Reggie Owens

Interlude 31C – Avalon

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“Um, your dad is a Stranger?” Rudolph asked, his voice fairly emotionless considering his words. The boy already had his bow out, an arrow nocked in it as he took aim at Reggie. He and the rest of the group were spreading out a bit, as Katarin and Hisao’s words about not clumping together in a group in a situation like this clearly rang through their minds.

“He’s a vampire,” Avalon replied flatly, not taking her narrowed eyes off of the man in question. She had barely even blinked since first laying eyes on him after he had revealed himself.

“A vampire?” Douglas echoed. His pen was in his hand already, and the boy clicked it twice to create a shield in one hand and some kind of small crossbow in the other. A third click created a short spiked wall all the way around the boy and a few feet in each direction. It was just barely taller than the boy himself, and left a couple slight openings for his crossbow. Protection from being directly attacked. He had actually created a small, personal bunker of sorts for himself using his pen to store the design. “There’s six of us,” he continued then. “We can take a single vampire.”  

“You wanna tell them, sweetheart?” Reggie prompted while cracking his neck. “Or should I?”

Still not taking her eyes off the man, Avalon explained quietly. “He’s not just a normal vampire. Someone… upgraded him. He can take powers, like we do. Only he does it by drinking blood. He drinks someone’s blood, he gets some of their power.” Her voice was dark, as memories rose. “That’s how he’s still alive even though he’s practically a newborn by vampire standards.”

“I’m sorry, what?!” Douglas was staring at her, mouth open. “He can–he gains–motherfucker.”  

Sean cursed as well, holding Vulcan in his massive gun-form. He apparently had the pixie stored inside the cyberform already. “That’s less than helpful. But we can still-”

A few feet away from the boy, Columbus abruptly spun, lunging that way before grabbing his roommate in mid-sentence to yank him out of the way an instant before a blurred form went right through the space where Sean had been standing. The blur stopped suddenly, revealing a man who was a stranger in both the capital and lower s sense of the word. Another vampire.

Avalon had just started to react as Columbus pivoted, his hand lashing out while some kind of metal armor appeared over it. There was a brief spray of blood, as the boy’s metal-armored fist punched through the vampire’s back and out his front, holding the man’s heart in his hand. An instant later, as if just to be absolutely sure, his other metal-covered hand reshaped itself into a blade before a quick snap of his wrist took the vampire’s head clean off of his shoulders.

For a brief moment, no one spoke, and barely even moved. Columbus stood there, slowly pulling his arm out of the dead vampire’s body while his pure white kill-aura flared up briefly. Avalon had known that he was more powerful than before, thanks to Charmiene feeding him Alters so that her chosen host would be stronger. But she hadn’t had much of a chance to see it.

“Well shit, son,” Reggie remarked with a low whistle. “That sucks. I kinda liked that guy. Luckily,” he added then, his tone still casual, “I brought a few more of my… uhh, drinking buddies.”

At those words, more figures appeared all around the group, emerging from the deep shadows of the same trees whose extensive canopy ensured that the sun wasn’t actually burning them. Within a few seconds, there was almost twenty of the figures surrounding the group  all vampires from the quick glance that Avalon gave. Twenty vampires, even normal ones, were entirely too many for the six of them to deal with. Especially with her father standing right there.

With a low chuckle as he watched all of them take in the sight of the new arrivals, Reggie remarked, “Doing the math on that, huh, sweetheart? How many seconds do you think your friends can hold out before my pack here eat them? Three, four maybe? I bet the quiet girl tastes utterly delicious.” As he spoke, his chin inclined toward where Scout had been slowly pivoting with her rifle raised, tracking the barrel over each of the vampires one after another.

“Or,” the man continued, his tone turning contemplative. “Maybe I let them go. Maybe I tell my boys to back off, and we let them walk right on out of here. No harm, no foul. And no blood. But the pixie stays. I mean, come on, she’s almost dead as it is, so it barely matters.” His eyes narrowed then. “And you stay too. They go. You and the pixie stay right here. That’s fair.”

“Not that we don’t appreciate being talked about like we’re not standing right here,” Sean put in while copying Scout’s move of slowly turning to keep pointing Vulcan’s barrels at one snarling vampire after another, “but we’re not going anywhere without Avalon and the pixie. So forget it.”

Avalon genuinely wasn’t sure if the boy was talking to Reggie, or to her. She gave him a brief look before lifting her chin to her father. “You’re not nearly as important as you think you are,” she informed him. “We’re taking the pixie, even if we have to go through you and your fodder.”

Even as she spoke, the girl was trying to calculate the best path out of there, her eyes scanning the figures surrounding them to determine the weakest point. Vampires were fast, and her father was even faster than most. They might have been outclassed in a long fight by a lot of things, but in the short term, they had a distinct advantage over most. Vampire were essentially ambush predators. Their speed-blitz tendencies left them able to kill quickly before their targets knew that they were there or that they were a threat. By having them stand around and act menacing, her father was giving up one of their biggest advantages. Especially since between Scout’s rifle, Sean’s minigun, Columbus’s goggles, Rudolph’s bow, and now Douglas’s crossbow, there were no less than five different ranged weapons sighting in on them. It was tactically idiotic. Unless…

“You’re stalling,” Avalon abruptly realized. Her eyes shot back to her father then, widening a bit. “You don’t want this fight to start yet. You’re holding out for something, trying to waste time.” It could have been about letting the pixie die. But if it was just that, there would be no reason for them not to attack. No, it was something else, some reason that the vampires were holding off.

“Heh,” her father gave a chuckle. “Never could put one past you, could I?” His smile widened, showing his fangs. “‘Cept with those beer bottles. You got pretty good at ducking those.”

Douglas had switched to two crossbows by that point, aimed through his personal bunker in different directions. “You know,” he remarked, “it’s pretty subtle, but I’m getting the very slight impression that your dad’s kind of a piece of work. And that we should really get out of here.”

He was right. Whatever her father was actually up to, and why he was stalling, she had no idea. But it wouldn’t be anything good. They needed to get the pixie out of there, before she died.

Her father took a step forward then, yanking her attention back to him instantly. “You think one of your little guardian angels is about to show up and save you?” he mocked, clearly trying to get a rise out of her. “Got news for you, we’re using a little blocker spell. As far as all those protective doodads you’ve got on are concerned, you are absolutely fine. Might not be enough to let us kill you, sure. But right now, your legion of protectors have no idea that you’re even in trouble.”

Barely had the words left his mouth before there was a brief flash of silver light as a different voice announced, “Oh, I dunno.” Deveron stepped into view, accompanied by Wyatt as he continued casually, his aura fading. “Maybe the guy who designed those security spells is just flat out better at it than your people are at breaking them.” Even as he spoke, the two of them entered the space that had been occupied by one of those vampires just a second earlier. A vampire whose absence pretty much explained why Deveron’s aura had been flaring up.

“The weird security guy and one of our second year sort-of joint mentors?” Douglas blurted in complete disbelief before his tone turned completely flat. “Oh, hallelujah, we’re saved.”

“Well, shit.” Reggie quickly hid his expression of incredulity at the two’s sudden appearance. “Guess we’ve gotta have a little fun anyway, don’t we, boys?” With that, he gave a sharp whistle, and the small horde of vampires suddenly made their move, each turning into a blur of motion as they rushed forward, falling in on the assembled group of Heretics.

