Sands

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Mini-Interlude 20 – Scout

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Please note, the following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout. It takes place about a week or so before the current events, not too long before Scout and Sands leave for their European trip with their father.

The satisfying pop of the fast-moving ball landing smack in the middle of the open leather glove was followed almost instantly by the whiff of the swinging bat cutting through the air just barely too late.

“Whoo,” the boy with the bat, Tristan Moon, tapped the end of it against the ground while shaking his head. “Nessa’s right, you’ve got a great arm over there. What’d you do, kill a Stranger-Nolan Ryan?”

Standing where she was, Scout Mason felt a blush touch her face. Which wasn’t anything new. It seemed like any time anyone addressed her, the uncertainty and embarrassment tried to set in, let alone if they were paying her a compliment. Strangely, criticism wasn’t as bad. She could handle that. It was when people were nice to her that she felt weird and didn’t know how to respond.

After finally settling on shaking her head, she held her glove up and waited. Rude. Wasn’t it rude not to say anything? But she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know what to say. She hardly ever knew what to say to anyone, let alone when it was someone as boisterous and… well, confident as Tristan.

“See?” Vanessa herself straightened up from her crouched position behind her brother, shaking her hand out where the wicked fast ball had slammed into her glove before looking to the boy. “I told you she’d be a good match for you.” As she spoke, the blonde girl carefully threw the ball back to Scout. She wasn’t quite as awkward and uncertain as she had been when the pair had first started to play catch on the roof of the dorm, though it was obvious she would never be the kind of natural athlete her brother was.

Scout saw the sly look on the boy’s face at Vanessa’s choice of words. The same look she’d seen on plenty of other faces when someone left them open for a great joke or bit of teasing. His eyes glanced toward her, mouth open to put voice to what was obviously a play off of his sister calling her a ‘good match.’

Except he didn’t. The words were obviously there and ready to come out, but the boy paused when he looked at Scout. Remaining silent like that for a couple seconds, he finally shrugged and set himself back up with the bat up. “All right, let’s go, let’s go. I got your timing now.”

Vanessa resumed her position, and Scout took a moment while asking herself why the boy hadn’t said anything. It was obvious that he caught the unintended insinuation, yet he chose not to capitalize on it. He just let it go after he looked at her.

Rather than dwell, she carefully checked the ball against her mitt. Taking a breath, she wound up and then let it fly.

As promised, the boy was ready. That time, his wooden bat connected with the ball rather solidly. The white sphere rebounded from the bat with a satisfying crack that sent the ball spinning off into the air toward the right side of the grassy field they were in.

Scout didn’t bother chasing it. Instead, she turned to watch while tucking her mitt under her arm. Further out, a different figure went after the ball. A very different figure. Tristan’s giant robotic snake twisted its way through the grass, head craned up to watch as it moved at a pretty impressive clip considering its lack of legs, managing to keep up with the flying ball and stay under it as it began to fall. Mouth opening wide, the snake let the ball fall right inside, swallowing it. In the same second, the snake rotated, to aim its mouth toward Scout and fired the ball back toward her. She quickly caught the ball with her glove and turned back to the boy.

“Aww, whose side are you on, Bobbi?” Tristan called to his snake. “You could’ve let that one go.”

“Her name is Bobbi-Bobbi,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not Bobbi.” She, of course, had been the one to come up with the name for the snake-robot that had become her brother’s weapon and companion.

For his part, the boy just blinked. “There’s a difference between saying it once and saying it twice?”

“I’m gonna make you read the book,” the blonde girl threatened before sighing. “Bobbi-Bobbi was the Australian snake-god, remember? Loved humans, gave them bats so they’d have something to eat. Only the bats flew too high to reach, so he took one of his own ribs and gave it to the humans to use as the first boomerang.”

“Right.” Tristan gave a quick, satisfied nod before teasing, “Don’t worry, sis, I’ll only ask you to explain it fourteen more times before it sticks.” With a wink, he called to his partner. “You must reaaaaally love being helpful, don’t you, Bobbi-Bobbi? Just like your namesake.”

The snake made a hissing noise of agreement, and Tristan shook his head before focusing on where Scout was still standing. “Err, right, speaking of being helpful… you mind if we take a little break and talk about something serious?”

Giving her head a quick nod, Scout started to gesture that she would head off to give the two some privacy so they could talk. To her surprise, however, Vanessa shook her head. “No, um, it’s sort of something we want to talk with you about.”

Blinking at that, the quiet girl hesitated before walking in to join them. Her eyes moved quizzically from one to the other.

It was Tristan who spoke first. “Listen, you can do that whole… coin spell thing, right? We sort of need that, just in case.”

