Rudolph Parsons

Desperate Times 36-06

Previous Chapter

We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used  a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”  

The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.

“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.

“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”

“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”

The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”

With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”

As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”

“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”

Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”

“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.

Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.

And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.

“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.

I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.

One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.

Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.

Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”

She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.

With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”

“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”

“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”  

That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.

“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.

Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”

“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”

Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”  

“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.

The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”

Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”

Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”

Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”

It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”  

Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”

With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”

“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”

“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”  

Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”

“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”

“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”

So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.

Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.

It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.

“You’re crazy.”

Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”

“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”

Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.

I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.

“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”

“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”

“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”

“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.

“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”

“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”

Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”

That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”

That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.

Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.

Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”

She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”

“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”

“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”

Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.

If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.

Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.

Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”

“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”

“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”

“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”

Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.

“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”

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Desperate Times 36-03

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“I’m so tired of people that care about me getting hurt because of me.”

The soft, quiet admission came as I knelt in the sand of the Crossroads beach some time after our thorough investigation of everything in the secret hideaway places that Theia had exposed for us. I didn’t want to say that we’d found nothing, since there was still plenty to go over later with the PAWS, but… yeah, there was no bright neon sign pointing at where Avalon was. Not that we’d found yet, anyway. And none of the other groups had had much better luck.

And to make matters worse, I had no real way of contacting Jophiel and Elisabet. Especially when I didn’t even know if they had gotten back to Earth yet. Hell, I’d even asked for a way to contact them and they had simply said that they would contact us. So that was just great. Which meant no ranting at them about helping Avalon until I could figure out how to initiate that contact. That, of course, had resulted in a lot of internal ranting and cursing that had made me glad that Tabbris wasn’t listening in.

And to make matters even worse than that, Trice was gone. We had no idea how he’d gotten out, only that he was gone. Gaia was apparently looking into it, but I wasn’t sure how much she’d find out.

Avalon was captured and Trice had escaped somehow. That was just… perfect. Just super fucking perfect.

So now I was back at Crossroads. It was late enough (so late that everyone else was in their dorms) that I probably should have been asleep. Especially after the day that I’d had. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t… couldn’t go to that room right then.

I wasn’t alone, in several ways. Shiori was with me, having gotten a special pass from Gaia to stay with me. Her head was on my lap, and she was very gently snoring while one of her hands lay limply against mine, the girl having fallen asleep that way. Not that I minded. The fact that she was right here, safe, and so close to me made me feel… well, a little bit better. With one hand, I gently stroked her hair, listening as she breathed in and out peacefully.

My shark buddies were there too. We’d had a pretty big reunion as soon as I made it out there earlier, with the girl who was now sleeping against me. I wasn’t sure how sharks could actually show emotion, but somehow, my shiver had managed it. They were clearly happy to see me, and we’d gone for a long, thoroughly exhausting swim (part of my desperate attempt to focus on something else and wear myself out a bit to hopefully sleep at some point).

So, I had played with them for an hour or so, letting my sharks carry me around through the water. They were deadly killing machines, of course. But they were also like happy, goofy little puppies who were so glad to see me that they kept swimming in circles and bumping up against me. It was weirdly adorable, and despite the terror in the back of my mind the whole time about what Avalon was going through, it did help a little bit. Not as much as Shiori’s presence did. But still. It helped.

And yet, it was neither Shiori nor my sharks (who were still swimming about as close to the beach as they could manage) who were the focus of the words that I had quietly spoken. No, those had been directed toward the person standing silently behind me, who had clearly come just close enough for me to sense him before waiting for me to actually speak.

Deveron, of course. Now that I had spoken, he came closer, hesitating before moving to sit on the other side of me, opposite from Shiori. His voice was as soft as mine had been. “You know better than that, Felicity,” he quietly reminded me. “Avalon being taken wasn’t your fault.”