It was pure chaos. The sound of Vulcan’s rotating gun barrels were deafening as Sean sprayed in the direction of anything that was coming toward him. Rudolph and Douglas notched and fired arrow after arrow and bolt after bolt so quickly that their own motions were almost a blur as well. Beams of concussive force erupted from Columbus’s goggles repeatedly, before one of the vampires actually got close enough to reach for him. It was stopped abruptly, however, as the boy’s hand snapped up and the vampire reacted as though it had hit some kind of invisible forcefield, flattening against it. A second later, another blast from Columbus’s goggles took the vampire in the chest and sent it rocketing backward off into the trees with a surprised cry.

Honestly, they weren’t actually killing that many of them, given the relative lack of auras appearing. But they were at least keeping the vampires back a bit, and somewhat injuring them.

And then there were the exceptions to that ‘not killing them’ thing. Deveron already had two of the vampires on the ground, his aura popping up once again before he turned, hand snapping up to catch one of them in some kind of telekinetic grip. With a grunt, he flung the vampire high into the air. It cleared the canopy, before its screams announced that it had reached sunlight.

Scout, meanwhile, had her own aura flaring more than once. She was simply firing shot after shot from her rifle… off into nowhere. Her bullets were disappearing through one of the gun’s manifested portals, then reappearing elsewhere. The bullet would fly a certain distance, hit another portal, and then jump again. Scout had been doing more than simply panning her gun over the vampires earlier. She had actually been setting up an extensive series of portals all around them. And now, every time she fired into that first portal, it shot the resulting bullet all the way around the circle through those portals, constantly changing direction, angle, height, and everything else to the point that the vampires might as well have been getting shot from all sides. They had no idea where the next bullets would come from, and several were cut down in rapid succession before they even had the idea of what was actually going on.

And through it all, through all of that violence, Avalon stayed completely still. Her eyes never left her father, while his never left her. Neither of them moved to attack. They knew each other. They had fought so many times over the years, once she finally started fighting back. They had grown in power together, even as each tried in vain to kill the other repeatedly, to the point that they knew each other’s moves as well as they knew their own. She knew her father, and he knew her. They could fight an entire battle simply by watching each other, waiting for openings that never came. The two of them were in a world of their own while the rest fought all around them.

Then there was Wyatt. Even as several of the vampires managed to actually get past the extensive covering fire laid down by everyone else, the security man raised his hand to throw a pyramid-shaped object about eight inches across straight up into the air. At its apex, the pyramid inverted so that the tip was facing down. It floated there in the air, while each of its sides opened up. From the flat bottom (now facing upward), a small portal appeared, leading off somewhere that clearly had bright sunlight, given the glimpse through what was visible.

That portal led the sunlight from wherever the other end of the portal was into the pyramid itself, before it was magnified and projected in every direction through each now-open side. The entire clearing was abruptly bathed in so much sunlight that it looked as though they were standing in the middle of an open field at midday.

Everyone else had been fighting the vampires. Wyatt exterminated them in a single move. Over a dozen died almost instantly, burning up to ashes within seconds. A couple more were incinerated before they could reach the edges of the light, while the few that remained took off, fleeing. While it happened, Wyatt staggered, his own silver kill-aura to match his father’s flaring up dramatically.

And yet, through it all, her father stood completely still and unmoved. The light that filled the clearing seemed to bend around him, leaving the vampire still shrouded in slight darkness. As everyone’s attention turned that way once he was the final vampire left in sight, the man chuckled. “Well, that was dramatic, wasn’t it? Good thing the first power I sucked up was this good old cloak of darkness.” He indicated the shadows that remained wrapped around him. “Keeps me nice and shady even on those Tijuana beaches.”

“Too bad you didn’t wrap that shade around all your little friends,” Deveron pointed out in a dark voice. “Or they might not be ashes right now.”

“Sure,” the vampire agreed. “Still won’t help you that much though. See, this jungle? It’s completely full of my little drinking buddies. And the word from on high is that the bosses just shut down every portal in and out of this jungle. You want out, you gotta go the long way. Which means going through all that jungle just chock full of vampires just waiting to rip your head off. Or, you could wait here until that pixie dies. Doesn’t really make much difference to me in the long run.”

Deveron took a step that way, unsheathing his pistol. “Maybe we start by going through you.”

“No!” Avalon quickly interceded, catching the man’s arm. “Don’t. Let me.”

“Avalon,” Deveron started, looking back to her.

“It’s okay,” she insisted while meeting his gaze. Her voice was calm, her eyes steady and unblinking. “The pixie is the key. You have to get her out of here. You have to save her life, Deveron. If you save her, she can help find Chambers and the others. But she’s about to die. She needs help, now.

She turned away from him then, and from the others. Her gaze was centered on the dark-shrouded figure across the clearing. “I can handle my father.”

There were protests from the others, but Deveron and Wyatt called them in line, making them focus on the issue at hand: getting the pixie to safety. They said something to Columbus, Sean, Scout, Rudolph, and Douglas that had to do with getting through the jungle, but Avalon wasn’t listening. All of her focus was on her father.

“Avalon.” Deveron’s hand was on her shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“I can do this,” she replied, her voice completely even. As she spoke, Avalon let her hands slip behind her back while cracking her neck. “I’m ready. I am ready for this.” She was speaking both to him, and to Gaia, who was no doubt listening in.

He paused, looking down for a moment. Then he squeezed her shoulder while nodding. “We’ll see you on the other side.”

Then they were moving. The group took off into the jungle, heading for the beach where they would be safe, where the pixie would be safe. Avalon didn’t know how hard their trek through that vampire-infested jungle would be, but she did know that they would make it.

Just as she knew that this would be the last time that she faced the monster of her childhood. It was time to move on. It was time to put him behind her. And this was the only way that she could do that. This wasn’t for the Heretic that she had become. 

It was for the scared little girl that she had been.

“Alright then, little princess,” her father intoned a bit mockingly while readying himself. In one hand, he produced a massive, wickedly curved dagger, while the other held some kind of electrified baton that he clearly intended to put her on the ground with before cutting her. “Let’s do this.”

With that, the man was a sudden blur of motion that swept toward her, crossing two-thirds of the hundred feet that stood between them in an instant. Flames roared up along one side of him, while lightning crackled violently on the other. He would be on top of her, literally, before she could do more than blink. As he rushed at Avalon, the man’s baton swept up to the ready while lightning and fire bounded along at his sides like loyal hounds. 

And then, as suddenly as his charge had begun, the man hit the ground on his knees with a cry. His weapons fell to either side in the dirt while he put his hands against his head and groaned out a pained, “What… the… fuuuuuck….”

Slowly, Avalon pulled her hand out from behind her back. Nestled in her palm, she held a small tennis ball-shaped metal orb. The same orb that she had secretly shown Deveron before he would agree to leave her. It was silver, with a series of small rectangular blue lights along the bottom, and two slightly larger triangular red lights on the top half, each pointed inward so that the tips of the triangles pointed toward the very top of the orb, where the north pole would have been if it was a globe.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked rhetorically before explaining, “It’s an ultrasonic frequency that only people with hearing as advanced as a vampire’s can pick up. I mean, me, I can only barely sort of hear this low buzzing sound. But you, it probably feels like your brain is melting. Screws up your sense of balance, makes up seem like down, pretty sure it even gets into your short term memory and screws with it. So you probably have no idea how long this has been going on. It’s all just noise. Noise right in your brain. You don’t just hear it. You see it, you smell it. You can feel it digging into your head. Can’t focus on fighting. Can’t focus on using any powers. Can’t even focus on escaping. Just that sound, that horrible, inescapable sound driving through your brain, pounding and pounding over and over. Relentless. Unending. A drill made entirely of noise, boring straight through your skull.