Coin spell. Right, the privacy spell. Clearly the boy just hadn’t wanted to be obvious by outright saying the word. With a quick nod, Scout reached into her pocket and took out one of several already-prepared coins that she had from back when the rest of her team kept asking her to do it. Touching her finger to the coin, she activated the spell before nodding to them.

“Great,” Tristan started immediately, not even bothering to beat around the bush. “We need your help to find our parents.”

Clearly recognizing the surprised look on Scout’s face, Vanessa quickly put in, “You remember who—I mean what they are, right? And what happened to them?”

Scout hesitated before slowly nodding. Her voice was a whisper as she spoke only two words. “Garden. Seosten.”

“Yeah, our dad was from Eden’s Garden and our mom was one of the Seosten,” Tristan confirmed. “But the thing is, Nessa’s been looking everywhere in this place and there’s nothing about the Seosten. Nothing. We even asked Gaia and she said that Heretics don’t learn about them. It’s like everything about those dicks has been erased and removed. Which isn’t surprising considering, you know, they made this place.”

“The point,” Vanessa added before her brother could rant any further. “Is that there’s nothing here, so we were hoping you could help.”

She wanted to, obviously. Except… Scout hesitated before whispering a single word. “Vacation.”

Both twins bobbed their heads up and down quickly. Tristan spoke first. “Right, we know. You’re heading out with your sis and dad pretty soon. Off to Europe and all that?”

That was right. In fact, Sands was busy packing up the last of their stuff as they spoke. And probably cajoling their father for more spending money for she and Scout to spend on souvenirs. They’d be leaving pretty much as soon as that was finished.

When she nodded silently, Vanessa gave her a slight smile. “That’s kind of why we’re asking you for help, actually.” She went on in the face of Scout’s uncertain look. “See, you’re going to Europe. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden still have presences there, but they’re not as strong. There’s even entire countries where different Heretic groups are in charge, like France. Crossroads and the Garden barely have an embassy there, and they don’t really have any power. So we were thinking that–”

Scout’s eyes lit up with realization, and she silently raised both hand to pantomime opening a book.

“Yeah!” Vanessa clearly couldn’t hold back her smile. “If the Seosten don’t have as much power in those other places, there might be books about them. We were hoping you could maybe look around while you’re there. Just see if there’s anything about them, or Strangers that possess people, or angels or… or anything like that.”

“Sorry, we know it’s a lot to ask,” Tristan added with a regretful look while laying a hand on the head of Bobbi-Bobbi. “But we don’t really have an easy way to get over there. So when Nessa found out where you were going, we figured… it couldn’t hurt to ask. But if it’s too much, don’t worry about–”

Scout interrupted by holding a hand up to stop the boy. Her head nodded once, and she gave them a tiny smile. Of course she’d help them find their parents. If there had been a chance of saving her mother, she knew she’d never, ever stop trying. She’d run herself into the ground for a chance to go back and rescue her mother from the… from the–

She forced herself to focus, tuning out the memory of the Stranger simulating her mother’s voice to plead for the young Sarah to come out and help her. Looking straight at the other two, she announced simply, “I’ll help.”

A look of obvious relief crossed over their expressions, and Vanessa actually hugged her. “Thank you, thank you. If you find anything, it’ll help. But especially anything about an orb that can teleport people to other worlds and bind them there. If there’s a way to track them, or to undo it, or to build another one, or to–”

“She gets it, Nessa,” Tristan gently interrupted while putting an arm around his twin. “Really, anything at all. Like we were saying, the Seostains erased everything that could’ve been in here. Or they stop it from being recorded at all. Whichever, there’s nothing, so we’re running on just what Grandpa Nick could tell me. Or would tell me. Plus, you know, maybe the Natural Heretics here on Earth found out something he doesn’t know about.”

Scout was already nodding when she saw two figures approaching from across the field. Quickly dismissing the privacy spell, she murmured an almost silent warning while nodding that way so that they’d stop talking about it.

Still, Vanessa gave her a smile and mouthed, ‘Thank you’ while her brother raised his hand in front of his chest to give her a hidden thumbs up. Even Bobbi-Bobbi leaned in and pushed her nose against her shoulder in a show of affection.

“Hey, guys!” Scout’s father called once he and Sands were close enough. “Sorry to interrupt your game, but we’ve gotta get going if we’re gonna make it in time for dinner. Rome’s about seven hours ahead of us.”

Sands turned to poke the man before stepping over to her sister’s side. “So that’s why you wouldn’t let us eat lunch. I thought you were just making some kind of object lesson about respecting people who don’t have as much food as we do or something.”

Their dad gave her a look. “Now what kind of father do you think I am?”

Sands shrugged. “I dunno, one who wouldn’t let me have the cheeseburger I wanted an hour ago?”

Shaking his head, Scout’s father looked toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You two all right over there? We weren’t interrupting anything important, I hope.”

