Rudolph Parsons

Investigations 25-01 – Gordon Kuhn (Interlude Arc)

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Please note, the following is the beginning of a 6-chapter Interlude Arc focusing on Roxa’s old team as they investigate Flick and that whole situation. We will be taking a brief break from our main character to see what’s going on over here. Flick will be back after this arc. 

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 (Five Days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Gordon Kuhn had no sense of humor. That wasn’t exactly true, since there were things that he found amusing. But he had goals, goals that could only be accomplished if he took his training seriously, and didn’t squander the opportunity.

That, and he also didn’t particularly relish the idea of spending a bunch of time laughing alongside the very same people who would cheerfully murder him if they knew what he really was.

Because while Gordon’s mother was a Heretic just as everyone thought, his father was something altogether different. His father wasn’t human.

Most of the people at Cossroads, if they knew what Gordon really was, what his father was, would want him dead. There were only a couple of people that he could trust with his secret. And one of those people, the person who had recruited Gordon into the school to begin with while knowing what he was, had been murdered a couple of days into the school year. Professor Pericles, One of the very few people that Gordon knew without a doubt he could trust, had been murdered.

So was it really any wonder that he didn’t tend to have much of a sense of humor?

“Gordo!” That was Isaac, his roommate. The two were so dissimilar, with Isaac’s refusal to take anything seriously at all, that Gordon was at least half convinced that their entire life as roommates together was being a broadcast as some kind of Odd Couple reality show for the easily amused.

“You ready, man?” Isaac asked from his place at the door into their room. “The others are already waiting for us, but if you need a minute to make yourself pretty…” he trailed off, grinning widely.

Yeah, Gordon thought, and just how fast would you try to kill me the second you found out what my father is, Mr. Comedian? Out loud, he simply announced, “Ready,” while heading for the door.

The rest of the team was waiting for them on the roof of the boy’s dorm when they climbed the ladder to get up there. Douglas, Jasmine, Paul, and Rudolph all looked up as the two boys came over the edge of the roof to join them.

“It’s about time you guys made it,” Jasmine announced. “You know we couldn’t wait much longer. Doug’s power was pretty damn specific.”

Douglas had used his power to get an answer or at least directions toward an answer once per day in order to find the right time for them to do this.

Isaac was bobbing his head. “Sure man, but you know how Professor Kuhn over here it is. We had to get every last bit of that project for Nimbles done before he’d even consider coming out.”

“We’re still five minutes early,” Gordon pointed out flatly. “There was no sense in abandoning our work to come up here before it was time. Now the project’s done, and we don’t have to worry about it later.”

Plus, it had given him a little more time to think about what he was going to do if their theory about Felicity Chambers paid off today. And more specifically, how he was going to get her away from the rest of his team in order to ask her the things that he really needed to ask her.

Paul, ever the peacemaker, raised a hand. “All right, well we’re all here now, so let’s get busy.” He looked toward Rudolph, who stood at the edge of the roof. “You seen where Flick and Avalon went?”

The other boy gestured idly, his voice making it clear that he was trying not to yawn.  He had never been very invested in this, and had made his own doubts clear. Yet he didn’t go against what any of them said, and never refused to help. “They went down to the beach about ten minutes ago. Shiori was with them.”

Jasmine smirked knowingly at that, “Well, at least someone around here is getting some action today.” Seeing the others looking at her, she shrugged.”What? She may or may not be an evil bitch, but you gotta admit, she’s got game.”

“Okay, dude,” Isaac muttered. “Really trying to focus right now, and that’s not helping.”  Visibly shaking it off, he focused on Jasmine. “You first, since it’s safest for you. Make sure it’s clear?”

She nodded, holding both arms out cockily as she stood in front of him. “Well, beam me over, Scotty.”

Obligingly, Isaac reached out to put a hand on her arm, before looking over toward the roof of the girl’s dorm, across the way. A moment later, Jasmine disappeared from where she was standing, and reappeared almost immediately on the other roof.

That was one of the powers that Isaac had inherited during one of their fights over the past few months. At any point, he could transport himself, and/or anyone he was physically touching to any place within his line of sight. Unfortunately, he couldn’t transport through solid objects, even if he could see through them, like glass or bars. Plus, he could only do a maximum of one person other than himself at the same time. Which meant they had to do this slowly.

After taking a moment to look around and make sure the roof of the dorm was clear, Jasmine raised a hand to wave over at the rest of them.

“Right then,” Paul announced while looking to Douglas. “You’re next. Remember, keep your head down. We don’t need this to go to shit this early.”

Clearly unable to help himself, or unwilling to try, Isaac blurted, “So it’s okay if it goes to shit later?”

To his credit, while Gordon would have given the boy an annoyed look, Paul didn’t miss a beat. “Sure, as long as you’re the only one who gets screwed by it.”

Douglas took his place and was transported over to the roof with Jasmine. He was followed by Rudolph, then Gordon took his turn, with Isaac transporting himself and Paul over last.

Finally, they were all on the roof of the girls dorm, with the boys crouched down to avoid being seen as much as possible. Jasmine was keeping an eye out over the edge of the roof to make sure they weren’t interrupted by anyone climbing up.

“Okay then,” Paul whispered. “We’re kind of exposed here, so do your thing, Gordon.”

Without a word, Gordon stepped over and took a knee around the middle of the roof. Holding his hand out with his index finger and thumb apart in the shape of an almost-closed circle, he peered down through the space between the fingers at the roof. After a moment of focus, the image of the roof itself, as seen between his thumb and index finger, changed to show the inside of the room directly below. It was the kitchenette of an apartment for one of the older students.

It was a power that he had gained from the same creature that Isaac had taken his teleportation from. In the Stranger itself, both powers worked together, allowing it to see through solid objects and then teleport itself beyond. But in Gordon’s case, the x-ray vision only worked between his fingers like that (making it obvious when he was using it), and only within a short distance.

Moving his hand around to scan the entire apartment below, Gordon finally nodded. “It’s clear.”

“Great,” Paul announced before looking to Jasmine. “Guess that means you’re up, Jazz.”

The girl took her place next to Gordon then. Kneeling down, she touched her hand against the roof and slowly ran it along the surface. Everywhere her hand touched, the roof turned squiggly and almost see-through, like a very thick liquid. The room below was almost visible.

Jasmine had inherited the third and final portion of the power of the Stranger that Gordon and Isaac had also gotten part of. In her case, she could turn things intangible with a touch. The full power of the Strangers that the three of them had killed allowed it to see through solid objects, render those solid objects intangible (at a distance in its case), and then teleport through.

Once she’d altered enough of the roof, Jasmine gestured. “So who’s first, you big burly men?”

As it turned out, Paul was first that time. Stepping to the shimmering, liquid-like portion of roof, their team leader took a breath before dropping in. Through the space between his fingers, Gordon watched as the other boy cautiously looked around before gesturing for them to follow.

“Next,” Gordon passed the message along, watching as Isaac, Douglas, and then Rudolph went through. He went just before Jasmine, the altered roof material feeling a bit like moving through gelatin before he dropped the rest of the way to land on the floor of the apartment’s kitchenette.

Once they’d all made it into the room, Gordon checked the apartment below the one they were in. An instant later, he dropped his hand, head shaking. His voice was flat. “It’s occupied.”

Wincing, Paul looked around for a moment before pointing to the wall connecting the apartment they were in to the one next door. “Okay, try that one. Maybe we’ll get a little more lucky.”

They did. Between Gordon and Jasmine’s powers, they continued on their semi-roundabout path. First they had to go to the apartment next door, then down one, then over three more apartments before finding one below that was unoccupied. After that, the team had to work their way over until they were directly above their actual target: Flick and Avalon’s dorm room.

From there, once they had made sure that the coast was clear (which they spent at least twice as long on as they had for any other room), Gordon and the others eventually dropped down inside the belly of the beast.

“You know,” Douglas whispered once they were all in the room and his gaze had moved over to where Jasmine was. “You could’ve just like, waited outside the room for us to let you in. I mean, you’re allowed inside the girl’s dorm. You didn’t have to go through all that.”

“And let you boys have all the fun?” Jasmine scoffed with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be selfish.”

Isaac opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get anything out, Paul interrupted with a stage-whisper. “Okay, guys, let’s get busy. Doug’s power might’ve said that now is the best time to search this place, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got all day before they come back.” He looked toward Gordon then, gesturing to the door. “Keep a lookout, just in case?”

Gordon nodded once and stepped that way. Setting his fingers up, he put himself in a position where he could see through into the hallway and toward the main entrance. Hopefully, it would give them enough of a warning if Flick and Avalon returned before they were done searching.