“You’re a vampire and you’ve been trying to either make my life miserable or kill me literally my whole life. I took an entire semester of the Development Track. Did you really think I wouldn’t come up with anti-vampire weapons that were specifically tailored to you? I’ve been waiting for you to attack me all year, you fucking imbecile. The Seosten didn’t just tell you to stay away because of the spell that I’ve got on me. They told you to stay away because they knew that the one single thing that I would be one hundred percent prepared for was a fucking vampire, you stupid piece of shit.

The man was thrashing by that point, head shaking back and forth violently while he dug his fingers into his head deep enough to draw blood. His mouth opened, and a scream escaped him that echoed off into the jungle. More blood poured from his eyes and nose, and he gave a slight convulsion.

Standing a few feet away from the man, Avalon looked down at him while he shuddered. “Sorry,” she added without meaning it, “did you think this was going to be some grand, epic fight in the middle of the jungle? Did you think it was going to be a cinematic duel to the death full of awesome powers and amazing stunts? It’s not. Because quite frankly, you’re not worth that kind of effort.”

Her father reached for her then, one hand stretching out while hate filled his eyes. Avalon simply stepped back, letting him pointlessly reach. “You think you’re some grand villain, some great big bad, my nemesis? You’re not. You’re a pathetic, drunk piece of shit, who was too stupid to understand that the people using him to attack his daughter are the ones who actually murdered his wife.

“I lost my mom when I was born. I didn’t have to lose my dad too. You did that. You let them do that. You helped them. You helped Mom’s killers because you are a worthless, stupid, angry fucking failure. I just wanted a dad. I was a little kid and all I wanted was my daddy. I wanted someone to be there for me, someone to tell me it was alright. I wanted someone to chase away the monsters, not become one. A child should be afraid of what’s in their closet, not what’s in their parents’ bed. No little kid should ever feel like their mommy or their daddy hates them. No child should ever, ever see their parents look at them the way you looked at me. You were grieving? Fuck you. I was a child. I was a little girl. Even if Mom’s death had been because of my birth, that wouldn’t be my fault. It wouldn’t be anybody’s fault! But it was. It was the Seosten’s fault, and you fucking helped them, you miserable piece of shit.

“So no. We’re not going to have an epic duel to the death. No powers. No fight in the jungle. You are going to die here like a rat, and then I am going to move on to things that actually matter. I am going to make those bastards pay for what they did to my mother, for what they’ve done to this entire world. And I’ll do it as Avalon Sinclaire. But I will also do it as Hannah Aken, descendant of Liesje and Dries Aken, daughter of Alicia Aken. Because Hannah was the name my mother chose. And I am not going to let you take one more goddamn thing away from us. Because I’ve moved on from you. I’m not afraid of you anymore. You were the monster of my childhood. But I have a lot worse monsters now. And if I’m going to deal with them, I have to deal with you first.”

Reggie, by that point, was lying on his side, blood still leaking from his head as he stared at her, glassy-eyed and barely comprehending. Avalon waited for his eyes to find hers, then clicked off the sonic device so that the only thing, the last thing that he would hear were her next words.

“You… are… irrelevant.”

Her announcement was matched by the hum of the long energy blade emerging from her gauntlet, even as her hand swept out and up. One more final spray of blood, a gurgle, and her father’s head fell to the ground several feet from his body.  

The rush of pleasure that she felt then was only partially from the Heretic kill sensation. But perhaps it was fitting that the only thing her father ever did that brought the girl who was both Avalon Sinclaire and Hannah Aken any happiness in her life… was die.

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Interlude 31B – Avalon

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Tink, tink, tink.

The repeated sound of something tapping against glass drew Avalon’s attention from the textbook she had been studying to the corner of her dorm room, where a small pig-like animal sat next to the window. Even as she looked that way, he leaned forward to tap his nose against the glass once more.

“Choo.” Speaking the small Jekern’s name flatly, Avalon stood up, abandoning her book as she took a step that way to look down at him. “Let me guess, you want to go outside.”

Choo’s response was to hop down from the windowsill and sit on his haunches, looking hopefully up at her as he wagged his hind end back-and-forth a little. The animal was no longer as tiny as he had been, having reached the size of a small dog. But he was still nowhere near as big as he would eventually become.

He was also capable of being here in the room without setting off the Stranger alarm, thanks to Gaia. Avalon‘s adopted mother had created shields on both this room and Shiori’s, which prevented the alarm spells from noticing him. Plus, there was a second enchantment which made him invisible to anyone looking into the room from beyond (either with some kind of vision power/spell or through the window). Again, thanks to Gaia. That kind of spell was far beyond anything that Avalon or anyone else in her age group were capable of.

With all that done, they still had to carry Choo around the grounds in the extradimensional pouch that had been made for him, but at least he could wander around the rooms safely. It was a lot better than leaving him all by himself out in the jungle. Between all the other predators out there, and the Heretic students, who knew what might have happened?

He spent most of his time in this room, rather than Shiori’s, since the girl’s roommate wasn’t exactly in on things. It was too dangerous. The only time he spent over there with Shiori was when they knew that Rebecca wouldn’t be around for a while.

Nodding in response to the animal’s hopeful look, Avalon reached out to pick up what looked like a simple leather pouch that was sitting on the nearby dresser. Opening it up, she held it down in front of the animal, ordering, “Well, get in.”

Choo huffed a little bit at having to go into the bag, but obediently trotted inside. Once he was in, Avalon closed the bag, making it small enough to fit in her pocket. Choo himself was in a tiny pocket dimension that was about the same size as this room. There was grass and dirt, and a small tree in there for him. When he was bigger, they would have to upgrade his area, but right now, that was enough. He had a nest of blankets in there, along with a big bowl of food and one for water. Both of them technically hold enough for a month, but were enchanted to only release a little bit each day. He could stay in there for quite a while if he needed to. But the little guy liked being out around people too much. He loved company, and attention. Honestly, he was too damn trusting and friendly for his own good. All he wanted to do was snuggle everyone he met.

Shoving the bag into her pocket, Avalon stepped out of the room, closing the door after her as she headed for the exit. Her footsteps echoed through the hallway, and a couple girls who were standing in front of another room glanced up at her approach. Summer, a dark-skinned girl was in the Investigation track, was standing near Freya, a distractingly beautiful red-haired girl who was taller than Avalon. Both of them glanced over while Summer continued, “It’s for Christmas! Come on, it’s funny, you’ve just gotta stop being so squeamish. So the talking poo is like–”

“Please, stop,” Freya begged before looking to Avalon. “She’s trying to explain Bystander humor to me. Which is weird,” she added pointedly, “since she’s not a Bystander either. Plus, I don’t think I want to understand. And I definitely don’t want to hear any more about this North Park.”

