing ever. It was–” He sobered a little, and I saw the emotion in his eyes as he straightened and swallowed. “It probably sounds stupid, but the song was… important to us.”

My own head shook at that, and I put a hand up to touch the man’s arm. “It doesn’t sound stupid,” I assured him, though my voice cracked just a little as I spoke. “I’ve got stuff with… with Mom, memories that other people would probably think were silly or dumb. But they’re not. They’re… her.”

For a moment, he met my gaze steadily and silently before nodding. “They’re her,” Deveron agreed quietly, yet firmly. “And those are the memories that we have to hold onto, until we get her back.”

I nodded at that without breaking his gaze, echoing his words just as firmly. “Until we get her back.”

Even as my own hand stayed on Deveron’s arm, I felt Avalon touch my shoulder. It was a light brushing of her fingers, but it felt like so much more just because she was the one reaching out. Her voice was soft. “If you want to save your mother when the time comes,” she reminded me, “we need to practice.”

Slowly, I lowered my hand away from Deveron and nodded. “Right, practice.” Stepping back, I flipped the staff around and looked first to my roommate, then to my sort-of stepfather. “Let’s do this then.”

******

“Well, I suppose since this is our very last class of the semester and you’ve already finished your tests, we should do something interesting with the time that we still have left, hmm?”

The man talking was Professor Stephen Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. He was the guy who taught us all about the lands, areas, and even entire planets that Bystanders either didn’t know about or had forgotten. He’d promised that we’d get to Atlantis next semester after people wouldn’t stop asking.

Professor Vandel was a short man, even shorter than me and almost as short as Sands and Scout. I would’ve been surprised if he topped out at much more than five foot two or so. He looked like he was in his mid-late thirties, with red hair that he wore in a ponytail and a neatly trimmed goatee. Every time I’d seen him this semester, the man was wearing a long-sleeved black and white checkered shirt with a bolo tie and crisp blue jeans that looked brand new. I wasn’t sure he even owned any different clothes. And most striking of all, he wore an actual monocle over his right eye. Yeah, an honest to God monocle.

“Yes,” he replied to himself while I and the rest of the class watched. “Something interesting indeed.” Straightening, he moved from the whiteboard where he’d been erasing some of the details about the test we’d just finished. “Most of you have asked, at one point or another, where we are.” Spreading his hands, he elaborated. “That is, where exactly this island is located. Would you like to talk about that?”

After a chorus of agreement and nods, Professor Vandel smiled before launching into his story. “Good. Well then, let’s start by talking about our founder, Hieronymus Bosch. He was, as you all know by now, not only a genius inventor and one of the most powerful and gifted magic-users in the history of our world, but also a painter. Of course, it’s that last skill that Bystanders know him for, but we shouldn’t forget it either. Because it’s his painting skill that brought to where we are today, to this very island.”

“Wait, what?” Malcolm spoke up from across the room, brow knit in confusion as he shook his head. “The hell does painting have to do with this island? What’d he do, sell a bunch of them to pay for it?”

Professor Vandel shook his head with a slight smile. “No, Malcolm, he didn’t sell paintings to pay for this place. This place, this island that we live and learn on? It is a painting, one of his very best works.”

That made everyone start talking, questions blurting out from every corner of the room while Vandel held his hand up and waited for people to quiet down. Once he could get a word in edgewise, the man continued. “Let’s just go with one question at a time. How about you first?” He nodded toward Koren.

She was staring at the man, eyes just as wide as I was sure mine were. “What the hell do you mean, ‘the island is a painting’? What does that even mean? We can’t be in a painting, it’s a painting. That’s just—just–” The other girl floundered a bit, hands waving dramatically before blurting, “Crazy. It’s crazy.”

Chuckling a little bit at that, Professor Vandel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I suppose it should sound unhinged. But then, most of what we talk about in every class of this school doesn’t seem exactly sane, does it?” He started to pace a bit then. “Let me explain. Maybe more details will help. The island wasn’t simply ‘created’ by a painting, no. That would be fairly ludicrous. As powerful as he was, Bosch was not a god. After all, there are living things here on this island, and in the surrounding water.