“Nope,” Tristan lied so easily that Scout was immediately envious. “Just trying to decide who got to bat next. Guess it’s Nessa by default.” When Bobbi-Bobbi bumped against him, he shot her an exaggeratedly exasperated look. “You can’t bat, you don’t even have hands!”

Chuckling, the man reached out to grab both of his daughters by the shoulder. “Right, good luck with that. All right, girls, ready to go? All the stuff’s waiting in the Pathmaker.”

“O’course we’re ready!” Sands blurted. “We’ve been ready forever. I’m starving, old man. Let’s go.”

So they started off, heading for the portal building that would send them clear across the globe. On the way, Scout looked back over her shoulder toward the other pair of twins. Vanessa and Tristan were watching, matching expressions of mixed relief and worry on their faces.

She gave them a quick, surreptitious thumbs up before turning back.

Of course she’d help them find information about the Seosten. After all, she hadn’t forgotten that those were the people who had created the Bystander Effect, and probably everything else that had to do with the hated, vile memory erasing spells.

Which meant that if she was going to fulfill the vow to herself to get rid of all of those horrible, evil spells so that everyone could retain their memories the way they should, she’d have to find out as much as possible about the Seosten themselves anyway. If it meant helping Vanessa and Tristan along the way, that was even better.

But one way or another, she was going to make sure no one’s memory was ever erased against their will again.

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Winter Wonderland 18-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Learning Experience 17-04

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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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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting for a long time, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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Second Hunt 16-06

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Scout made it to the room just as Avalon was starting to come to. My eyes snapped from the quiet girl coming around the corner, to my roommate as she gave a quiet groan and began trying to sit up.

Gaia was already there. She was still kneeling next to her adopted daughter with a hand on her face. The woman’s voice was soft as she said something quietly in a language I didn’t understand, but sounded quite tender. Then she added in English. “It’s all right. Take it slow, the threat is over now.”

“What–” Blinking a couple times, Avalon pushed herself into a slight sitting position. Her eyes went from me to Gaia and then back again before she muttered in an annoyed tone, “They tried again.” It wasn’t the kind of voice of a person terrified that some kind of conspiracy had attempted to kill her for what had to be the fifty-third time. Instead, it was the same sort of tone that I’d expect to come from someone who was annoyed that their roommate had taken the last of the milk. Exasperation. Annoyance. If Avalon was actually afraid of what was going on, she wasn’t really showing any of it.

I had to stop myself from rushing up to her. She’d been pretty much point-blank in front of an explosion that had knocked her unconscious for a decent length of time. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to… But no. Gaia was there. She deserved to be the one to check on the girl that mattered enough to her to adopt her, to do all of this for her. I cared about Avalon, but interrupting that right then would’ve been selfish.

It also reminded me of just how much the girl had to mean to Gaia. As old as the headmistress was and as much as she had seen over those centuries, she had to have lost a lot of people. But I had seen her expression when she came in to find Avalon unconscious after yet another attempt to kill the girl, and I saw her expression as she knelt with a hand on her face. I’d seen the anger and the relief. If Gaia wasn’t Avalon’s mother, it was pure semantics. She clearly cared about the girl just as much as if she was.

Moving up to my side, Scout looked at me questioningly. So, I whispered a quick explanation, “Bad guy fought Deveron for awhile and then got away just before Gaia showed up. She dismantled the bomb and fixed the hole.” Glancing to her and the blood on her uniform, I added, “Are you okay?”

She gave a quick nod at that, making a face before lifting her rifle pointedly. Then she focused on the wound in my arm and the blood there, and her face fell a bit before the girl whispered a weak, “Sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Shaking my head, I lifted my arm and showed her. “Healing already, see?” Restraining a grimace of pain as much as I could, I instead tried to smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, deflecting bullets with a knife, who saw that coming? You were helping. I just… I’m glad Deveron showed up when he did.” My eyes glanced that way, and found the boy (or man) in question already talking to someone on his own communication pin. “He was… really bad ass. If he hadn’t shown up when he did…” Trailing off, I couldn’t help the shudder that passed through me. “It would’ve been really bad.”

Before Scout could respond to that, Gaia was standing up. She took hold of Avalon’s hand and helped her up as well. I could tell that the woman wanted to do more than that, but she stopped herself for the other girl’s sake. Then she was looking toward me. “Thank you, Felicity,” she spoke quietly, obviously more in control of herself by that point than she had been when she first arrived and actually called me Flick. “You have, as usual now, gone above and beyond what we should expect of our… our students.”

“Hey,” I tried to shake that off even as I cradled my broken and still healing wrist. “I didn’t do anything that Avalon wouldn’t have done for me. Except her way probably would’ve been a lot more competent.”

A slight, knowing smile touched the headmistress’s face then as she looked from Avalon to me and back again before speaking in an easy tone. “It’s very important that roommates and… partners be able to trust each other that much. I’m glad that you two are willing to go that far to protect one another.”