He stood there, listening to his teammates carefully and thoroughly search the entire room behind him while he kept watch. Before they got too involved, however, Gordon spoke up. “Remember to put everything back exactly the way it was,” he pointed out. “You never know what they might notice being out of place. And don’t touch that box.” Without looking, he pointed toward the object in question in the corner of the room. “That’s where Flick keeps the mice.” He knew that much from his thorough examination of the room before they’d dropped inside.

“Dude.” Isaac’s hand was on his arm. “Seriously, don’t be such a worrywart, Gordo. We’ve got this. We’ll find proof that Avalon and Flick are some kind of Eden’s Garden spies, take it to the Headmistress, and she’ll make them tell us what really happened to Roxa. Easy peasy.”

Closing his eyes, Gordon took a deep breath before grunting through gritted teeth. “Stop cursing everything, stop distracting me, stop calling me Gordo, stop touching me, and keep looking.”

He’d made his aversion to being touched quite clear from the beginning. It was already hard enough to make sure he didn’t lose control and accidentally use the power that he’d inherited from his father without being able to explain where it came from. Part of Gordon felt like he should make an excuse about having killed something while he was on a family trip to explain it away. But he was afraid that would just lead to having to answer more than he wanted to. Better to keep his hybrid abilities secret, for now.

Still, it meant that every time one of his teammates touched him unexpectedly, it just reminded Gordon again that as much as he might (usually) like them (well enough), he couldn’t actually trust any of them. Not if they ever found out what he was. If they ever touched him while he wasn’t paying attention and keeping his skin the right temperature, their fingers would instantly freeze, likely to the point of shattering. And that… well, that would probably raise a few questions that he couldn’t answer very easily.

Fifteen minutes later, Isaac cursed while turning in a circle in the middle of the room. “Okay, there’s nothing here. No letters from her handlers back at Eden’s Garden, no vials of poison, no extra cell phones, no maps of secret entrances, nothing.”

“First of all, she does have more than one cell phone,” Jasmine informed him. “Believe me, I’ve seen her using two different ones. And we did find something. These.” Extending her hand, she showed a cloth bag that was meant to hold marbles. This one was full of quarters.  

Douglas raised an eyebrow at that from where he was sitting at Flick’s desk, in front of her computer. “Money for the laundromat?” he guessed with a shrug.

“Money for the–” Jasmine echoed incredulously before shaking her head. “Boys. I’m surrounded by boys.” Gordon had a feeling that she was substituting ‘morons’ in her head. “They’re enchanted coins. I’ve seen them use this stuff before, right before they have a completely boring and inconsequential conversation. Which means…” she trailed off, looking around hopefully.

“The coins must be hiding what they’re really saying,” Gordon calmly finished for her.

“Put ‘em back where they were,” Paul instructed. “If they’re that important, she’ll notice if they’re out of place. Wait, take one of them. It’s a bagful, she probably won’t notice one missing. We’ll see if we can find a way to counter the spell on it so we can hear what they’re really talking about.” To Douglas, he added, “You find a way into that thing yet?”

The other boy nodded then, fingers moving on the keyboard. “Got it. I’ve been looking at her e-mail. Nothing too exciting. Normal, boring messages. It’s so boring and ordinary, in fact, that there’s gotta be code here. No one really talks about stuff this boring over e-mail.”

A figure entered Gordon’s vision through his x-ray power then, just coming through the main door. He turned, interrupting in a flat, calm voice. “Chambers is coming.”

“Crap,” Paul announced succinctly before gesturing. “Come on, come on, contingency plan. That side, go, go go. Put the computer back the way it was. Move, move.” His stage whisper was almost frantic as he waved his hands, ushering everyone into one of the room’s corners.

Once they were there, Jasmine whispered, “Being the only girl on the team, I hate to give you boys this kind of ammunition, but… everyone touch me.”

They did, the whole team crowding in to put their hands on the dark-skinned girl’s offered arms and shoulders. As they did so, the doorknob on the other side of the room started to turn. Jasmine quickly knit her brow in concentration, before she and the rest of the team instantly faded from sight.

That was the other major power that Jasmine had gained. As long as she was either standing still or moving incredibly slowly, she could make herself and anyone (or anything) directly touching her completely invisible. If they stayed very still and didn’t make any noise, Flick wouldn’t know they were there.

When Flick came through the open door, she was on the phone, already speaking. “Yeah, one second.” She crossed over to her desk, reaching under it to flip on the privacy screen. The black shield that popped up around the girl’s side of the room should have left her with complete secrecy. Except for the fact that Gordon, Jasmine, and the rest of the team were inside the effect of the screen. So they could still hear Flick just fine as the girl flopped onto her bed while talking.

“We just have to get that choker on Roxa. If we do that, she can come back here and no one’ll know anything’s different. … Yeah, we can figure out the rest later, after we deal with the Roxa problem.  … I dunno, do werewolves and vampires really have that whole rivalry thing? … Oh gee, Miss Asenath, you tell me. Why would I think you know anything about that? … Right, I’ll alert the media.”

There was a little more conversation after that, enough to let them know that this ‘Asenath’ was staying with Flick’s father. It sounded like some kind of bodyguard position. Eventually, however, Flick checked the time and informed the person on the phone that she had to go.

Gordon didn’t know about anyone else, but he barely breathed until several moments after the blonde girl had left the room and it was clear that she wasn’t coming right back.

Finally, however, he exhaled and stepped away from the others as Jasmine released her invisibility. They came back into view, everyone looking at each other.

“Choker?” Douglas demanded. “They have to get a choker onto Roxa before they can bring her back here? What, for some kind of mind control shit?”

“Obviously,” Jasmine confirmed, folding her arms “What else could it be? You–”

“She said Asenath.” That was Isaac, who uncharacteristically looked incredibly serious, even dour as he repeated himself. “She said Asenath.”

Blinking, Paul nodded slowly, looking at Gordon and then back to Isaac. “Uh, yeah. Why, you know the name?”

“My Edge vision,” Isaac replied. “Back when we went through the lighthouse, it was… it was the first real thing I saw with all this Heretic stuff. The first real fight, I mean. One of my ancestors, I think he was my great, great granduncle or something, he was on this hunt, and they were ambushed by a vampire that killed him and his entire group. Her name was Asenath.”

The rest of the team looked at each other. Paul shook his head. “Asenath’s a pretty rare name. I mean, it’s not proof or anything, but…” he trailed off, frowning. “Close enough. Wait–wait, that’s it.”

“What?” Jasmine prompted. “What’s it?”

Holding up his hand to forestall more questions for a moment, Paul was silent while obviously thinking. Then he straightened. “Do we have an address in here somewhere?”

“Sure.” Isaac held up a box. “From her dad, supposedly. I think it was more clothes or something. Anyway, there’s a return address.”

“But it’s gotta be fake, right?” Douglas put in. “I mean, if she’s really from Eden’s Garden, why would she have a house somewhere in–what was it?”

“Wyoming,” Isaac supplied. “Laramie Falls, Wyoming.”

“Wyoming,” Douglas finished. “Right, why would she have a house somewhere in Wyoming?”

It was Gordon’s turn to speak up. “As a cover. If they check her backstory, she needs a house and at least one parent. Too suspicious otherwise.”

Paul was nodding. “Yeah. But this is our chance. It sounds like this Asenath is living there, probably some kind of servant bodyguard for the guy posing as her dad. Or maybe he is her dad. I dunno. The point is, all we have to do is get there and get a look at this Asenath. If she’s a vampire, we’ll know. And if Flick has a vampire living in her house, that’s proof that she’s actually working with Eden’s Garden, right? We prove there’s a vampire living there.”

“Before they use that choker to brainwash Roxa, or whatever they’re doing?” Douglas demanded.

Nodding firmly, Paul replied, “Yeah, before they go that far. We have to prove she’s a threat first. Otherwise… they won’t believe us. We get the proof that she’s got a vampire living in her house and we take that to Headmistress Sinclaire.”

“If we can trust her,” Jasmine muttered disbelievingly before adding, “And how do we get to Wyoming?”

Paul smiled slightly. “You leave that part to me. I’ve got an idea. But uh, that’s gonna take a couple days. So first, let’s get out of here.” He looked to Douglas. “You got that part?”

The boy nodded, tugging his pen out. A moment later, he’d used it to summon a simple ladder, leading back up to the room they had come down from.

After Gordon took a moment to check that the space above them was still clear, the others set about leaving the room. They’d retrace their steps, back to the roof and then to the other dorm.

From there, they’d continue finding a way to prove their theory about Flick and Eden’s Garden. And meanwhile, Gordon would continue to try to think of a way to get Flick alone, away from anyone else. Because if she was from Eden’s Garden, there was a very important question he had to ask her.

Where does Eden’s Garden keep their enslaved Hrimthurs? Because one of them is my father, and I will burn both of these goddamn schools to the ground if that’s what it takes to free him.

Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.

At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”

As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.

A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.

Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”

Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”

Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.

Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.

A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”

“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”

Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.

For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.

“You already are one.”

******

It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.