“You see, this island already existed on Earth. It was in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and a bit southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That was the island where Bosch and those early first Crossroads Heretics chose to construct the Heretical Edge and the school that would train their students. In those days, being on an island in the middle of nowhere was safe enough. Ships could be drawn away from the island. There were enchantments that ensured Bystanders would leave us alone.”

Halting his pacing about halfway up the row of seats that I was in, Vandel turned slightly to look over the class before he continued. “But Bosch knew that Strangers would never stop trying to invade our sanctuary, and that eventually the amount of energy required to maintain our protection against their invasion would be too much. He knew that there had to be a solution that would ensure this school and the Heretical Edge itself would be kept safe. For months, he searched for the best way to do that, to protect his legacy. And in the end, he found it in one of his longest, greatest past-times: his painting.

“Through extensive magic and more power than I believe any of us has ever witnessed, our great founder painted this island, and enchanted it so that the island itself and its surroundings were taken into that painting. He created a pocket dimension, a separate yet connected world where the real island was drawn, leaving Earth entirely and yet remaining somewhat connected to it through the painting.”

“So wait a second.” Douglas Frey spoke up with a raised hand. “You’re saying that this place is some… pocket dimension that Bosch created, that exists in one of his paintings? What if something destroyed that painting? Would we all just…” Pausing, he drew his finger across his throat pointedly.

Professor Vandel shook his head, speaking up over the commotion that caused. “First of all, let me assure you that the painting is perfectly safe. It’s one of the most well-protected objects in the world. The Bystander President of the United States has less protection than that painting. Nothing is going to happen to it. And if anything did, we wouldn’t be killed. Believe me, Bosch would not have left such a clear and obvious vulnerability. The painting maintains the connection between this pocket dimension and Earth. At most, the island and all of us on it would simply be ejected back into the normal Pacific Ocean where it used to be and we would go from there. But that won’t happen, because, as I said, the painting is not in any danger.

“So, let’s talk a little bit about what exactly made Bosch choose this place to begin with.”

******

It was still about half an hour before I was supposed to meet with Klassin Roe for our next session. But I was heading in early, because I was hoping that we could get done soon enough for me to have time to make a trip out with my sharks before it was time to eat dinner and then go to our last track training of the semester. Among other things, I wanted to get Klassin’s advice for what I should do about Kohaku’s invitation to join the Security track.

As I approached the man’s office, however, the sound of voices revealed that he wasn’t alone. Stopping short outside of the door, I hesitated a moment before starting to turn away. If he wasn’t available, he wasn’t available. I’d come back when we were actually supposed to meet.

Then one of the voices spoke up loud enough for me to make out the full sentence. “It wasn’t my fault, it was Joselyn.”

That made me halt in mid-step. Turning back, my eyes widened. I knew the voice. It was Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father. Why was he talking about my mother?

After a moment of indecision, I took a breath and stepped closer to the door. Rather than just standing there, however, I put my hand against the wall and felt the wood there. Swallowing at the thought of being caught, I pushed myself into the wall, using the wood-walking power to merge with it. Then I continued to listen.

“It’s easy to blame other people for your mistakes,” Roe was saying. “But Joselyn didn’t make you do what you did, and she definitely didn’t force you to cover it all up afterward.”

“I did what I thought was right,” Professor Mason insisted through gritted teeth, his voice low and yet almost desperate in tone. “Joselyn was acting insane, and you know it. I had to protect the school.”

Klassin’s voice was just as quiet, but also harsh. “And how did that work out for everyone, Liam? Because as far as I can tell, all you did was make everything worse. Did you ever tell Larissa what you did?”

There was the sound of a shove before Professor Mason snapped, “Don’t talk about Larissa, Johnny.”

Johnny? I was confused. His name was Klassin Roe, so where was the name ‘Johnny’ coming from?