“It’s–oh never mind.” Waving that off, Summer turned back to Avalon as well. “Did Douglas ever find you?” she asked before adding, “He was looking for you about an hour ago. Even got us to go knock on your door for him so the statues wouldn’t dropkick him for coming into the dorm.”

“We did, but you weren’t there,” Freya added. “So he wandered off again. Seemed like it might be important, though. Something about needing to find you for his answer or something.”

For his–oh, great. Apparently Douglas had asked his oracle-power a question, and its answer had been to point him to Avalon. And she had no idea what he’d asked. Sometimes her temporary new teammate’s little vague question-and-answer gift could be very… unhelpful.

Betraying none of that to the two girls, she just shrugged once while replying flatly, “Haven’t seen him.” Without another word, she started to pass them, heading for the door once more.

“Hey, wait.” Summer called, raising a hand. When Avalon looked back, the other girl started with, “Sorry about, um, Flick and the others. I hope they find them soon. And that, you know.”

Her first impulse was to snap at the girl, but Avalon restrained herself. Growing up in Eden’s Garden, there was a good chance that anyone who said that would have been fishing for some kind of weakness. It wasn’t that every peer there was a rival or threat. That would have made things too easy. It was that there was no way of knowing who would be a threat, and a lot of Garden students weren’t exactly discouraged from stabbing each other in the back. Especially if the other person was from a different tribe. It was a way of getting ahead, of proving yourself stronger. There were plenty of students there who would’ve jumped on the opportunity to push themselves ahead of Avalon in the only vaguely secret (in that the staff didn’t openly acknowledge them) class ranking by messing with her head or making her focus on Flick.

Crossroads was different. It had its own problems, to be sure. But at least it didn’t have that kind of environment for students. After giving herself a second to remind her impulses that they weren’t back there anymore, Avalon managed a slight, curt nod. “They will,” she replied simply before turning to walk once more. She would take Choo out to the jungle and let him out to walk and stretch his legs for a bit first, then go and see what Douglas actually wanted.

On the way, she heard Freya start to whisper something about the odds of Flick and the others being alive if they had been taken by Strangers, only for Summer to stop her with a hissed word about waiting. Waiting, obviously, for Avalon to be further away so that she didn’t overhear their theories about how Flick, Sands, Isaac, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz were probably already dead.

At least Avalon was as certain as she could be that that much wasn’t true. Vanessa hadn’t been able to contact her father again after the first time, but she had gotten the message through. And with both him and Scout’s mother out there helping them, Avalon had to believe that they were alive. Safe might be pushing it considering where they were, but alive at the very least.

Lost in thought (some might have called it brooding), she made her way across the grounds and down to the beach. However, before the girl could go much further than that, a loud bark caught her attention. Snapping her gaze up and to the side, she saw Vulcan galloping toward her. The big metal dog was accompanied by his owner, along with the other members of her team, both temporary and permanent. Sean, Scout, Columbus, Douglas, and Rudolph were approaching.

“Avalon!” Douglas called, as if she hadn’t seen him already. “Jeez, you are one hard girl to find sometimes, you know? We must’ve hiked all over the campus.”

“I must have just missed you at the dorm,” she replied, keeping her voice even. “What do you need, Frey? Banning and Sullivan just said you wanted to talk about something.” As she spoke, Avalon opened her hand to let Vulcan nuzzle up against it and sniff a little. The cyberform canine probably wanted to play with Choo, but they would have to send Douglas and Rudolph on their way first.

“I, uh–” Douglas paused, frowning a bit as he glanced around a little expectantly.

Tensing reflexively at that, Avalon belatedly realized that the boy wasn’t waiting to set off a trap or something. His power had obviously directed him toward Avalon as a means of answering whatever question he had asked, and now he was waiting to see what actually happened.

“You’re a stunning conversationalist as always,” she informed him dryly before looking to Scout. “You still want to train in the morning?”

The other girl gave a single, small nod at first. Then she seemed to gather herself, straightening a little before softly saying, “Yes.” Another slight pause then before, “I’ll be ready.”

That was it, there was only those four words. But even that was downright talkative for Scout, who had clearly been making an effort to speak up a bit more ever since her twin had disappeared.

“Good,” Avalon replied. “I’ll wait for you then.” With that, she looked back to Douglas, hoping that whatever he was waiting for would have had time to happen by that point. “Were you all just walking around together because you were lonely, or…”

Douglas’s mouth opened, before the boy paused briefly. He seemed to consider something before finally giving a little shrug. “I’ve been asking my power how we can help find Jazz and the others every day since… since that happened, but there’s been nothing. It wouldn’t tell me anything. Then, today, I asked how we could track down the guys who took them instead. Just a little different, but that time I got an actual answer. Sort of.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Avalon realized, “It directed you to me.”

The boy nodded, but it was Sean who replied, “He came to Columbus and me once he couldn’t find you. We looked for a bit, but couldn’t find you. Then Columbus had the bright idea to find Scout, since she’s got that magic tracking power.”

Right, Scout had the ability to mark any object and find it later. She’d obviously used it on all of her teammates. Avalon gave the quiet girl a brief nod before speaking to Columbus himself. “Uh, good idea.” It felt awkward and strange to compliment someone for something that simple. But the boy had been… very out of it and down on himself since being freed from Charmiene. The things that he had been forced to do while puppeted, the… threats that the Seosten woman had made about what she would make him do, had all obviously taken its toll. According to Sean, the boy was barely sleeping. And when he did sleep, he tended to wake up with nightmares. So she was trying to be better about encouraging him, as well as the others. It was what Flick would do if she was there.

The boy didn’t respond to her words at first, continuing to stare blankly for a few long seconds before he suddenly started as the realization that he could actually control his body clearly came. “I–”  Shifting a little, he flatly intoned, “Thanks. I just didn’t want to keep wandering around aimlessly.”

It was obviously meant as a joke of sorts, but his emotionless voice and the way that his face held no particular expression made it hard to tell until he belatedly gave a weak smile.

Columbus Porter was not in the best of shape, emotionally. But he needed to be out there, needed to be shown that he could keep helping and that he was in charge of his own body now. He was seeing the school therapist every afternoon, and Klassin Roe had made it clear that he would take Porter off the team the moment that he thought it was doing more harm than good. But for the time being, it was for the best that he be treated as normally as possible.

“Well,” Avalon informed them then. “I don’t want to say that you all wasted your time. But I assure you, if I knew anything about where to find the people responsible for taking Chambers and the others, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

Shaking his head, Douglas gave a long, low sigh. “Look, I know you’re keeping stuff from us. We know that. You know stuff you don’t wanna talk about and… ehh, I don’t wanna say that’s fine, cuz it’s not. But we get it. Rudolph and me, we get it. We’re not in your top secret club. Headmistress Sinclaire might call us part of the team, but we’re just slot-fillers for the moment. Whatever. But we do want to find our friends, okay? Whatever it takes. I can’t…” He swallowed hard, looking briefly haunted before his hand absently checked to make sure his hat was still there. “I can’t just sit around doing nothing.”  

Avalon studied the boy for a moment, considering her words before finally speaking. “If I knew anything that could find them, I would be doing it. I would tell you. Anything I know, it’s not useful right now.”