“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”

“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”

“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”

As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.

It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.

Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.

“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”

Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.

There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.

“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”

Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”

Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was  because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.

Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”

Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”

That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”

Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”

The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”

“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”

The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”

“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”

Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.

Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”

Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”

Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.

Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”

“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”

Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.

In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.

“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.

“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”

“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”

“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”

“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”

Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”

A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”

“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.

“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”

For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”

“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”

Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”

Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.

“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”

Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.

Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.

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Mini-Interlude 19 – Rudolph

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and his new team (Roxa’s old team). 

The early light of the still-rising sun above the ocean illuminated the beach where six figures, five male and one female stood almost a quarter mile away from the edge of the Crossroads school grounds.

“See this here?” Jasmine Rhodes stood beside Rudolph Parsons, gesturing to the boy. “This is bullshit.”

Blanching a little, Rudolph glanced toward the tall, black girl with a weak shrug as he offered, “Sorry?”

Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy, put a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. His role as the peacemaker of the team was well established. “Aww, I’m sure Jazz didn’t mean it like that.”

Rolling her eyes, the girl shoved both hands back through her dual-colored purple and pink hair. “No, I don’t mean your very existence is bullshit. I mean you’re another dude. They think they can replace Roxa with a guy. Which means I’m all by myself. This team is a great big sausage fest.”

That, naturally, was the perfect opening for Isaac Acosta, the short Hispanic boy with black curly hair that fell to his shoulders. His face lit up and he grabbed his roommate by the arm. “You hear that, Gordo? She said we have great big sausages. Do you–”

Gordon Kuhn, his face as flat and humorless as ever, slipped free of his boisterous roommate’s grasp. His voice was dull. “I heard what she said, Isaac. It’s not funny.”

“Aww,” Isaac’s grin lit up the beach more than enough for both of them. “Don’t worry, big guy. Like I said before, we’ll find something that makes you laugh before the year’s out. That’s my new life’s goal. How do you feel about monkeys on little trampolines?”

“We’re getting a little off-subject here,” Paul pointed out. “We didn’t come out here to talk about Gordon’s sense of humor.” To Jazz, he added, “Or your lack of female companionship.” His hand went up almost immediately in Isaac’s direction to forestall the boy’s next words. “I know. I know. I heard it when I said it. Let’s just let that one go for now, kay?”

“My ‘lack of female companionship’ is a pretty big subject.” Jasmine insisted while folding her arms under her chest. “Who the hell am I supposed to talk to about girl stuff, Doug?”

In the back of the group, the short, skinny boy kept his eyes riveted to the Gameboy that his fingers were still dancing across. The lowered bill of his omnipresent New York Rangers cap hid the boy’s expression, though his voice was mild. “I choose to take that as a compliment.”

Jazz shook her head. “I’m serious. You three,” she gestured toward Paul, Douglas, and Rudolph, “get moved to a bigger room for you all to share. Meanwhile, I’m all by myself. It’s…” She shifted a little before sighing. “It’s lonely, okay?”

Feeling a pang of sympathy, Rudolph bit his lip before speaking up. “I can, umm, ask Headmistress Sinclaire if she can switch me with a girl. It’s okay, I don’t mind going to another team.”

Sighing, Jazz shook her head. “Nooo, it’s okay. That’ll just break up some other pair of girls and leave one of them by herself. I can deal. Besides,” she added pointedly, “I don’t want another girl. I want Roxa back. We had a good system. Err,” the girl waved vaguely toward Rudolph. “No offense. Nothing wrong with you. You’re just not Roxa.”

“That,” Paul seized on the opportunity to cut in, “is why we’re out here. Why we wanted to talk to ya away from the school.”

Rudolph blinked around at his five new teammates staring at him. Well, four. Douglas was still engrossed in his game, fingers flying over it so fast they were almost a blur. “You wanted to talk tome about Roxa? Uh, sorry, I really don’t know anything more than you do. Just what the teachers said. She went-”

“Yeah, yeah, we know the official line. Family emergency, had to stay home.” Isaac interrupted. “We don’t buy it. Something else is going on.”

Blinking again, Rudolph hesitated before asking slowly, “Something else? You think the… teachers are lying?”

Paul shook his head before considering. “No, we—okay, yeah. But we don’t think they’re being malicious or anything. We think they’re trying to—dunno, protect us or protect Roxa or something. Whatever, they’re not telling the whole truth.”

“What makes you think–” Rudolph started.

“Roxa doesn’t have any family,” Jazz interrupted. “Trust me, we talked about it. She was an orphan. She lived on the streets. So how does she suddenly have a family emergency?”

Before Rudolph could try to find an answer to that, Paul took over. “That kinda told us there was something else up. So we looked into it. Which brings us to you.”

“Me?” The pale boy blanched again, head shaking. “Listen, I really don’t know anything else. I just volunteered to come over here so Tristan could stay with his si–”

Gordon interrupted, his face somehow more serious than before. “It’s not about that. It’s about Flick Chambers.”

Now Rudolph was even more confused. “Flick? What about her? What does she have to do with Roxa?”

“We’re not sure, exactly.” Paul shook his head. “But—you’re tutoring her, right? With the whole bow thing.”

Rudolph nodded slowly at that, looking around at them. “Yeah? Why? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Like he said,” Jasmine put in, “we’re not sure exactly what Flick’s got to do with Roxa. It’s just… eh, you tell him, Doug.”

The short boy finally looked up from his game, thumb hitting the pause button as he focused. “It’s this power I got on that second hunt we went on. It sort of… gives directions.”

Rudolph’s head tilted uncertainly. “Gives directions?”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah, I mean, once a day I can ask a question and it gives me a hint about where I can find the answer. Sometimes it’s really vague, sometimes it’s really specific. Depends on the question. So I keep asking it how we can find out the truth about Roxa. And every single time, it just gives me one thing. Flick Chambers. That’s the only hint it’ll give me. Flick Chambers, over and over again.”

“Oh.” Rudolph straightened with realization. “That’s why you’ve been staring at her. I thought you had a crush.”

Doug coughed, flushing a little bit. “I was trying to make my power give me more information. But it won’t. It’s just Flick Chambers over and over again.”

“So you see,” Jazz put in then, “why we’re interested in your whole tutoring thing with her.”

Hesitating, Rudolph slowly nodded. “Sure, but I don’t know if she knows anything about her. Did Flick and Roxa ever even talk to each other?”

The other five exchanged glances before Paul spoke up. “We’re not sure. But we need to find out. Whatever the teachers are lying to us for, doesn’t matter. Roxa’s our teammate. We wanna help her if we can. And right now, the only clue we’ve got is Flick. So we’re hoping you could tell us everything you know about her.

“Cuz whatever happened to Roxa, that girl’s involved.”

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A Learning Experience 17-05

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“Seriously, man, thanks for helping.” Extending a hand to Travis Colby (one of Tristan, Vanessa, and Zeke’s teammates) as the muscular dark-skinned boy came into the room where Zeke and I had been working on our project for Carfried’s class, I offered him a smile. “If it was me and a couple Freshmen Heretics wanted to test their magic trap, I’m pretty sure I’d just run screaming in the other direction.”

Travis gave me an easy smile in return, though he did seem a little (understandably) nervous about the whole situation. “No worries, Flick. Already told Zebra if anything goes wrong, I get the next month worth of those care packages his mom keeps sending every week. And even if it doesn’t, I still get one thing out of the box. So I’m good either way. Just, uh, try not to do anything too permanent, huh?” He gestured toward his own face. “Really don’t need to explain any major damage to my momma.”

Blinking at him, I hesitated before asking slowly with a glance toward where Zeke stood, “Zebra?”

Before Travis could respond to that, my project partner stepped between us while clearing his throat pointedly. “Never mind, it’s stupid and childish. Are we going to get started on this thing now or not?”

Grinning past his teammate, Travis stage-whispered toward me, “Tell you ’bout it later.” Then he shrugged casually. “You’re building some kinda ‘react when the right kind of person walks by’ spell thingie, right? So I uh, I guess you just tell me where to walk and what kinda effect to watch for.”

Zeke shook his head at that while using a finger to adjust the way his glasses perched on his face as he corrected the other boy. “Actually, it’s better if you don’t know what to expect. That way we know the result that we get, if we get one, is real and not a subconscious reaction of you expecting it to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. He had a good point. So I nodded. “Yeah, probably best if you don’t know.”

Travis looked back and forth between us before shrugging. “Aight, if you say so. I do have one question though.” His eyebrows went up curiously. “Zeke uh, he said you guys were gonna set your spell to go off based on someone’s physical characteristic. Like that whole thing with his mom’s spell detecting Strangers. He said you’d use something like hair color. But he and I, we’ve both got brown hair. And it ain’t eye color, cuz we’ve both got hazel eyes too. So… what physical trait were you using?”