Roe spoke up after a moment of silence that I was sure both men spent glaring at each other. “Larissa isn’t here. But if she was, and if she knew what you did, she’d be disgusted by you. That is, unless you helped wipe her memory too. Isn’t that how you deal with your problems?”

That time, I heard what sounded like a table being kicked backwards and some rustling as the men clearly struggled with each other, followed by a hard thud that was clearly one of them hitting the wall. Roe continued, his voice harried and even more harsh. “It’s the truth, Liam, and you know it. You betrayed your friends, the people who trusted you.”

“I had to!” Mason spat back, his own voice broken by emotion. “Joselyn was—she was wrong. She was crazy. Making deals with Strangers? She was going to destroy everything, and get a lot of good people killed because she was naive. They all were!”

I heard the table squeak again as it was moved back before Roe’s voice all-but snarled, “It wouldn’t have been that way if it wasn’t for you to begin with, Liam. Joselyn trusted you, she tried to talk to you about the whole thing. They all trusted you. They thought you were on their side, and what did you do? What did you do? You ran to Ruthers. You blurted the whole thing to him.”

“Fuck you, Johnny,” Mason snapped. “I told you, I did what I had to do to protect everyone from Joselyn. They were going to get hurt, or worse, destroy the school.”

“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?” Roe retorted. “No. You snitched and suddenly the quiet little underground railroad to protect Alters turned into a full-fledged rebellion. You didn’t protect anyone, Liam. You turned the whole thing into an open war. And then you helped erase it from everyone’s memory. Including the woman that you later married. Did you ever happen to mention that to her, or was it too inconvenient?”

I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with something like a two-by-four. On the hike in the jungle, Deveron had said that the whole secret underground resistance had blown up into full-scale war because he and Joselyn had trusted the wrong person. Now I knew who it was.

Sands’ and Scout’s dad. He was the traitor. He was the one who made the whole war happen.

Mother… fucker.

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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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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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First Steps 2-03

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“Not anymore.”

The silence that had stretched on for several long, empty seconds in the wake of Sands’ announcement had been interrupted by a new voice. It took me a second to orient myself, looking to the source of those two words. Scout stood there, looking up at me with her gaze only partially hidden by that long brown hair, face slightly flushed. This was the first time I’d actually heard her voice.

“Wha—oh. You mean she’s not a bad guy anymore, if she ever was one.” When the other girl nodded, I smiled faintly. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s not like she could sneak into this place without them knowing about her history, whatever it is. Hell, she’s got the tattoo pretty much in plain sight.”

“Plus there’s her name,” Sands pointed out. “It’s too much of a coincidence. There’s no way the headmistress doesn’t know everything about her, even if they’re not related.”

“Even if who’s not related?”

The unexpected voice, not Scout this time, made all three of us jump. Turning, we found the girl from the orientation tour, Koren. She was the one who had acted like she was going to throw Vanessa Moon over the magic line, the one that Avalon had thrown to the ground and chewed out. Now she stood there looking between the three of us with a suspicious squint, as if she was trying to read our minds.

“Oh, uhh, nothing.” I shrugged. Knowing that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the girl, I added, “We were just trying to figure out if my roommate and the headmistress are related or not. You know, same last names.” I figured that was common enough knowledge that I wasn’t throwing Avalon under the bus.

“You mean Miss Stick In The Ass?” Koren’s eyes rolled. “Of course she’s the Headmistress’s daughter.”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “What do you mean, of course?”

“I mean,” Koren replied with the tone that made it clear that she thought we were idiots. “Even if I hadn’t heard them talking, it’s obvious that she thinks she’s better than everyone else. Why? Because she’s totally the Headmistress’s crotch spawn, so she thinks she can do anything she wants to.”

Sands started to retort something nasty, but I stepped on her foot as subtly as I could manage. Yes, Koren could be a bitch. But on the off chance that she actually knew something, throwing away the chance to hear it was a bad idea. “You heard them talking? Avalon and the Headmistress?”