Rudolph, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke up. “Maybe it’s not something that you consciously know. Maybe it’s something that’s going to happ–”

That was as far as the boy got before, as if on cue, the phone in Avalon’s pocket rang. She blinked, giving him a brief look before taking the thing out to look at the screen. The call was from the number that Asenath had been using to contact them, so she clicked it on while taking a few steps away. “Yes?”

“Avalon,” the vampire started, “You’re still at Crossroads, right?”

Pausing, Avalon looked back to the group, who were all watching expectantly, before answering with that same single word as before. “Yes.”

“Good, uh, listen.” Pausing briefly, Asenath seemed to be considering her words. “Namythiet, our little pixie friend, she was contacted by another one of her species. It’s some kind of magic connection spell or something. I’m not sure about the details. But the point is, there’s a pixie out there in the jungle, the Crossroads jungle. And she’s um… hurt.”

“Hurt?” Avalon echoed, glancing toward the trees.

“Yeah. Apparently she’s exhausted. It was all she could do to send that message. But she’s in the jungle and she’s trapped there. But here’s the thing. Whatever happened, it has something to do with the Seosten. We don’t know what, but it sounds like she escaped from them or something. She’s been running for days, trying to contact anyone who would listen and try to get her out of there. She knows something important, and they’ve been chasing her. They’ve blocked every other exit, so she’s trapped on the island, and they’ve been hunting her. She’s got nothing left.”

That was enough to make Avalon start a bit. Eyes widening slightly, she tersely asked, “Where is she?”

“Hang on,” Asenath replied, “I’m texting you the map that Namythiet made. Can you get to her? She’s… she doesn’t have long, Avalon. From what Namy said, that last message took everything she had, just getting her location out. If she doesn’t die of exhaustion, the people hunting her will finish the job. We’re talking minutes, not hours and definitely not days. Minutes.”

“I’ll get to her,” Avalon assured her firmly. She took a moment to look at the map that came in. “I’m going now.”

She had just disconnected the call when the realization that the others were all still standing there struck her. As she looked up, Douglas demanded, “What? Who? Who were you talking to, who are you going to? Who’s hurt? What’s going on?”

For a few seconds that were entirely too long, Avalon was silent. A hundred different thoughts warred for prominence in her mind. Telling the boys was too dangerous. But they wouldn’t just leave. And every second that they wasted was another in which this mysterious pixie who had information about the Seosten might die. What could she say?

An idea started to form, but they had already been waiting too long. She couldn’t let that pixie die. Turning on her heel, Avalon started to jog while snapping, “If you want to save your friends, shut up and follow me.”

Scout was right behind her, followed immediately by Sean and Columbus, with Vulcan trotting alongside them. Further back, Rudolph and Douglas looked at one another for a moment before following suit.

As she ran, Avalon quickly sent a text to Gaia, letting her know what was going on and that she might have to erase an hour or so of the boys’ memories if this went wrong. Then she started to speak, even as they left the sand and started into the jungle itself.

“You know all those rumors about Eden’s Garden using Strangers instead of just killing them?”

“You mean the breeding experiments and that stuff?” Rudolph asked before ducking under a branch. “Yeah, my… my granddad, he said something about it.”

Avalon took another second, finding the right words. “Sometimes they use them the way that Bystander police use smaller, less important criminals.” She checked the map on her phone, considered where they were, then kept running. “You know, send them out to get information on the bigger targets. No point in expending effort on the little fish when the little fish can lead you to the big fish.”

There was another pause behind her as the boys seemed to absorb that, before Douglas asked, “We’re going after one of those little fish?”

“A little fish who knows how to get to the big fish,” Avalon confirmed. “But the big fish are trying to kill it before it can talk, so we have to get there first. Can you handle that?”

“We’re gonna have to hear a lot more about all this,” Douglas informed her, grunting as he slid down a slight incline before catching himself. “But if it can really help us find the others, then fuck it, let’s get this fish. I’m not gonna be the guy who fucks everything up because he demands to know everything when we should be moving. I’ll be that guy later.”

Right. That settled that, for the next few minutes anyway. Now the boys knew that they would be finding a Stranger, and wouldn’t immediately kill her. Eventually they’d either need to know more, or Gaia would just erase it from their memory. Either way, good enough for the moment.

Run, run. Get to the pixie. Get to that damn pixie before they lost this lead. If it meant a chance of finding Flick, Avalon would have run across the entire island a thousand times.

Finally, she stopped. Looking at the map, Avalon judged that they had run about to the right spot. She could see a couple landmarks included in the map that looked right, including a fairly massive rock in the vague shape of a dog’s head that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. But there was no pixie.

“She’s got to be around here,” the girl muttered under her breath, turning in a circle as she looked around desperately. “Pixie, we’re looking for a pixie.”

“A pixie?” Rudolph echoed, a bit of doubt in his voice as he too started to look around. “In a place like this? We could look for hours. They’re not exactly easy to spot if they’re not right in front of your face.”

“We don’t have hours,” Avalon snapped. “We have minutes, maybe. We have to find her. You wanna find your friends, we need the pixie. We don’t find the pixie, we don’t find the others.”

Douglas put both hands up to adjust his baseball cap while his head shook. “I don’t–if I still had my question for the day, I could just ask, but I don’t. I don’t know how else we’re supposed to find this… this pixie. These are the only directions you’ve got? It’s not here, so now what?”

“There.” The word came from Columbus. The boy had his goggles on, and was pointing off in a seemingly random direction. “Fifty feet that way, right in the hollow of the tree. She’s kind of covered by a log. I think she pulled it over to block the view.”

Avalon didn’t question it. Instead, she ran that way, muttering a quick thanks to the boy before dropping to her knees in front of the tree in question. Using one hand to pull the log away, the girl stared at the tiny figure nestled within the hollowed out portion of the trunk.

It was definitely the missing pixie. And she didn’t look good. Avalon had no idea what had happened to her or what she had been through, but the little thing was clearly utterly exhausted. She barely reacted to the log being moved, opening her eyes briefly before letting out a weak whimper of protest as they closed once more. Her wings were limp rather than vibrant. From all appearances, she was about an inch from death anyway.

And yet, Douglas still caught Avalon by the shoulder, pulling her back a bit. “Don’t get too close,” he warned her. “It could be faking.”

Turning that way, she almost snapped at him, almost bit his head off. But she caught herself at the last instant, instead retorting, “We need her alive. I don’t care how you feel about Strangers or their uses. If this one dies, we might never see Chambers or the others again. Do you understand? This one survives if you want to see your friends. It’s our only lead. Our only lead. You get it?”

Rudolph spoke up then. “We get it. The pixie lives. But what do we do with her?”

Sean had stepped up to join them. “Vulcan’s storage space for his ammo,” he announced. “We can put her in there until we get out of this jungle and back somewhere a little safer. After that… we’ll see what we can do.”

“Pixies heal themselves.” That was Scout, actually speaking up. When they all looked at her, the brunette shrugged. “Magic. She… she should be… healing herself. But she’s weak. Maybe if we… feed her magic, she’ll heal.”

“Right,” Avalon announced. “But we do it closer to the beach. Right now we need to get out of here, before–”

“Stay away from the school, they said,” a voice spoke up from the shadows of the trees that surrounded them. “Don’t even think about going there, they said. Don’t go near her, she’s surrounded and protected.”