For once, both Zeke and I looked equally awkward as we glanced to one another and then looked toward Travis and his black skin. My mouth opened before shutting again as I tried to find the best way to diplomatically explain exactly what trait we’d used once we knew he was going to be the test subject.

Travis left us hanging like that for several extremely long seconds before his confused frown turned into a bright, toothy smile as he punched me in the arm. “I’m just fucking with you guys. It’s an obvious physical trait, man, ain’t no need to be all awkward and shit about it. Don’t make it so easy, damn.”

Still laughing at our reactions, Travis straightened and stretched languidly. “Right, where am I going?”

I shook my head, smirking in spite of myself while gesturing toward the other end of the room. About halfway there, a line of tin cans about two feet apart started and ran all the way to the opposite wall. “Just walk slowly past the cans to the other side of the room. We don’t want you to know which one has the actual spell on it. Like Zeke said, better if you have no idea when it’s actually supposed to happen.”

“Walk to the other side of the room?” Travis shrugged then and started that way. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the other boy moved, Zeke and I stepped out of the way and watched carefully. My eyes strayed to the third can in the line of seven. That was the one that we had attached the spell to. Trying not to make my anticipation obvious and risk spoiling the results, I leaned against the wall, continuing to observe.

The boy passed the first can, then the second without any reaction. As he passed the third can, however, he abruptly sneezed loudly, hand flying to his face as his head rocked backward a little bit from the force and suddenness of it. Then he coughed and gave his head a shake before looking over his shoulder at us. “Uh, tell me that was you guys and I ain’t suddenly allergic to being this cool.”

“Yup, that was us.” Wincing, I gestured to Zeke. “We might wanna tone down the reaction just a bit next time. That was less ‘polite sneeze’ and more ‘shotgun explosion recoil.’ You okay there, Travis?”

He waved me off then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Whoo. Clears out the sinuses pretty damn good though, huh?” Giving his head a violent shake, the boy gave us a thumbs up. “So, that about do it for ya?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re good.” Nodding quickly, I looked to Zeke. “Unless you think we need to go again.”

“No,” my project partner walked away from the wall, leaning down to pick up the cans that we had set up. “We’ll ease up on the spell a little bit and then turn it in on Friday. It’s good enough now.”

“Cool.” Travis straightened then before focusing on me once more. “Cuz I was kinda hoping you could give Aylen and me a little help with our spell reaction thing. It’s not a trap or nothing like you guys got set up here, but we gotta have someone who ain’t us to test it. You know, if you ain’t busy or nothing.”

After blinking at that, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

In response, Travis gave me a slow smile. “Columbus said something about how you used to have a job in some movie theater, right?” When I nodded, he went on. “Well, let’s just say you’ll appreciate it.”

Of course, Zeke couldn’t help but put in his own comment. “I’m surprised Carfried put you and Aylen together. I mean, you’re both Bystander-kin. What interesting spells could you possibly come up with?”

Somehow resisting the urge to kick the boy in the knee, I managed through slightly gritted teeth, “All of us just started learning magic this semester. You don’t have some huge advantage on that front.”

He just shrugged. “Yeah, but I’ve been around magic my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more examples than you guys have about what it can do. So, again, what kind of interesting spell could they know about?”

******

As it turned out, the answer to Zeke’s incredibly rude question was ‘one that would’ve been incredibly useful while I was still working at the theater and that I wish I could send back in time to myself.’

Basically, Aylen had looked through the library and found a spell that was meant to be used in older classrooms back during the first days of the school. It made it so that anyone talking above a whisper was made to hear a steady, drowning ‘shhhhh’ noise until they quieted down again. While the trigger for Zeke’s and my spell had been someone passing the object, in their case, the trigger was simple volume.

It ended up working well, and I made them promise to show me how to do it the next chance we got. I wasn’t sure the actual ‘shh’ noise itself would be all that useful, but I might be able to adjust the specific sound into something else. Besides, every new spell that I learned was another arrow in my quiver.

Speaking of arrows in my quiver, it was the next afternoon and I was out on the grass with my newest tutor, who was helping me start to get the hang of the latest update to my slowly growing arsenal.

“Thanks again, Rudolph.” I held up my transformed staff in its bow form and gave it a slightly awkward wave. “Pretty sure I’d manage to poke my own eye out with this if I didn’t have some help.”

The pale-haired boy just shrugged at that, mumbling under his breath, “No big deal.” Straightening, he reached up to his neck and wrapped his hand around the necklace there. As he gave the thing a tug, it pulled off and, in mid-air, extended and transformed into his actual bow. It was pretty similar to the way Tristan’s snake-weapon was disguised, and looked pretty damn cool, to be perfectly honest.

The body of his bow had five buttons along the side. One red, one blue, one white, one green, and one brown. From previous interactions, I knew that each of the buttons determined what kind of arrow would appear when he used the bow. The red button produced arrows that created fire when they hit something, the blue created water arrows, the white one produced arrows that froze things, the green one caused minor shockwaves or earthquakes when they hit, and the brown one created normal arrows for times when he didn’t actually want any kind of special effect. It was the brown one that he hit now.

As the arrow appeared in its place, notched against the string, Rudolph pulled it back and sighted in on the target that he had set up in the distance. After checking to make sure that no one was nearby, he released the arrow and sent it into the target. It didn’t hit the exact center, but it was pretty close.

“Like that,” he announced while lowering the bow. His voice was calm. “I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but could you just take a shot and show me what you do to start and we’ll go from there?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” Nodding, I put my fingers against the energy-string on my own bow and waited for the arrow construct to appear before pulling it back. Sighting in on the target, I took a few seconds to aim before releasing it. The arrow soared through the air… passed the target completely and hit a tree in the distance, sending a shockwave through it that made a handful of colorful birds erupt from the canopy while loudly calling out their annoyance for everyone to hear.

“Uh.” I coughed quietly at the sight of the fleeing birds, flinching a little bit as my face went pink. “Whoops?” Shrugging awkwardly, I added, “I guess maybe I’ve got more than a little practicing to do.”

Even laid-back Rudolph couldn’t restrain his smirk at that as he waved a hand. “S’okay,” he replied. “We’re just starting. When I used my bow the first time, I almost shot Sovereign. Aylen wasn’t happy.”

“Ouch.” Wincing at the thought of how the metal bird and his owner would’ve reacted to having arrows coming his direction, I nodded “Yeah, that was probably bad. But hey, at least you’re better now.”

“And you will be too,” he promised. “Just let me show you a bit. Take up your position again, and–”

Before he could say anything else, however, we were interrupted by Professor Kohaku. The Asian woman approached with her hand up for our attention. Once she was close enough, she gestured to my bow. “I see Nevada has finished your weapons upgrade, Miss Chambers. How does it feel?”

I coughed again, flushing as I glanced to the bow. “It feels like I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.”

“You will before too long,” she assured me with a slight smile. “Mr. Parsons has already learned quite a lot. And if his tutelage isn’t enough, I’m sure that Ulysses would be glad to offer his own assistance.”

“Thanks, Professor.” Returning the woman’s smile briefly, I asked “Err, sorry, was there something else we could do for you? Were you looking for Sean or Zeke?” Those were the two that I knew were part of her Security track. Rudolph, like me, was in the Investigation track with Professor Dare.

“Actually, you were the one I was looking for,” Kohaku replied evenly while shaking her head. “You’re probably already aware that students are allowed to change their track specializations each semester in order to broaden their training. I’d like you to consider joining the Security track next semester.”

That made me blink a couple times in surprise. “Switch to the Security track, ma’am?”

“Yes.” She nodded once. “I believe that you could stand to benefit a lot from what we teach.” Pausing, she added, “For example, we partner our track students with members of the actual security team.”

Wyatt, I realized after a moment. She was saying (without actually saying it since Rudolph was there) that if I joined the Security track, I’d have the perfect excuse to spend a lot of time around Wyatt.

Plus, I really could stand to learn more about security, given everything that had happened so far. After a momentary hesitation as I considered, I nodded. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll—um, I’ll think about it.”

Belatedly, I realized something. “Wait, I do have a question. Um, there’s different teachers for the older student tracks, right? How come the Chief of Security is the Track Advisor for the Freshmen instead of someone like Rucker doing it while you advise, say, the seniors?”

“First of all, the fourth-year students do not technically attend many actual classes,” she answered easily. “They’re usually paired with a fully-trained Heretic whose job has something to do with their own chosen specialty, and are sent out as junior partners. As for the rest of it, yes, most of the track advisers only teach one year. Development, Investigation, Hunters, and Explorers all have different advisers for second and third year. But I am the adviser for each of the three years, though I pass that responsibility off as needed to my subordinates, like Reid Rucker. As I said, we partner our Track students with actual security guards, so it’s similar to the way seniors are partnered with full Heretics.”