The other girl gave me a look before shrugging. “Uhh, yeah? That’s what I said. You know, last night when I had to wash all the tables because that stupid shit with the Pathmaker building? I was getting a new rag from the kitchen. When I came out, those two were like, hugging and shit. It was gross. The Headmistress was all, ‘I know this is hard on you, but you’re my daughter and I know you can do this.’” Koren made a gagging sound while rolling her eyes dramatically again. “How lame is that?”

Without speaking, I looked at the twins. Both were looking at one another before turning their gazes to me. By mutual, silent agreement, we turned and walked into my room. Scout, a look of satisfaction on her face, closed the door on the bewildered Koren as the girl demanded to know where we were going.

“Beach, you said?” I asked while walking over to look through my clothes that had been delivered to find something appropriate. I’d never been to a real beach, but I had pool wear, and that would do.

Leaving the bag full of books on my bed, I changed into a bathing suit with a long tee shirt over it as well as a pair of sandals before heading out with the twins. They stopped by their own room to change as well, and then the three of us grabbed towels from the bathroom before continuing out of the dorm.

The subject of Avalon’s parentage had faded until we were outside, walking along the path that led away from the school buildings. Finally, I spoke up. “Maybe she grew up with her dad? I mean, maybe Headmistress Sinclaire and whoever Avalon’s father is are like, rivals or whatever. He’s at that school, she’s at this one, and Avalon grew up with him until the Baronness got her back?”

Sands nodded thoughtfully. Before she could speak however, a booming voice filled the air around us, demanding, “And where do you girls think you’re going?!”

The man who stepped into our path was one of the teachers that I’d seen at the staff table the night before. He hadn’t been introduced since he obviously wasn’t new or a track adviser, but I was pretty sure that he taught English Literature. Which was kind of funny, considering how little he resembled what I thought of when ‘English Lit Professor’ came to mind. The man was tall and broads shouldered, with long, shaggy hair that was such a dark blond it was almost brown. He wasn’t as big as Professor Katarin, but the man still looked more like a football player than a teacher.

Gazing up at the man, Sands replied dryly, “Anywhere we want to, old man. You got a problem?”

The big guy squinted down at her, drawling, “You know what? You’ve got a big mouth, little girl. Your dad let you get away with talking to your elders like that?”

“Pffft,” Sands made a dismissive noise and waved her hand. “He’s old. Who cares what he thinks?”

Making a strangled noise, the man quickly stepped forward and snatched Sands right off the ground while demanding, “Who cares, huh? I’ll show you who cares!” He was clearly playing up the outrage as he swung around in a rapid circle with Sands tossed over his shoulder. “You care now?”

“Ahhhhhh!” Sands squealed in reply. “Noooooope! Don’t ahhhhh caaaaare! Aaaaaaaaahh I’m gonna be sick down the back of your shiiiirt, then you’ll be aaaaaaaaahhh soooorrry! Leeeemme goooo aaaahhh!”

Instead, the man only slowed enough to catch hold of Scout with his other hand. There was an audible yelp from the other girl as she was hauled up onto his other shoulder. Then he spun even faster while they squealed out loud, limbs flailing helplessly. “You’ll care, oh yeah you will!”

Finally, after several long moments of that rapid spinning, the man stumbled a bit to the grass before dumping both girls off his shoulders. He kept his grip on them just long enough for their feet to touch the ground before releasing them so that he could stumble backwards, sitting down hard on the grass with a grunt. The twins each immediately collapsed as well, yelping in unison.

Smirking a little in spite of myself, I cleared my throat. “So, this is your dad, huh?”

“Mmmhmm,” Sands, eyes closed, waved her hand absently. “Da, this is Flick. Flick, that’s Da.”

The man, who had collapsed onto his back, gave me a thumbs up. “Nice to meet you, Flick.” Lifting his head, he squinted at me blearily. “Could you tell your fifteen identical sisters to go home though?”

Snickering, I reached out a hand to help the man to his feet. “Nice to meet you too, Professor Mason.”

The man took the help, climbing to his feet with a groan before moving to help Scout up while I went to do the same with Sands. “I take it you girls are heading down to the beach then, huh?”