My head shook at that, voice catching in my throat briefly before I managed to reply, “You didn’t hear Manakel. The only reason he managed to take Valley is because Gaia was distracted by me. If I hadn’t come back right then, if I hadn’t made Gaia come deal with that situation–”

“Then it would have been something else,” Deveron interrupted. He raised a hand like he was going to touch me before stopping himself. But his eyes were intent. I could feel them on me despite the fact that I was still looking out at the ocean. “There would have been some other distraction, Flick. Something else would have pulled Gaia away long enough for him to make his move. Don’t let him get into your head like that. He wants you to feel guilty about it.”

“Well,” I muttered darkly, “it’s working. I do feel guilty. He took her right when I came back. He used me to hurt her. Just like Fossor used me to hurt Mom. He threatened her, threatened to take me, and she traded herself instead. She traded herself to that psycho monster to save me. Everything she’s been through, everything that happened to her since then, it’s–”

“Fossor’s fault,” Deveron interrupted again, his voice hard. “It is Fossor’s fault, not yours. Just like this is Manakel’s fault, his doing, not yours. It’s the fault of the person who does the action. You know that, Felicity. You tell other people that all the time.”

For a moment, I couldn’t respond to that. I looked down and away, my eyes settling on the peacefully slumbering girl beside me. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, I quietly asked, “What about when the person does something terrible because of the society they were raised in, or bad things happen because of something they did even if they didn’t intend it, and they change later? Are they allowed to be a better person, or does that taint them forever?”

That made it Deveron’s turn to not say anything at first. From the corner of my eye, I saw him flinch just a bit, his gaze turning out to the water before he sighed. “I know she’s not the same person she was,” he said quietly. “And I know she didn’t intend what happened. But–” He went quiet again before his head shook. “But it’s not that simple. My head can know something, but my… damn it.”

“Yeah,” I murmured softly. “Exactly.”

For a couple of minutes, we just sat there, quietly watching the waves as they lapped against the shore. Finally, I started, “I… know why you can’t just forgive her or anything, just like that. I know. I understand. Emotions are more complicated than that, and… and even if she didn’t mean what happened, even if she’s changed, even if so on and so on, that doesn’t fix things. You were still hurt, your family was…” Swallowing hard, I finished with, “I understand.”

A moment later, Deveron’s head dipped into a slight nod. His voice was a bit hoarse. “And I know… I know why you do trust her, why you feel close to her… them. I understand what she did for you, what they’ve done for you. I’m glad that–I’m glad that it helped you. But I just can’t–” He stopped for a second, clearly fighting for words before ending with, “I just can’t. Not yet.”

“I get it,” I assured him, biting my lip before hesitantly asking, “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad at you?” He blinked my way before coughing. “Oh, you mean for back at the camp when–” Stopping, Deveron shook his head. “No, Flick. I’m not mad at you. I’m just…” He sighed. “It’s complicated. Joselyn was always better at the talking to and understanding people part. I–”

He stopped himself from actually saying it, so I said it for him. “I miss my mom.” My voice cracked a little bit at the admission, and I lowered my head, shivering just a little despite the warmth of the night air. “I want her to be here. I… I want my mom.”

Eyes closing, Deveron took a moment, clearly unable to speak. Finally, he managed a very slight nod. “Yeah,” he spoke simply, his voice almost breaking. “I miss her too.”

My head shook a little, as I fought to control myself even just a little bit. “I… what… what about the thing for tomorrow?” Because we did have a slight plan, something that would at least help protect Avalon for the time being. Specifically: Tangle. We had been holding off from actually giving her the cure and waking her up to avoid forcing the Seosten to do something drastic before we were ready. But, well, right now we were the ones that were down to doing something drastic. If we woke up Tangle and took her somewhere safe, the Seosten wouldn’t have their alternate candidate for opening up Liesje’s blood vault. They would have to keep Avalon alive, at least for the time being.

But thanks to hospital rules, we couldn’t just go straight there. The whole situation was going to require some… finesse. More finesse than I’d had in mind when I’d first blurted out that we should just go wake her up, so it was a good thing that Gaia and Dare had more sense.