That made sense. Kohaku didn’t actually have to do as much hands-on teaching as someone like Professor Dare did, because she had an entire staff of tutors to help out. Which meant she could actually technically be ‘in charge’ of the full first though third year Security track.

“I get it.” Nodding to that, I smiled faintly. “Thanks for explaining. Like I said, I’ll think about joining.”

“Good.” Professor Kohaku paused before looking at Rudolph. “You are welcome as well, of course.”

“Thanks.” He shrugged. “Probably not gonna do it, but thanks. No offense. Just not a security guy.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how a guy as laid back as Rudolph happened to be was the investigator type, but he still seemed to get all his work done anyway. He’d probably do fine no matter what track he joined. Except maybe Hunters. There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and ‘easy ways’ to the straight up combat track.

But if there was, I was pretty sure Rudolph would find a way.

******

“Normally, you will have to carve the runes into your wooden block yourself,” Gaia informed me that night. “As well as invest enough time and power to make the theriangelos spell work. In this case, I’ve prepared most of the block ahead of time, so that you can see how the spell works. Next time, however, you will have to do it yourself.”

Blinking at the incredibly elaborate and detailed scripts that literally covered the piece of wood she was holding up, I whistled. “Wow. We have to remember each of those runes and draw them perfectly in the exact right spot? That’s gotta take awhile.”

“I believe that Benji is fond of a certain phrase that applies here,” Gaia replied with a smile. “One that he has taken great pains to repeat ad nauseum in your classes with him?”

Groaning, I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Magic is not fast. Professor Carfried says it all the time. Magic is not fast. I guess he’s got a point. Still, damn, this is… how long does it take to draw all that?”

“You’ll get better and faster at it with practice,” the woman assured me. “For now, simply finish the last line by closing the circle there.” She indicated a spot on the wood. “Then I will help you invest enough power to make the spell work.”

“You said it was called the… the whatchamangel spell?”

Gaia chuckled, head shaking. “Theriangelos. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word therion, meaning ‘wild animal’ and the word ‘angelos’ meaning–”

“Angel?” I guessed.

“The word angel is derived from angelos, yes,” she confirmed. “But it actually means messenger. Since the spell was initially often used to carry messages that couldn’t be sent by other means, it was given the name ‘animal messenger’ spell.”

“Animal messenger, got it,” I nodded slowly, looking down at the block before accepting it from the woman’s hand along with the black marker. After a moment of hesitation, I closed the last circle.

As I did so, Gaia put her hand over mine and pressed it flat against the block. “Focus on your own power and speak the words that appear on the wall in front of you,” she instructed. “Don’t worry about running out of strength, I will provide my own for you to draw from.”

So, I did. Keeping my hand against the block, I looked up to the wall and began to recite the words that appeared there in glowing script. As Gaia had said, I would eventually have to remember how to do the spell myself (or just write the specifics down and keep it with me), but for now, she helped.

Even then, it took a solid minute to recite the full spell as the words kept appearing. And through it all, I continually pushed my power into the block of wood. I could feel Gaia helping, guiding my own efforts and providing energy for me to draw from. My own incredible stamina helped a lot, but even then there was a difference between the energy I had to go for a run and the energy I had to perform magic. Without Gaia’s help, I probably couldn’t have finished.

Eventually, however, the spell was done. I felt the wood grow hot in my hands. As I dropped it, the wood floated instead of falling. It spun away from me, flying through the air before starting to glow with a bright, almost blinding red and gold color.

As the light faded, the wood wasn’t there anymore. Instead, settling down onto the floor, there was a beautiful fox. Its main body was ruby red, while the underside that would have been white on a normal fox was gold.

I also had the incredibly strange sensation of seeing myself and Gaia. It was weird. I was sitting there watching this gorgeous fox perch on the floor. But I was also looking up at my own body, seeing through the eyes of the animal itself. Herself. However that was supposed to work.

And not only that, I could also smell a lot more than I’d been able to before. My senses of smell and hearing through the fox was incredible.

It was weird, trying to focus on both at the same time. I ended up almost giving myself a headache, staggering a little.

“Shh,” Gaia put a hand on my back. “Close these eyes and focus on seeing through the fox. Focus on controlling the fox. Don’t worry about this body, worry about that one. See if you can make her move.”

Shivering a little, I leaned back against her reassuring touch while letting my eyes drift shut. Then I focused my attention on the animal, seeing through her eyes instead of my own.

Two things I knew for sure. First, I really liked this spell.

And second, given a fox’s general reputation for trickery and spying, I really didn’t see it going well if Ruthers found out what my animal spirit was.

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A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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Begin Again 10-07

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Approximately three hundred and forty-seven thousand showers later, I was relatively free of the stink. Even that was partly due to the special soap that Sands had provided. Apparently whatever she and Scout had made that nasty smelling stuff in the balloons out of, it reacted badly with most other normal cleaning agents. So anyone trying to scrub it off that didn’t have the special soap was in for a bad time.

Yeah, the twins and the boys had detention. They had all of the detention. A month worth, not counting the week of Thanksgiving. The headmistress had graciously agreed to a pause in their punishment for that week before it would continue. Partly because the twins had provided more of that special soap.

Gaia had to know what we were actually doing, of course, even if she wouldn’t be sure of the specifics until Avalon found a chance to talk to her in private. But she also had to keep up appearances, and being punished was something the other four had gone into the situation expecting to happen. Even then, however, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Shiori, Avalon, and I had gotten out of the whole thing scot free. It felt more than a little bit wrong. But when I brought it up, they’d mostly dismissed it. Apparently Sands and Columbus had already worked out a plan together to make it not that bad.

Fingers snapped in front of my face, bringing me back to the present where I outside on the grounds early the next day with each member of my team and Deveron. One guess who was snapping at me.

“Crossroads to Chambers, let’s wake up, huh?” the boy goaded. “You’re the ones that complained about me not training you, so pay attention while I am.” His voice just made me want to punch him. And then maybe keep punching him until he told me what the hell was going on and how much he already knew.

Sean spoke up then, his voice a lazy drawl. “Maybe she’s just still in shock that you’re actually here, buddy. I know I’m tempted to run a quick check for shapeshifters, holograms, or hidden cameras.”

Deveron just gave that cocky smirk of his. “Oh, don’t you worry, Sean. By the time we’re done here, you won’t care if it’s really me or someone pretending. You’ll hate my guts all the same. You guys wanted more actual training, you’re getting it.” His foot moved to kick the box at his side, sending it rolling on wheels across the ground to us. “Everybody reach in there. Should be one for each of you.”

The six of us blinked at each other first before looking at the box. Scout was the first to reach in, coming out with what looked like a simple black metal bracelet without any markings or designs on it.

“Put the bracelets on,” Deveron instructed. “One for each of you. Just snap them onto your wrist.”

“Hey, genius,” Avalon waved her own gauntlet-covered hand at him pointedly. “Won’t fit under them.”

He shrugged at her. “It’ll auto-adjust its size, just move the thing higher and put it over your bicep.”

Deveron was right. As I snapped the bracelet into place, it adjusted itself automatically until it fit snugly without cutting off circulation or being uncomfortable. There was also some kind of padding or cushioning on the thing so that it wouldn’t dig into the skin. All in all, it actually didn’t feel too bad.

“Now what?” Columbus asked, after adjusting his bracelet. “Are we fashion buddies or something?”

In response, Deveron held up a small red ball. It was about the size of a baseball. Tossing it up and down in his hand, he made sure we were all looking at it. After a few seconds, the ball turned blue. An instant after it did, I felt a sudden zap of electricity from the bracelet on my wrist. It wasn’t like a stun gun or anything, more like touching a doorknob and getting hit by a bit of static electricity. It still stung a little though, and was surprising enough that I’m pretty sure every single one of us yelped out loud.

And the glaring began. Deveron ignored it, of course, pushing on. “That tiny little shock is what happens whenever one of these balls,” he tossed the blue orb up and down. “Goes from red to blue without being hit by one of you. Of course, the same thing happens if you hit a ball while it’s blue.”

Releasing the ball, he winked as the thing hovered there rather than falling. “Your job is to hit the ball when it’s red, not when it’s blue. Simple enough? Well, let’s make it a little more fun, shall we?”

With that, the boy reached into the bag he had slung over one shoulder, repeatedly producing one ball after another, heaving them into the air until an even dozen floated in front of him. “There,” he remarked, looking quite pleased with himself. “Here’s the deal. These things are going to fly around in this general area.” He made an encircling motion with one arm. “You guys spread out and watch them. Every once in awhile, one of the balls will turn from blue to red. When that happens, you’ve got… let’s start with ten seconds to hit it before you get a little shock. We’ll adjust the time as we go. And we’ll add a few more balls, widen the area, make them move faster, whatever we need to do to give you all the challenge you’ve been craving. Any questions?” The boy produced a canteen and took a long drink.