“Yeah, Da, we’re gonna show Flick how to have some fun.” Sands shook her head sadly. “She grew up in Wyoming. So, you know, I’m not sure she knows how to spell it, let alone have it.”

I scoffed at that. “Hey, Wyoming might not be a tropical island, but we have our own fun.”

“I bet!” Grinning at me, Sands asked, “So when you’re playing ‘find your nearest neighbor’, can you use the bullhorn right from your front porch, or do you have to drive around for a bit first?”

In spite of myself, I laughed, hiding it with a cough before retorting, “It’s not that empty!”

“Dude, I looked it up,” Sands informed me. “Your entire state is about a hundred thousand square miles, and it’s got like five hundred thousand people in it. You know what that is? That’s less than a quarter of the population of Brooklyn, which is about a hundred square miles. Your state is a thousand times the size of Brooklyn, and it has less than a quarter of the population!”

Sniffing, I shrugged. “We go for quality, not quantity.”

Sands lifted an eyebrow at me curiously. “Are you sure it’s not because the animals have become sentient and are secretly killing off all the humans?”

I coughed again. “Sapient.”

Sands blinked at me. “Huh?”

“You mean sapient,” I explained. “Sentient just means they feel things. Lots of animals are sentient. Sapient mans they can reason and logic things out, plan things. You know, like homo sapiens?”

Professor Mason grinned. “I like this one. You girls stay friends with her, you might learn something.”

“Meh,” Sands snickered, grabbing my arm. “We’ll corrupt her. Come on, time to hit the beach before it’s too late. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught out after curfew. It is not pretty.”

“Damn straight it’s not pretty,” Professor Mason confirmed. “So don’t push it. You girls are real students now, you’ve got an example to set. Make sure you’re back in your rooms on time. You’ve all got me first thing after breakfast tomorrow, and I want you there bright tailed and bushy eyed.”

I blinked at that. “Don’t you mean–”

Sands was already pulling me away. “Never mind that, inside joke. C’mon, Scout!” She called to her sister, and the other girl quickly gave their father a hug before moving to join us.

At the edge of the school grounds, Sands slowed to point at a shimmer in the air. It was almost like looking through very clean water, a slight distortion that made it clear something was there. “This is the border. They could make it harder to notice, but they don’t want to give any student the excuse of not knowing where they were if they cross it when they’re not supposed to. See, come closer.”

I did so, stepping right up to the edge of the barrier. As I came within a couple feet of it, the sound of gently ringing bells was audible. It was a pleasant sound, but definitely one that stood out.

“Same idea,” Sands confirmed. “No one gets to cross the border and then say they didn’t know. As soon as we go through here, reports get put out. I think they go to umm, our track adviser and the security office. If we’re not back by the time curfew starts, they’ll get a report about that too. They get a list of all students that are past the border after curfew, and trust me, you do not want to be one of those students. Scout and me saw what happened to the ones that tried to beat the system, and it is not fun.”

“The security office,” I echoed with a nod. “You mean like that guy I met earlier. Uhh, what was his name. He was really intense—oh, right, Rendell? Wyatt Rendell?”

Both girls giggled at that. Sands was nodding. “Yeah, Wyatt’s really intense all right. I’m not sure what he did before this, but he showed up at the end of last year. The headmistress brought him in personally. He’s… yeah, really into his job. But he’s just one of the normal security guys. He reports to Professor Kohaku. She’s the one that gets the reports about who’s out when they shouldn’t be.”

“Who do we report the abysmal failure that is our team mentor to?” I asked a bit darkly.

Sands rolled her eyes. “Deveron? Yeah, he kinda sucks, doesn’t he?”

“I don’t get it,” I spread my arms questioningly. “How did he really get to be a mentor? I know the sword in the stone thing is bullshit, but why would they take a guy that lazy and make him a mentor?”