A figure stepped into view, even as Avalon quickly stood up and turned that way. He was, at first glance, a fairly ordinary looking man, if somewhat tall at a few inches over six feet. Most of his head was bald, save for the back and along both sides, where a bit of brown hair could be found. He wore a simple flannel shirt and jeans, neither of which were anywhere near new. Though not exactly ‘fat’, he was somewhat hefty, particularly for his height. He looked like a man who would be most often be seen watching a football game with a beer in one hand and the remote in another, after getting home from his job in a factory or as some kind of middle management. Not particularly handsome, but not hideous. Not in the best of shape, but not obese. Average in almost every way, save possibly for the slightly unnatural paleness of his skin.

And when she saw him, Avalon took a reflexive step back, even as her Stranger sense alerted her to the entirely unnecessary revelation of his non-human status.

“But you know,” the man continued, “all I was doing was following orders. Find the pixie, they told me. Deal with it. That’s what I was doing. So I don’t see how they can blame me when, well, you sorta walk right into my lap, can you?”

The others started to speak, but Avalon didn’t hear them. Their words all blended together and fell away. Her attention was centered on the man, on the vampire in front of them. Her voice was soft, flat and emotionless.  

“Hello… Dad.”

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Interlude 3 – Hannah

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Six Years Ago.

I said Black Forest!” The sound of the shout filled the living room of the small apartment, echoing throughout the tight confines just before a glass bottle punctuated the bellow by shattering noisily against the far wall, “Not this fucking Asp’s light shit! It’s the green god damn bottle! The green one! Are you so stupid you don’t even know what the hell the color green is, you retarded little fuckstain?”

Standing before her drunken, towering father, eleven-year-old Hannah Owens quivered a little, reflexively cowering from the man’s glare. “I… I… I…” She was too frightened to force the words out.

“I, I, I.” The man repeated mockingly before making a noise of disgust before his fist lashed out, striking the girl across the face with enough force to knock her to the floor. “Shut the fuck up, brat.”

Hannah had seen the blow coming. Her father was too drunk for anything even approaching subtlety. The young girl, whose dark hair was drawn into a simple ponytail held by a scavenged rubber band, wanted to pull away from the incoming punch. Being hit by Daddy hurt, even when he was too drunk to put much thought into his blows. But she knew through plenty of personal experience that avoiding one blow, tempting as it was, would just infuriate the man and spur him on to much worse things. It was better to take the single hit and drop to the floor than risk giving him any reason to follow up the attack. It hurt to get hit. It hurt worse when Daddy was mad enough to get creative.

So she made herself stand still, taking the back-handed blow that knocked her to the floor with a cry. She had to yelp, had to make the physical sound or her father would think that he hadn’t hit her hard enough. It was a tricky thing to judge. If she didn’t make enough noise, Daddy would think that his first strike hadn’t done the job and would follow it up. If she made too much noise, it would annoy him further and he’d make her shut up the only way he knew how. There was almost an art to making just enough of a scene that he would be satisfied that a single punch had gotten his point across sufficiently.

Luckily, in a manner of speaking, Hannah had plenty of practice at that sort of thing.

Reginald, Reggie to his friends at the bars and the bowling alley where he led the league in score, stood over the fallen girl. His face was twisted and ugly as he jabbed a finger down at her. “I told you to get me a fucking Black Forest out of the fridge, you waste of sperm. Not the Asp’s Light. One of em’s got the green bottle, the other’s that piss-stain yellow one. I always knew the only thing you’d ever be good for was an example of why going bareback on some dumb bitch ain’t worth the trouble, but I thought you at least knew the difference between green and yellow. Ain’t that what you go to school for?!”

He waited half a second before raising his voice back into a bellow, “Answer the fucking question, you retarded little condom-tear! Don’t you know the difference between green and yellow, huh?!”

“Y-y-yes, daddy,” Hannah stammered, her eyes wide as she stared up at the furious man. “I… I kn-know. B-but, but… we-we-w-we’re out of the green one. They’re all gone a-a-and I didn’t wanna give you no beer, a-a-and that one was still there f-from the other night when you had your p-poker night.”

“Out?!” If anything, Reggie was even angrier at that point. He reared back his foot and kicked the girl. “What the fuck do you mean, we’re out?! I had six left this morning! Six of ’em! I had one with lunch, one this afternoon, and three more this evening! One, one, three. That’s fucking five, you worthless little shit! Where the–” He brought back his foot once more, sending it forward to kick the child with enough force to knock her several feet away. “–hell is my last beer! Where the fuck is it?! You steal it, huh? Where’d you fucking put it, shitstain?! Where’d you hide it?! You tell me where it is right now!”

Curling into a ball, tears falling freely from her clenched shut eyes, Hannah finally managed to answer the man when he paused to take a breath. “You drank it! You drank it, you drank it, you drank it!”

Letting out a snarl of anger, Reggie leaned down and grabbed the girl by her hair. Yanking the eleven-year old back to her feet, he gave her a hard, open-palm slap across the face. “You’re a fucking liar, you know that? You’re a moron and you’re a liar. I just told you how many beers I had. Five, not six. You already killed your mommy when you were born, you stupid shit. Wasn’t that enough for you?”

It was one of Hannah’s father’s favorite topics. Her mother had died due to complications while giving birth to the girl. In the eyes of Reginald Owens, that meant that Hannah had killed his wife. He had never gotten over the loss, and had never forgiven the girl, not for one minute. On his best days, he tolerated her presence and gave gruff orders to stay out of his way. On the worst, he made sure she knew just how worthless, unloved, unwanted, and pathetic she was. He made absolutely certain that the girl never forgot that she was a murderer, that she had killed her own mother while being born.

“You killed your mommy, you evil shit, and now you steal my beer?” The man spat the words hatefully.

Blinded by the tears that continued soaking her small face, Hannah had to fight for breath so that she could stammer a response. “Y-y-you had… had… the other one last n-night. You had it last night.”

“Bullshit!” Reggie’s anger boiled over, and he drew back his hand to smack her once again. In mid-swing, however, a noise from outside the apartment drew the attention of both father and daughter. It was the sound of shouting, running footsteps, and heavy crashes as something repeatedly crashed into the walls with so much force that they shook heavily from each impact.

“What… the….” Releasing his daughter, Reggie strode to the entrance of the apartment. Shoving the door open to step into the hall, he bellowed, “What the fuck is going on out here, you inconsiderate–”

His complaint was cut off as a larger man, pale and wild-eyed, slammed into Reggie and knocked him to the floor so hard the air was knocked out of him. The massive figure then continued to barrel into the newly revealed apartment, setting his eyes on Hannah herself, who was suddenly paralyzed with fear.

“Good.” The big man announced, drooling on himself as he staggered toward the girl. “Fresh meat.”

Hannah opened her mouth, a high-pitched scream barely escaping her before the enormous, ugly man was suddenly in front of her. He crossed the entire room so quickly she hadn’t even seen him move before he was abruptly right there. Her scream was cut off as his hand closed around her throat, and Hannah found herself being lifted up from the floor. He brought her right up to his face, and when he spoke, the stench of rotted meat on his breath nearly make the girl throw up. “Wish I had time to take this slow and really enjoy my meal,” he lamented with a sad shake of his head. “Especially when they look as tasty as you. But I need a recharge before those fucks catch up, and I think you’ll do just fine.”