“Yeah,” Columbus put in. “I’ve got a question. What about those of us with ranged powers? Ever think about what might happen if we, I dunno, miss and end up hitting the school or someone walking by?”

To my surprise, Deveron raised the canteen as though toasting him. “Fair question, buddy. Yeah, since I don’t fancy getting shot or stabbed or exploded, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the school might frown on you kids for the same thing, we have these.” Stepping back, he kicked a foot against what looked like a small wooden totem. “These things are all around the field here. When we get started, I’ll turn them on. They’ll make a forcefield that should contain any stray shot unless you people make some kind of concerted attack against it. Stay inside the forcefield, hit the balls while they’re red, and don’t kill each other. Keep your eyes open and communicate. You see a ball turn red but you’re too far away to hit it, open your damn mouth and tell someone who can hit the thing. Questions? No? Okay. Do it.”

******

Later that evening, after a long day of being shocked (both by the bracelet and Deveron seeming to actually give a shit about what he was doing) and more classes, I was sitting with Vanessa, Rudolph, and Koren in the library once more, ostensibly to work on our project for Professor Dare’s class.

“Come on, Chambers. You’ve gotta know. Why’d half your team go nuts and stink bomb the faculty?” Koren was leaning forward a bit, her eyes shining with the excitement of someone getting good gossip.

Wait a second. After everything I’d tried, this was the bit that made Koren want to actually talk to me? This was the topic she wanted to bond with me over? A part of me started to flail and sputter inwardly.

Outwardly, I just shrugged at the other girl while replying as dismissively as possible. “I guess Sands and Scout thought they were losing their reputation or something. I dunno. Maybe they were bored?”

“Bored.” Koren echoed the word with sarcastic dismissiveness, her eyes staring at me intently. “In a place like this, with the things we get to do. Listen, if you’re gonna cover for your little friends, come up with a better excuse than ‘they’re bored.’ Make it at least somewhat believable, or everyone’s gonna see right through you. Nah. You know. You know what they were doing, and it wasn’t about being bored. It was about something else. Something…” She squinted at me. “Something in the building.”

Now? Now Koren decided to illustrate why she’d chosen the investigation track? She chose the most inconvenient times to start paying attention to things. Try to subtly hint that she was sort of accidentally insulting or ridiculing someone without meaning to and she was as dense as a freaking boulder. But then she turned around and totally picked apart our ruse about getting into the building. What the hell.

Vanessa interrupted before I could come up with a suitable response to that. “We should start working.” I saw the way she glanced at me, her own expression obviously curious even as she spoke.

“Seriously, bookworm, you’re not even a little curious?” Koren demanded before looking toward the fourth member of our group. “C’mon, Reindeer. You have got to want to know what they’re up to.”

Sighing at the name, Rudolph sat back in his seat before making a single, slow shrugging motion. “Doesn’t seem like she’s in the mood to talk about it right now. Pushing it’s probably a waste of time.”

That was Rudolph. So easy going and slow to anger or even get that excited about anything openly. At first, I’d thought the boy was so lazy that he’d get kicked out or disciplined until he straightened up.

Now, however, I realized that while the boy didn’t go out of his way to get more work, he did do everything that he needed to. He usually worked smarter rather than harder, and he had lots of little shortcuts that let him accomplish as much as he had to without working nearly as hard as others did.

He was, again, a bear. Slow, casual, and outwardly lazy, but fierce when he needed to be.

“Damn it,” Koren muttered under her breath. “You guys are killing me here. I miss my friends.” Though she said it mockingly, I noticed a small hesitation at the end where her expression slipped. It looked like she’d meant to say it dismissively, then realized after it slipped out how true it actually was.

For a moment, I wondered just how Koren probably felt. There didn’t really seem to be that many girls around like her. This wasn’t exactly a good place for gossip queens or the typical high school clique sort of environment. And, I might have been projecting a little, but she seemed kind of lonely.

But damn it, every time I tried to bond with the girl or actually have a real conversation with her, she said something insulting or condescending. Usually it seemed like she didn’t even understand that she’d crossed a line or done anything wrong. The words just blurted out of her unthinkingly, leaving her totally confused when people lashed back at her. She had a surprising lack of self-awareness for someone who was so good at noticing things like the real reason for the stink-bomb prank.

Rather than try to address that then, I just straightened and changed the subject. “Right, so, the Black Death. Plague that killed about a hundred million people. Such a cheerful subject for our project.”

“Yersinia pestis,” Vanessa announced, continuing without looking at any of her books. “That’s the bacterium that causes the plague. There’s three main forms of it. Bubonic is the most common, then Pneumonic, and Stepticemic is the rarest one. And the most deadly. They’re all really bad though.”

“Yeah, they’re… nasty,” I agreed with a sigh. Talking about disease was always depressing. Especially when it was something this awful. “So we know what Bystanders think about it. I mean, generally speaking. What about Heretics? Was there anything… you know, supernatural behind it?”

“They’ve got books about it,” Vanessa replied quickly, her eagerness showing even as she put her hands on the stack in front of her. “”I, um, I didn’t read them yet. I waited for you guys.” The way she spoke made it sound like she was a little kid who had managed to resist opening Christmas presents until everyone else was ready. Actually, knowing the other girl as much as I did, it was probably exactly like that. As obsessed as Vanessa was with learning absolutely everything that she possibly could, stopping herself from pushing on without the rest of us must’ve taken an act of supreme willpower.

Koren, on the other hand, just started to blurt, “You mean you could’ve already had the whole–”

I interrupted. “Thanks, Vanessa. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.” Reaching over, I accepted one of the books that she had collected, glancing at the cover. “Hey, this one looks like a journal.”

“I think it is,” the other girl confirmed. “That’s the best part about this place. They’ve got people alive right now that were here through a lot of that history. So they can like, you know, write it down as eyewitness accounts and then actually update the books themselves. Instead of people generations away from the event translating the book into new languages, we have someone who actually there doing it. I mean, it’s… it’s just really neat.” She flushed a little by that point. “It is to me, anyway.”

Smiling a little bit in spite of myself at her enthusiasm, I nodded. “That does sound pretty useful. Who was this one written by?” I asked casually while turning the book around to look for an author.

“That one?” Vanessa leaned in a little to check which one I’d grabbed a bit more closely. “Oh, look inside the back cover. It was someone named Lyell. Lyell Atherby.”

My head snapped up at that, but before I could say anything, Koren spoke first. “Lyell who?” Her hand snatched the book away from me, opening to the back page before she read out loud. “For my family, my descendants and my friends. May the mistakes we have made in the past be the blocks of the walls that shield our future. Lyell Atherby, originally written May 3rd, 1362, last updated October 10th, 1891.”

I stared at the book in the other girl’s hand. Lyell Atherby? Mom’s… ancestor somehow? Except that I was pretty sure that she had been a Bystander when she first came to the school, so what was going on? Was this Lyell the ancestor that Mom had had her own Edge vision about? Obviously, he was related to Seller in some way, another step back along our family line. Was he dead now? I figured I would’ve heard about him by that point if he wasn’t, but still. What had actually happened to him? 1891 wasn’t that far off from when Mom must’ve been born, if she had been twenty years old in 1922. Had he still been alive while she was a student, or even afterward? Or had he died first? My mind was reeling.

“Um, hey, are you all right?” Vanessa spoke hesitantly. When I looked up to respond, however, she wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Koren, who was still staring at the book intently.

“Huh?” the other girl blinked, looking first at Vanessa, then to the rest of us before flushing noticeably. “Fine. Fine. I’m fine. Let’s just do this. Where does this guy talk about the plague?” She started to flip through the book, turning pages quickly while scanning them. “Blah, blah, blah, rambling…” In spite of her dismissive words, I could tell the girl was actually really interested in what she was reading. For whatever reason, she was just pretending it didn’t matter that much.

Had her vision been about this Lyell guy? Was that how she’d recognized the name? Or maybe it was even about my own mother, her grandmother. Would the whole ‘memory erasure’ thing allow the Edge to give a vision of my mom as long as it didn’t involve the rebellion? I had no idea if that was even possible. And I suddenly really, really wanted to just outright ask her.

Rudolph was talking. “Sounds like this guy was one of the old Heretics. Pre-Crossroads. Wonder what happened to him.”

“You uhh, ever heard the name?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.

He shrugged easily, yawning. “Lyell Atherby? Nah. Never heard of any Heretic with that last name. Maybe he didn’t have any kids. Or he only had a daughter that didn’t keep the name.”

Or maybe he had a descendant who pissed off the establishment so much that they used incredibly powerful magic to completely erase her identity from everyone’s memory, I thought to myself with a scowl.

“Here we go,” Koren spoke then, reading from the book. “Finally talking about the plague. It says: ‘The truth of this horrifyingly devastating curse is yet another cautionary tale for those who read this writing in the future. Do not trust those creatures we know as the Strangers. They are vile and will betray such alliances, as in the case here of the brief and tragic truce between our leadership and the creature known as Fossor. There is–”

“Wait, what?” I blurted, sitting up. “What was that last—what did you say?” I demanded, while grabbing the book out of the other girl’s hand.