Sands shrugged helplessly at that. “He didn’t used to be that bad.” In response to my doubtful look, she pressed on. “I mean it. Look, last year when he was a freshman here, Deveron was like… a star student. Seriously, believe it or not, he won pretty much every first year award there is. He was everywhere. He did everything. He was the school all-star. We’re talking straight A’s, community service, extra credit, advanced courses, all of it. The guy was on fire. Hell, in the fight tournament at the end of the year, he came in third. Third. That’s out of the entire school. Do you know how impossible it is for a first year student to come in third out of the whole school?”

I stared at her, mouth open. “We’re talking about the same Deveron Adams, right? You didn’t develop a concussion and start rambling about some other, actually useful guy? What the hell happened?”

Both of the twins shrugged. Scout leaned over to whisper something in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “He changed. He was gone for the summer, and when he came back, he was… well, he was a jerk. A lazy jerk. It’s like whatever reason he had to push himself before doesn’t exist anymore and now he doesn’t care about anything. Who knows. But that’s why they made him a mentor. I think they’re hoping that something will snap him out of this… dick phase and he’ll actually contribute again.”

I kicked at the ground a little and sighed. “Well I hope he snaps out of it soon. I’d like to have a mentor that I could actually talk to.”

“You can talk to us!” Sands grinned, grabbing my hand. “We’ll tell you everything you need to know. Like right now, what you need to know is that we are going down to the beach. So no more talking about Deveron or anything else depressing, okay?”

“Right,” I smiled in spite of myself. “Let’s go see this beach.

“But I’m telling you right now, the first one of you that makes the Jaws music is gonna get buried in the sand and left there.”

*******

“Mind if I go with you?”

It was the next morning, and I had woken up to the sound of Avalon getting ready to head out again. Just like the day before, she was up early. So early, in fact, that the sun wasn’t quite up yet.

She stopped, pausing to look over at me before reaching out to turn the light on so she could squint at me. “What?”

I sat up, sliding out of bed. “I was just asking if you mind if I go work out with you. You know, keep you company?”

Her suspicious glare didn’t relent. “Why?”

Shrugging, I started to get dressed while suppressing a yawn. “Seems like you have good habits. If I’m gonna make it around here, I should probably follow your lead.”

Avalon was silent for a moment before letting out a sigh. “Whatever, just hurry up. And don’t expect me to coddle you the whole time. I’m not your babysitter.”

Giving the girl a thumbs up, I finished dressing in the exercise clothes before turning in a circle as though looking for something. “Now where is—Herbie? Herb, where are you buddy? Did you—ohhh.” Pointing to the spot near the door, I walked over to pluck the rock off the floor where it had been sitting as though waiting to go out. “Hey there, need to go potty, huh?”

Avalon stared at me. “It has eyes now?”

Turning the rock for her to see, I shook it a bit to make the the googly eyes roll. “Yup, and he thinks you’re cute too.”

That time, I swore I saw the tiniest hint of a smile. It was barely a flicker before she schooled her expression back down while pivoted on her heel to stride out the door. “You’re a freak, Chambers.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I trailed after her. The two of us walked together down the stairs and outside.

“What the–” I blinked at the sight of what had to be two dozen people, half of them adults standing in our way. They were faced away from us, attention directed toward the ground.

Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father, turned to us. His face was pale as he took a step our way. “Inside, girls. You don’t need to be out here right now.”

“What happened?” Avalon demanded, not letting herself be herded away yet.

“It’s not–” The big man hesitated, clearly reluctant to say anything. “I’m sorry, girls, this isn’t a good time. Go back inside and wait. It’s…” He paused before sighing. “It’s Professor Pericles.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Mentioning Avalon’s track adviser made the girl’s eyes widen and she stopped abruptly. “What about him?”

“I’m sorry, Avalon,” Professor Mason’s voice was as gentle as he could make it. “There’s no better way of telling you this, but his body was found about ten minutes ago. It… doesn’t look like an accident.”

My own voice sounded empty to me, my head ringing almost painfully. “You mean he… he was…”

“Murdered,” Avalon finished flatly, her voice actually shaking a little. “Someone murdered Professor Pericles.”

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