He opened his mouth, revealing, to the girl’s horror, several rows of teeth that were more akin to that of a shark than a human being. Her renewed shriek joined the monster’s laugh as he began to lunge in.

An instant before those teeth would have torn into the child, a glowing red whip wrapped around the massive man’s thick neck from behind, halting the lunge of his head toward her tender flesh.

For a second, Hannah continued to stare into those hungry eyes. Then the man was yanked backward by the whip around his neck. The force of it forced him to drop her, and Hannah rolled out of the way, bumping against the television before her wild gaze found the terrible man with all the teeth once more.

He was standing over her father, who hadn’t managed to pick himself up yet. The monster’s eyes weren’t on the man that he’d casually knocked aside, but on the doorway of the apartment. When he spoke, the words were full of such vehemence that Hannah briefly thought it was her father’s voice.

“Baroness,” the monster spat the title like it was a curse. “To what do I owe this personal attention?”

In the doorway, holding onto the handle of the whip that had saved Hannah’s life, stood the most beautiful woman that the small brunette had ever seen. Tall, regal, with red hair that was cut short, she was stunning in a way that the child had never thought possible outside of movies. The glowing crimson whip that she had used to haul the man away from Hannah hung loosely from one hand.

When the woman spoke, it was with utter confidence and power. Real power, not Reginald’s tantrums. “You’re not killing anyone else, Fahsteth,” she announced flatly. “Not again.”

“Really?” The big man asked while lifting both hands as if to show that they were empty and that he was surrendering. “ Well, in that case, I suppose I’ll just have to–”

Reacting to some sign that Hannah hadn’t noticed, the so-called Baroness spun around suddenly, narrowly avoiding the lunge of the man that Fahsteth had been trying to distract her from.

A sword, the young girl realized belatedly while staring at what was happening in the doorway. The man who had attacked was swinging a sword around, taking chunks out of the wall. They struggled in a fight that was over so fast that the girl didn’t have time to follow anything that had happened. There was just a flurry of swings and the sound of that blade cutting into the wall, and then his sword was on the ground and the man himself was caught in the woman’s grip, her arms around his throat.

“Hey, Baroness!” the first man, Fahsteth, bellowed to get her attention. “You know that thing you said about me not killing anyone else?” His hands were still raised, but when he turned them the other way, there was a long-bladed knife in each of them that had appeared out of nowhere. “You might wanna think about throwing an asterisk onto that if you write this stuff down.”

With that, as the beautiful woman let out a cry of warning and tried to release the man that she had been struggling with, Fahsteth threw a single blade to each side. One struck struck Hannah’s father, who still hadn’t managed to pick himself up from the floor where he’d been knocked.

The other struck Hannah herself, embedding itself into the girl’s stomach with a suddenness that was almost as shocking as the utterly blinding pain that coursed through her.

“Got anymore predictions, Headmistress?” Fahsteth asked before spinning on his heel. With a shout of exuberance, he threw himself at the nearby window, crashing through the glass to escape.

In the next instant, the red-haired woman snapped the neck of the man that she had been struggling with, throwing the body aside before rushing forward. She dropped to one knee beside Hannah, freeing the blade from her stomach with a quick pull before pressing a hand over the wound. “No, no, no,” she murmured rapidly, head shaking. “Damn it! Listen to me, child, do not close your eyes. Look at me. Look at me, Hannah. Don’t close your eyes, okay? Keep them on me, keep looking at me.”

“How—how do you know my… my name?” The little girl asked, her voice thick with pain.

“I know a lot of things about you, Hannah,” the woman informed her. “In fact, I was just on my way to talk to you today when that… creature chose to make an appearance. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I thought we’d have more time. I thought I could make your father stop, take you somewhere that people would care about you, and you could have a chance to be a little girl for a bit longer.”

“I—I… d-don’t… d-don’t… wanna… d-die…” The little girl’s tears flowed freely, almost blinding her as she stared up at the woman, terrified of what she was saying. “Please, please, I’ll be good, I promise.” Her sobs had taken on a ragged, pained quality as each word grew harder to speak. “Please…”

“Hannah, listen to me. Listen.” The woman tilted her chin up with a finger. “You are not going to die, do you understand me? My name is Gaia Sinclaire, and I promise you that you will not die today. We just… have to do things a little different. I’m not sad because you might die, Hannah. I’m sad because I was looking forward to getting to know you, and now I’m not going to get that chance.”

“But… but you said–” Hannah tried to protest, though the effort to speak even that much cost her.

“Shh,” Gaia’s head shook. “I said you weren’t going to die, and you’re not. Of that, you have my word.”

From her pocket, the woman produced what looked like a small chicken bone. Taking it in both hands, she snapped the bone and tossed it aside while continuing to smile at the girl. “It’s okay. It’s all right.”

No more than twenty seconds after the bone had been broken, another figure stepped through the doorway. This one was a man, tall and handsome, dressed in an emerald suit. The shirt beneath the suit jacket was black, and the sunglasses he wore were tinted so dark that they appeared opaque.

“You broke the bone,” the newcomer announced, sounding vaguely surprised. “On purpose? I was half-expecting to find it discarded in a dumpster, with you back at your school laughing at the image of me rooting through the trash, trying to figure out what you wanted.”

Turning on him, Gaia interrupted before the man could continue. “Shut up and pay attention, Seller. The girl’s been poisoned. It was one of Fahsteth’s blades.”

Wincing noticeably, Seller’s head shook. “Fuck, so why’d you call me in? I know some of those hardliners you run with think this is the sort of thing we Gardeners enjoy, but you fucking know better than that, Sinclaire. I don’t wanna see this. Fahsteth’s blade? You know we can’t fix a Bystander that’s been hit by one of those. It’s impossible.”

“She’s a potential,” Gaia informed him in a low voice. “One of our biggest, actually. If she was a Heretic, we could fix her in a second. This poison would mean nothing. But…”

Seller’s voice was caustic. “But those stick in the ass old timers wouldn’t stand for it. Can’t break tradition, not even for a sick little girl that didn’t do anything wrong.”

The Baroness shook her head. “They believe that using the Edge on someone who is too young creates more problems.”

“I know exactly what they think!” Seller’s voice was raised. “That’s the whole reason the Garden exists! Because those fucks can’t get over themselves and their ‘tradition.’ And god forbid anyone fight against that. We all saw what happened to…” Pursing his lips then, clearly forcing himself to stop talking rather than launch into a much longer argument, the man finally finished with, “And what do you think?”

“I think I want you to take this girl,” Gaia Sinclaire replied softly, “and save her life. Make her a Heretic. Give her the power she needs.”

“You know if we take her,” Seller’s voice was equally quiet. “We don’t give them back. She’ll be one of us. You said she was one of your favorite potentials?”

“I would rather she go with you and live, than die.” Gaia’s voice was hard. “Take care of the girl, Seller. Heal her, keep her safe. Teach her how to fight. Teach her how to take care of herself. Teach her how to survive… and how to win.”

Slowly, Seller reached up to push his sunglasses down so that his pale eyes could look into Hannah’s weak, pain-filled gaze. “What about you, kid? What do you want?”

“I….” Hannah started. “… want… to… live.”

“Good enough for me.” The man crouched, pushing his hands under Hannah before lifting her off of the floor. “I’ll take the kid back to the Garden, Baroness. We’ll fix her up.”