“Wow, rude,” Koren muttered, ignoring the fact that she had taken the book out of my hands first.

I wasn’t paying attention. My eyes were scanning the page. “Alliance with the creature known as Fossor?”

“That’s the old term for gravedigger,” Vanessa supplied, trying to help.

Nodding absently, I stared at the passage. “It says that there was this council of Heretics. The old kind of Heretics, before Crossroads. There was some kind of monster or something they were trying to hunt down, and this… Fossor came to offer help. He was… charming and charismatic, but none of them trusted him. They thought he was lying, and they would’ve attacked him except one of them stood up for him. One of the old Heretics believed Fossor could help. So they worked together. And… and he unleashed that plague. This… This Fossor betrayed them and created the Black Death.”

“Holy shit,” Rudolph managed eventually. “They worked with a Stranger and it made a plague that almost destroyed Europe? Fuck… me….”

“Who was it?” Koren asked, leaning closer. “Who was the guy that worked with this Fossor creep?”

My head shook. “I dunno, I’m trying to find it, but he doesn’t really say what–” I froze, my finger on the page as my eyes went wide with shock.

“What? What did you see?” Koren demanded, leaning around to see.

The words came out through a hard lump in my throat. “The person who worked with Fossor, the one that trusted him. The Heretic who made that alliance that led to the Black Death.

“It was Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers.”

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Begin Again 10-04

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“Oh man, if that’s the plan we’re going with, I hope you’ve got some clothes you don’t mind losing.”

It was the next day, and I was out on the grounds with Sean. We were both drinking ice water while we played with Vulcan. The boy was shaking his head at me while he continued. “Cuz I’ve smelled that stuff, and it ain’t gonna come out without some help.” He raised his glass to me before taking sip as ice cubes clinged together.

“And getting help from the staff would mean admitting I was there,” I confirmed. “Don’t worry, Sands made that part really clear. Unfortunately, she also said it’s the best idea she’s got, and I don’t have a better one.” Shrugging, I added, “Besides, if it gets us real information about Tangle, it’ll be worth it.”

The boy glanced to me before his head bobbed. “Yeah, point. Not like we’ve got a lot of other leads.” Shrugging, he added, “But hey, at least there’s not—“ He stopped himself. “Actually, never mind.”

“Smart man,” I commended with a little smile. “Keep any ‘at least there’s not’ comments to yourself.”

With the sound of clanging metal and gears, Vulcan came galloping back across the grass with a thick rubber ball in his mouth. Depositing it at my feet, he proceeded to dance around me excitedly, his metal tongue hanging out of his mouth. He was even wagging his hindquarters and bouncing as he waited.

Obligingly, I leaned down and grabbed the ball off the grass. “Oooh, thank you. I’ll keep it forever and ever and love it and not let it out of my sight,” I teased while the mechanical canine made a weak little whining noise, his eyes fixated on the ball. How the metal dog designed for battle that could turn into a minigun managed to look forlorn was beyond me, but somehow he accomplished the feat. I couldn’t hope to hold out against those puppy dog eyes. “Aww, okay, okay. Just teasing. Here, go get it, boy!”

Rearing back, I threw the ball as hard as I could. As it arced up and away from us, Vulcan gave a quick, excited bark before taking off like a shot. He chased that ball, a silver blur racing across the grass.

Watching him go, I took a sip from my water before speaking. “You know, I’ve been wondering something.”

“How could a guy as brilliant as I am end up looking this damn good?” Sean grinned. “Hard work.”

Outwardly, I rolled my eyes. But he had a point about the looking good part. The boy was wearing this dark red muscle shirt that clung to his chest rather well, with just enough sweat from playing with his canine partner to make him look like some kind of fitness model in a commercial. It was… distracting.

Still, there was no sense letting his head swell even further. So rather than engage him, I just coughed and moved on. “Actually, I was thinking that you’ve taken this whole…” Trailing off, I glanced around slightly before lowering my voice. “Strangers not being completely evil monsters thing pretty well.”

“You mean for someone raised in the Knowledge,” he clarified while stooping to take the ball from the returned Vulcan. “You’re wondering why this whole thing isn’t messing me up a bit, like Sands.”

I nodded while the boy took his turn to throw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it once more. “She’s been doing a lot better, but, yeah. You just seem to roll with the whole thing a lot better. I don’t know if it’s because you really don’t mind as much, or you think you shouldn’t react. If it’s the latter, I want you to know that you can talk about any problems you have. You don’t have to hide your reaction or anything.” It felt awkward to put that way, but I still had to say it, just in case.

Sean just shook his head. “I’m not exactly the type to hide when I’ve got a problem with something, Flickster. Trust me, if the time comes that you say something I disagree with, you’ll know about it.”

Turning to face the boy fully, I spread my arms out in a gesture of confusion. “So why are you taking this so easily? Like you said, you grew up in this society like Sands did. But you’ve barely reacted.”

He didn’t react at first, seeming to be taking the time to collect his thoughts. Meanwhile, Vulcan returned, this time depositing his ball back at my feet. I smiled, taking it back up again and teasing the dog with it a little before giving the thing another hard chuck. With an excited woof, he was gone.

Eventually, Sean spoke. “You remember what I said about Uncle Sebastian, the one from Colombia.”

“Sure,” I confirmed without needing to think about it. I remembered our conversation during that first hunt. “He’s the one that settled down and retired. You said he was one of the Heretics that didn’t want to go out hunting anymore, but he’d protect that specific area if anything happened to cause trouble.”

Nodding, Sean glanced to me. “Yeah, well, one thing I left out was that he didn’t exactly pick that spot to retire on a whim. He’s got this friend that lives there. When I was growing up, I just called him Uncle Mateo. No relation, but he was around Uncle Sebastian’s so often he might as well have been part of the family. In hindsight, I’m sure they’re more than just friends. Not that I noticed at the time.

“Anyway,” he went on, “I think it was about five years ago when I was visiting over the summer. Some of the Bystander kids from Uncle Seb’s neighborhood and me were playing football while he was out at work. Just passing the time, getting my ass handed to me by kids that live and breathe that shit. It was ahh, not my finest hour.” He shuddered, though his smile remained. “I got out of there and came home early. I don’t even remember why… think it had something to do with this girl that lived next door.”

Shaking his head with a heavy sigh, Sean smiled. “Seriously, you should’ve seen the way her whole–”

“Sean,” I interrupted while flushing a little. “Your uncle and his more-than-just-a friend, remember?”

Looking completely unapologetic, he winked at me. “Right, you wouldn’t be interested in hearing about that, would you?” After holding that silent pause just long enough to make me blush, the boy finally continued. “The point is, I came home early. It was a couple hours before Uncle Seb was supposed to be back from work. Except when I got there, the door into his apartment was standing wide open.”

“Mateo?” I guessed while watching Vulcan race back with the ball. That time, the dog went running all the way around us a few times before dropping his toy. He danced from side to side, panting happily.

“That’s what I thought at the time,” Sean agreed while stooping to grab the ball. He turned, throwing it the other direction that time to let Vulcan run somewhere else. “I figured he’d just come over early. He did that sometimes, especially when he was gonna make dinner. Seriously, the man’s a culinary god. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced one of Mateo’s Carimañolas, with Torta de nata for dessert.”

“Sorry,” I admitted, “my culinary experience isn’t nearly varied enough to know what any of that is.”

Making an exaggerated face of horror, Sean slowly shook his head in dismay. “Don’t you worry, poor little forgotten Flick’s tummy and sense of taste, we’ll save you from that bland old American food. What did you grow up on?” he added with a suspicious squint, “Cheeseburgers and fish sticks?”

“Of course not,” I sniffed pointedly. “You forgot macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and pancakes.”

Heaving a long, heavily put-upon sigh at that, Sean stared at me. “We are definitely expanding your tastes.” Shaking his head then, he finally continued. “Anyway, Mateo wasn’t the one in the apartment.”

Taking my turn to throw the ball, I winced. “I don’t suppose it was another of your uncle’s friends?”

The boy snorted. “If only. No, it was these guys from one of the gangs around there. They broke in looking for some kind of stash for some guy that thought he could steal from them. Turns out they had the wrong apartment, not that they knew that at the time. So when I got there, they thought I was the… you know, brother of the guy that ripped them off. It, uh, it wasn’t pretty.” He grimaced in spite of the obvious attempt to keep the details as light as possible. “Long story short, they were gonna carve me up to send a message to the guy they thought was my brother. I tried to tell them I didn’t know who they were talking about. Hell, I’m not too manly to admit there was a certain amount of tears involved. But it didn’t matter. They were dead set on turning me into some kind of example. Sadistic fucks.”