“Gaia’s arranging it,” Deveron replied easily. “You’ll be going with her, then?”

I gave a quick nod at that. “We’re all going. The rest of the team, I mean. I’m not going back to classes yet. Gaia already set it up so I could have more time to recover from the… from being imprisoned and all that, the stuff the rest of the school is supposed to think happened. And the others are supposed to get the day off to help. And to deal with… with Avalon being kidnapped. So we’re using that.” I grimaced then. “I wasn’t going to leave them behind again. They deserve to be there for this too.” Glancing that way, I added, “So do you, you know.”

He hesitated, but in the end, the man shook his head. “I’ve got some other things I can check out, contacts I can work with. They probably don’t know anything, but… you know, can’t hurt. But speaking of which, when you say you’re going with the whole team…”

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I nodded. “Right, I meant Scout, Columbus, and Sean, mostly. And Shiori, but she’s not…” I glanced to the sleeping girl, gently stroking two fingers down her cheek. “I haven’t even seen Doug or Rudolph yet. They… they’re going to want to know about their friends, about…” My face twisted. “… about Isaac. They–oh God, how much am I supposed to tell them? I don’t know what–I mean, Scout and Tristan said that they know some of it, that Avalon was… prepping them for it. They think that it’s okay to let little threats go to get big threats, but even that’s a big step away from the truth. I… I don’t know what to do.”

That time, Deveron really did put his hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “If you’re anything like your mother, you’ll know when they’re ready to hear it. And you’ll be damn convincing.”

The words made me flush deeply. “But no pressure or anything.” Coughing then, I looked away, letting the silence carry on for a few seconds before hesitantly asking, “Could… um. Could you tell me a story about her? Just… anything. I wanna hear about my mom.”

Deveron’s hand on my shoulder squeezed just a little once more, before he nodded. “Sure, kid.

“Let me tell you a story about Jos.”

******

It was breakfast the next morning. Monday, April 23rd. Not that it mattered since, again, we weren’t going to class. Which was probably a good thing, since I was absolutely not in the right state for it. I’d gotten just under an hour of sleep, so I was… well, pretty rested considering my Amarok-stamina, but not exactly perfect after that long and incredibly stressful day.

Shiori had slept with me, in my bed. It was the only way that I could stand to be in that room while thinking about what kind of situation Avalon must have been in.

Now, we were sitting together to eat breakfast, with Sean, Columbus and Scout. Vanessa and Tristan were over regaling (mostly in the latter’s case) their own team with the (adjusted) stories of our exploits. And as for Douglas and Rudolph, they… seemed to be staying back for the time being. The two of them had seen me, but either they didn’t know what to say just yet, or they were deliberately holding back to give the rest of my team time to actually catch up with me.

Either way, I was sitting there, staring at the food on my plate even as a much bigger rock than Herbie seemed to have settled into the pit of my stomach. “… I’m not hungry.”

Columbus was the one who spoke first. His voice was quiet, yet firm as he looked to me. “I know how that feels. But you need to eat. It’s hard, I know. It might taste pretty much like dirt. But you need the food. So, try to choke it down? It’s easier when it’s warm than if you let it get cold.”

I still wasn’t sure where Columbus and I stood. I knew he felt uncertain (at best) about the whole Tabbris thing, and Seosten in general. That was understandable. I also knew that he cared about me, that his hesitation on the Tabbris thing was him being protective. But still, I wasn’t sure how things were going to proceed. We were… awkward.

For a moment, the two of us locked eyes. I hesitated before giving a slight nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “I know, I can’t just not eat. It’s just… I keep thinking about Avalon and whether they’re feeding her or…” Stopping short, my eyes closed and I gave my head a sharp shake.

He was right though, so I shoved my fork into the food and began to eat mechanically. It probably tasted good. Chef Escalan’s food usually did. But I didn’t really notice. I just pushed the food into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I also tried not to think about Avalon too much, not that it really helped.