He started for the doorway, the small, weak figure clutched in his arms. Before he reached it, however, another voice spoke up. “Heeeeey. What about me?”

It was Hannah’s father, Reggie. He was still lying in a pool of his blood, hand waving back and forth. “I ain’t… I ain’t dead either, you stupid fucks. What about me?”

Pushing herself up, Gaia Sinclaire stood over the man. “What about you? Well, as it happens, I was on my way here to tell you what I think of how you’ve treated your daughter, Mr. Owens, when that creature so rudely interrupted. And now? With that particular wound and the poison in the blade, you’ll be dead within the hour.” Taking the handle of the knife with one hand, she tore it from his body while straightening up. “Give or take.”

“You shit!” The man blurted. “You can’t just… can’t just leave me here!”

Standing there regally, the Baroness gazed down at Reggie. “There are several things that I am capable of, Mr. Owens. I am capable of understanding what you’ve done to your daughter. I am capable of understanding that you are never likely to change. And, perhaps most importantly for you in this second, I am, in fact, fully capable of leaving you right where you are.”

With that, she pivoted on her heel and left the man to scream useless insults and threats after her.

“All right, kid,” Seller announced while walking deeper into the apartment, toward another door. “Let’s get you fixed up, huh? You know where this door goes?”

Blearily, the poison working its way through her, Hannah lifted her gaze to look that way. “It’s a…. closet…”

The man smiled. “Wanna bet?” Leaning close enough to twist the knob without dropping the girl, he pushed it open, revealing a whole new building on the other side.

Eyes widening in spite of the pain she was in, Hannah stared at the impossible sight. “H-how…?”

“You think that’s cool, munchkin,” Seller announced, “then the rest of this stuff is gonna blow your mind.”

******

Four Months Ago

“They’ll never take me back,” the girl who had grown into a beautiful, powerful young woman over the past six years stood in the middle of the empty street. Rain poured down from above in great sheets, the raging storm making it all but impossible to either see or hear further than a few feet away. “Not after what I did,” she finished.

Beside her, the woman who had saved her life by sending her away all those years ago lay a hand on her shoulder. With her other hand, she clicked the top of a pen. The second the pen was clicked, the water stopped falling on the two of them. It was still raining just as heavily as before, but a space had opened up where the water simply avoided, falling to either side. It was as if an invisible shield had surrounded them.

“It’s going to be all right, Hannah,” Gaia promised the girl.

“All right?” Turning on her, the brunette shook her head. “I killed my teammate. That’s not all right. That’s not something they’ll ever forgive. I killed him. They’ll want payback for that. I have to run.”

“It was self-defense,” Gaia reminded her. “He was trying to–”

“I know what he was trying to do, I was there!” Hannah shot back. “You think it matters? I killed him and everyone saw me with the body. They know I killed him, they know it was me. They don’t know anything else. They don’t know about the harassment. They don’t know about the letters. They don’t know how many times he said he didn’t care that I like girls. Fuck, it was a turn-on for him! He said we could get one of the other babes in and make it a real party. But yesterday he just… he just… he tried to push the issue. I killed him. I just hit him and I hit him again, and then I couldn’t stop hitting him. That’s what they saw. That’s what they walked in on. Me, sitting on his chest, hitting his dead body for so long that his face was just a… a mess. I know what they saw. I know what they were going to do. So I ran away. I would’ve been taken anyway if Seller hadn’t gotten me out and given me your number. Now I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Listen to me, Hannah,” Gaia’s voice was firm. “You are going to be all right. First, the Garden wouldn’t dare attack the daughter of one of Crossroads’ senior staff. It would provoke a war.”

“But I’m not related to anyone from your school,” Hannah pointed out.

“You will be as soon as I finish adopting you,” Gaia replied simply. “You’ll be my daughter, my heir, and no one from that school will dare come after you. They’ll have to go through me first.”

Hannah’s mouth fell open. “You want to adopt me? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that?”

“Actually,” Gaia shrugged. “You happen to be the perfect age to start attending Crossroads.”

“Your school.” Hannah’s disbelief was palpable. “You want to adopt me and send me to your school.”

The Baroness nodded once. “You’ve learned so much from Eden’s Garden already, but I know they don’t start teaching magic until this year, Hannah. The human body can’t handle it until now. So you have a head-start on the physical parts, but you’ll be right with the others when it comes to magic. You’ll come to Crossroads. It will be hard for you to adjust, but I believe that you can manage it. I believe that you will excel, that you can excel at anything. I’ve been keeping an eye on you, Hannah, the whole time you were with the Garden Heretics. I know you. I know you can do this.”

Pursing her lips for a few seconds, the girl finally shrugged. “What the hell, it’s better than being on the run for the rest of my life.”

“Good,” Gaia smiled a bit. “We’ll spend the summer together. And in the fall, Hannah Sinclaire can join Crossroads.”

“No,” the young woman shook her head firmly, turning a bit to face the Headmistress. “Not Hannah. I’m tired of that name. That’s the name my father chose. I’m done with it. You want to adopt me? Fine, but change my whole name then.”

“Very well,” Gaia nodded once. “What shall we call you then, if not Hannah?”

The girl was quiet for a few seconds before she spoke. “I liked being at Eden’s Garden. You know, it’s not as bad as you Crossroads people make it sound. Sure it’s… different, and there’s some nasty people there. Hell, I’ve done some bad things. Things your people would consider bad. But it’s not all evil mustache twirling. They’re not a bunch of monsters. They just think differently than you. Hell, they say a lot of things about you guys that’s not true.”

Gaia’s head inclined into a simple nod. “I am aware of this. I would not have sent you with Seller if I didn’t believe you could be safe there.”

The girl continued, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to abandon it. Eden’s Garden taught me a lot. They taught me how to fight, how to protect myself. I’ll go to your school, I’ll even take your name. But I miss the Garden. I want my new name to help me remember it.”

“There is a possibility,” Gaia informed her. “I have… heard that the apple has a special significance to Garden students.”

“Apples, sure,” Hannah bobbed her head. “Or just fruit in general. The whole bullshit with the apple on the tree? The forbidden fruit? Yeah, that’s real for them. Sort of. That’s how they awaken us. You guys use the lighthouse, Eden’s Garden uses the fruit of knowledge. You eat the fruit, you become a Heretic.”

The Crossroads Headmistress nodded at that. “Of course. If you wish to hold onto your connection to the Garden, there is a name whose source was derived from the Old Welsh word for apple, aball. Or afal, depending on who you speak with. Ynys Afallon, to be specific. The island of apples. Or, in more common terminology… Avalon.”

“Avalon…” The girl considered for a moment before nodding slowly. “I like it.”

“Very well,” Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Then after today, you need never answer to the name of Hannah Owens again. This is your fresh start. From this point on, you are Avalon Sinclaire.”

“I still think this is all going to blow up in our faces,” the newly dubbed Avalon remarked quietly. “And Eden’s Garden won’t just let it go. They can’t. But…. what the hell, I suppose your Crossroads Academy has a new student. Just one thing though, I don’t do well with roommates. They never last.”

The Headmistress smiled faintly at that. “Never fear. I happen to have the perfect roommate in mind for you.”

“I’ll break her inside of a week. She’ll beg you to move her,” Avalon replied flatly.

Gaia met her gaze, her smile broadening just a bit. “We shall see, my new daughter.

“We shall see.”

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