His expression twisted a little before the boy crouched to rub at the waiting Vulcan’s metal body absently. He picked up the ball, turned it over in his free hand, and then threw it. “A couple of the guys held me down. I was trying to scream, but they shoved this slipper thing that Uncle Seb had lying around in my mouth. Then the leader, he had this curved knife, and he was talking about…” He trailed off, frowning before glancing toward me. “You don’t need details. It was bad, and he was gonna have fun doing it. That guy, he was my first real indication that humans can be just as evil as Strangers.”

Part of me felt like I should say something, but I knew it was a bad idea. Not only did it feel wrong to interrupt, but Dad had drilled it into my head over and over that you’d get more information out of someone just by letting them keep talking than by asking all the questions in the world. Just be patient.

Sean stayed quiet for a minute, clearly lost in his own memories before finally going on. “They would’ve done it. But just before the guy, uh, started his fun, something hit the apartment door so hard the thing went off its hinges. The guys fought back, but there was this… guy, or I thought it was a guy, tearing them apart. I was… confused for a long time, because it was Mateo, but he was just so… savage. They kept shooting, but it wasn’t doing anything. They kept missing every shot, even in those close quarters. It was so… fucking loud. I was screaming and crying and one of the guys hit me in the face so hard that I passed out for awhile. When I came to, Uncle Seb was there. He was talking to me, telling me everything was gonna be all right, that the cops came and they’d take care of everything.”

Kicking at the grass a little, he squinted thoughtfully. “We didn’t really talk a lot about it, but it didn’t make sense for a long time. Mateo wasn’t a Heretic, he was just a guy. I mean, I thought he was.

“Then I had my Edge vision. It was of my uncle, that day. He came back while I was unconscious and helped Mateo deal with the last of those malparidos. Except Mateo wasn’t human, he was this… big… furry thing.” Looking toward me, he clarified. “He was a werewolf. Mateo was a werewolf. That’s how he took those guys out. He was a giant fuck-off werewolf that just ripped those fuckers apart.”

My chin lifted as the realization came. “That’s why you were so quiet the first night, why you didn’t say much. It’s because you were dealing with that vision, with finding out that your uncle’s boyfriend is a werewolf. You’d just realized that the man who saved your life is a Stranger.”

Sean coughed while reaching down absently to play with Vulcan’s head. “Yeah. For awhile I was trying to figure out how that could fit. I thought maybe it was just a one-off. You know, that one in a million, Stranger with a soul sort of thing. I dunno.” Shrugging, the boy bit his lip before meeting my gaze. “The point is, you coming out with that whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ thing just filled in a lot of blanks. It answered a lot of questions. That’s why I didn’t get all freaked about it. I figure if my uncle’s boyfriend can save my life and be a Stranger, why not others? So you see, for me, it helped more than it hurt.”

“Are you gonna talk to your uncle about it?” I asked, lifting my chin curiously. “I mean, maybe he had this leaning toward accepting Mateo because he… I mean maybe there was something that he…”

“You mean maybe he used to run around with your mom,” Sean finished for me. “And maybe he knows something still, even with that spell they used. Maybe he can tell us something.”

“Yeah,” I nodded while taking another sip of water. “All of those maybes. Which is a lot, but if there’s a chance…”

He took Vulcan’s ball, tossing it up and down a couple times. “I’ll ask him over Thanksgiving break. Which isn’t really a thing in Colombia, but you know… he and Mateo go nuts on my behalf.”

“What about your parents?” I asked then, realizing that he hadn’t really mentioned them much.

His response was a dismissive shrug. “They’re around, but they don’t really have much to do with me. Papa’s always exploring other worlds, and mi madre’s usually busy running her company. They don’t spend much time around each other, let alone their kid. I was raised between a bunch of servants during the school year and my uncle in the summer and over holidays.”

“You were raised by servants?” I laughed, faking a bow. “Sorry, Senor Gerardo, clearly we have offended your sense of entitlement. No wonder you’ve got such an ego.”

He gave an exaggerated sniff at that. “Well. As long as you understand how I should be treated in the future, I suppose I shall have to forgive you.”

“Oh, trust me, I know exactly how you should be treated from now on,” I confirmed while surreptitiously slipping my hand into my glass to find an ice cube. Faking a yawn and stretch, I quickly side-stepped and deposited the ice down the back of the boy’s shirt.

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna need a lot more ice.”

******

“This is so unfair,” Koren complained later that evening. Those were the first words out of her mouth after our project group had all met up in the library. “Hasn’t Dare ever heard of team unity or whatever? Isn’t doing this kind of project with our own teams kind of the point of having one? Shoving us all together like this is just… dumb.”

Vanessa was just sitting at the opposite end of the table, engrossed in reading one of the many books that surrounded her (I was pretty sure she’d deliberately built up a miniature wall out of them), but Rudolph actually spoke up. “If they only have you work with your team, you’ll never figure out how to work with people that aren’t in your team. Which is kind of a bad thing when you get out in the real world. It’s not like the teams last forever.”

“What he said,” I agreed with a gesture. “Besides, Koren, don’t you think it’d be nice to get to know new people? People you don’t always interact with.”

She looked at me for a few seconds, eyes squinting thoughtfully before she finally nodded. “You’re right, Chambers. We should get to know other people.”

The girl held my gaze briefly, then turned directly toward Vanessa. “So, nerd-girl…”

“Koren…” Rudolph started with a sigh, clearly about to stick up for his own teammate. I hadn’t really had much interaction with the boy, but from what I could tell he was kind of like a lazy bear. He didn’t really tend to act out that much, and usually looked for ways to avoid work or conflict. But when it came to people he cared about, he could get downright vicious if he needed to.

She blinked back at him, seeing both of our expressions. “What? I meant it as a compliment.” Rolling her eyes at us, the girl turned back the other way. “Fine. Vanessa, why do you spend all your time in here? Don’t you have any friends, or, you know, a life?”

“Ooookay then,” I announced while grabbing my chair. I moved it over, interceding myself between the two of them. “Koren, has it occurred to you that you can be a little… uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Indecorous comes to mind.”

“It’s okay,” Vanessa interrupted. “It’s um, it’s not a big deal.” Leaning around to see Koren, she added, “But I don’t spend all my time here. Erin makes me go out and do other things.”

“Why does she have to make you, though?” Koren demanded. “Why do you like this place so much?”

In response, Vanessa shrugged. “The books are all about magic and monsters. Only they’re real stories, real history. Why isn’t it everyone else’s favorite place?”

I thought there seemed to be something else behind what Vanessa was saying, something she was leaving out. But I figured it was probably just paranoia talking. Or the fact that I always had ulterior motives for coming here, mostly in trying to dig up something about my psychotic younger brother or the bastard that had my mother.

Speaking of relatives, I looked back to Koren. “Where do you like to spend your time if it’s not here?”

She blinked at me, looking like she was trying to figure out if she should take the question seriously or not. When I just sat and waited, she finally shrugged. “The ocean. Or the jungle. I didn’t used to like hiking, but it’s amazing around here.”

Okay, that wasn’t so bad… I pushed on. “You mean you actually walk into the jungle?”

“No, Chambers,” she shot back mockingly. “Hiking means I put on one of those little propeller hats and fly over the jungle.”

Snorting at that in spite of myself, I asked, “Okay, fine. I just didn’t know we were allowed to go in there without company.”

“You’re not,” she confirmed. “You have to have a third year escort. But you can sign up for them.”

“Oh.” I considered that. This wasn’t so bad. A little conversation and I was learning. “But what made you start going out there? You said you didn’t like hiking before.”

Koren started to answer reflexively before stopping herself. “It was just something I saw in–” She went silent, lips pursed for a moment before turning back to Vanessa. “Don’t we have a project to do? What ‘special event’ are we going to look at, anyway?”

“One of the big wars?” Rudolph suggested. “Those are easy to make interesting, and there’s always Heretical stuff behind the scenes.”

“You mean like Pearl Harbor or the battle of Stalingrad?” I asked. “Those could work.”

“Maybe the first world war.” That was Koren. “There were already three different groups asking about things in the second one yesterday. We need something new.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Something new. How about we go further back? Like the Crusades or the American expansion into the west, the gold rush or… I dunno, something like that.”

“The Black Death?” Vanessa suggested.

We all looked at each other. Koren’s head tilted. “You think that’s something Heretics could answer?”

Rudolph, the only Heretic-born among us, shrugged. “I think so?”

“It’s definitely world changing,” I added thoughtfully. “Anyone have a problem with that one?”

There were no objections. So that was it, we were going to research the Black Death and try to find out just what it had meant for Heretical society and whether they knew things that the regular world didn’t about what had really happened to cause the deaths of about half of Europe’s entire population.

And wasn’t that just a positively cheerful subject to bond with my niece over?

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