Beside me, Shiori gave me a little nudge, clearly trying to distract me. “Do you know what time we’re supposed to leave?”

“Gaia said about nine o’clock,” I replied. “So not for a couple hours.” Taking another bite, I found myself looking across the room. There were people staring at me, people who had just started to hear some of the stories from Vanessa and Tristan. Word of what had (supposedly) happened to us and the others was spreading. Which meant that some of those stories would soon get to Rudolph and Douglas, who were currently among those staring at me as they stood in the cafeteria entrance.

Right. I needed to talk to them. Before they heard about Isaac and… and all of that from anyone else. I didn’t think that Tristan was talking too much about that part of the story just yet, but still. They needed to hear it from me, not third or fourth hand through rumors.

Unfortunately, I had just decided that when someone else approached the table. I sensed them getting near, but wasn’t sure who it was before he spoke up.

“So,” Zeke announced, “Pretty funny how you disappear for two months, and two minutes after you show up again, Avalon vanishes.”

Shiori started to say something then, but I nudged her while shaking my head at Sean, who had also opened his mouth. Instead, I tightly replied to the boy standing behind me, “The only funny part is that you’ve managed to survive for all this time and still think this is a good time to start your juvenile macho bullshit. Besides,” I added, “Didn’t you spend the whole past year thinking that Avalon’s a Garden spy or plant or something?”

The boy’s response was a shrug. “Maybe I just think that the rest of these guys should be careful,” he drawled lazily, adding a gesture to the others. “Getting close to you seems pretty dangerous right n–”

I was on my feet, the squeak of the chair being shoved across the floor from the force of me standing and turning so quickly barely reaching my ears as I put myself face to face with him. “Do you have something to say, Zeke?” Behind and around me, I heard the others stand up as well. And there were even more people watching us.

Zeke met my gaze, looking briefly uncertain before finding his voice. “Yeah, just that maybe since you didn’t bother to bring Sands back with you, maybe someone else should take care of her sister. Which means getting her away from–”

Wham.

It wasn’t me. As Zeke doubled over with a cry from the fist that had been firmly planted in his stomach, I belatedly realized that I wasn’t the one who had hit him. Instead, it was Scout. The other girl was there, having stepped between us to punch the boy.

“Nobody takes care of me,” she informed Zeke, even as he clutched his stomach and took a step back, still doubled over. “I’m quiet, not an invalid.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Reid Rucker, the second-in-command of the security team behind Professor Kohaku, called out as he approached quickly. “Something wrong here?”

By that point, Zeke had mostly recovered. He opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing, but hesitated while thinking better of it. In the end, the boy just muttered, “Isn’t there always?” Then he pivoted and stalked off.

“You guys okay?” Rucker asked, looking to Scout first, then to me, before turning his attention to the others. “We don’t have a problem or anything, right?”

“No,” I answered. “No problems here. No more than usual.”

He took a moment to get the same general answer from the others before nodding. “Right, no problems then. Although, if that problem were to come wandering back over running his mouth again, it may behoove you not to hit said problem in front of so many witnesses. Even if that problem does so richly deserve it.” Leaning a bit closer to Scout, he lowered his voice. “I got enough work to do around here. I don’t need the paperwork, you know?”

Scout nodded, and the security man stepped away, moving to talk to another table. The tension lowered a bit, and Sean spoke up. “You girls really okay? Zeke’s just a carechimba who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “But he’s not wrong about Sands and the others still being out there. And…” Slowly, I looked over toward where Rudolph and Douglas were while taking a deep breath. “… their teammates deserve to know what’s going on.”

“You want some help?” That was Columbus, standing beside his sister.

“I…” Considering that for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, maybe you guys better come. I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them the truth, but maybe you should be there.”

“When you say tell them the truth,” Sean started hesitantly, “how much of it do you mean?”

For a few seconds, I didn’t answer. My eyes dropped to the floor, as I considered before lifting my gaze once more. “All of it,” I replied.

“They deserve to know all of it.”

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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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