“She shouldn’t have had to,” Avalon spoke sharply then. “The bomb shouldn’t have gone off. We’re su-”

“We’ll discuss it away from this place,” Gaia interrupted, her tone gentle but firm. “For now, this exercise is over. We’ll go back to the island and have a… discussion with your entire team, together.”

“Um,” I hesitated before raising a hand. “Headmistress, what about the rest of the skeleblineists?”

The red-haired woman just blinked at me, head tilting a little. “I’m sorry, what about the what, now?”

My face pinked at that as I remembered that wasn’t their real name. “Err, sorry, I mean the… Strangers. I couldn’t remember the name, so I just—you know, skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. Skeleblineists.”

For a long, silent moment, Gaia just looked at me. Then she gave the faintest smile of amusement, almost undetectable before murmuring, “Fair enough. Now, as for what should be done about them…”

The woman trailed off, pausing as she looked away. I saw a momentary frown of concentration cross her face, and felt some kind of invisible yet almost tangible power pass through me. It was a little bit like feeling static electricity, and lasted for five seconds or so. Abruptly, the feeling cut out and there was a loud squealing noise from all around us. About five feet from Avalon, one of the skeleblineists popped out of the wall. On the opposite side of the room, another one appeared from the floor. And a third came out of the engine itself. None of them were attacking, however. They just popped half-way out, screaming in pain. Meanwhile, further off in the ship I could hear the cries of others echoing.

The terrible squeals only lasted for a second or two, until all of them were visible. Then all three of the ones I could see were reduced to literal ashes that fell to the floor. And considering the way the screams cut off everywhere else as well, I was pretty sure the exact same thing happened to the rest of them.

Gaia straightened, the by-then-familiar golden aura (the same color as my own, I noticed) briefly flaring up around the headmistress as she cracked her neck to the side. Then the woman nodded in satisfaction. “There. Now it’s finished.”

Okay, yeah. I’m pretty sure my gulp at that was audible from clear across the room. Or possibly even from the other side of the ship. “Oh, um. Thanks,” I managed weakly, my wide eyes darting to the girl beside me. For her part, Scout looked just as taken aback by the display of power. Which made me feel a little bit better. If she wasn’t used to it, having grown up around all this stuff, then it wasn’t just me.

By that point, Gaia was already gesturing toward the nearby hatch. At her motion, the broken doorway lifted up and set itself back into place before closing. Then the headmistress just stepped that way and opened it once more. Except rather than seeing the corridor of the ship, the open doorway revealed one of the Pathmaker portal rooms. She gestured for us to go. “You’ll find the rest of your team already waiting, I promise. As I said, we will discuss things once everyone is together and accounted for.”

So, Scout, Avalon, and I passed through the portal together. I resisted the urge to try to help Avalon. Not only was I really not feeling up to it considering the pain in my arm, wrist, and… well, pretty much everywhere, but I was pretty sure that if I had even tried to steady Avalon, she would’ve flattened me.

As promised, Columbus, Sands, and Sean were already waiting in the portal room. Wyatt was there too, standing beside the other security guy. When we came into the room, Sands went running up to embrace her sister, while Wyatt took a step my way before stopping himself. The poor guy looked like he wanted to tell the entire concept of secrets to go screw themselves as he stared at me intently for a moment before managing a slightly strained, “Oh—oh good, good, you’re all okay. No one d-died?”

Smiling faintly, I shook my head at him. “Nope, not… not this time. We’re fine, Mr. Rendell. Thanks.”

Vulcan had no such compulsions against showing how much he cared. The robot dog came bounding right up to me, barking until I obediently reached down to pet him. “Hey, boy. Did you take care of your partner? You keep him out of trouble, huh?” Smiling, I rubbed over his metal head vigorously.

My eyes moved up then toward Columbus. The boy was still soaked from his little swim when he’d been knocked out of the ship by the bomb, but otherwise he didn’t really look hurt. “You okay?”

In the back of my mind, that new power that I’d picked up was still cataloging every inanimate object that got close enough to me. I could sense what was in Sands’s pockets, as well as Scout’s and Avalon’s. As far as I could tell, it didn’t actually tell me what was in the extradimensional storage space like our weapon sheathes. It probably had something to do with the items technically being in another world.

“Yeah,” Columbus nodded to the security guy who’d saved him. “Thanks to Bennet. Think I swallowed about half the ocean when I got knocked out there, but I’m good. What about you? You look… bad.”

“Gee thanks,” I mumbled before sighing. “We’re alive. Despite their best efforts. That’s what matters.”

Professor Dare came through into the portal room then, followed by Gaia and Deveron. The blonde teacher looked more worn out than I had ever actually seen her. I could see a few cuts and bruises, her normally immaculate uniform had a couple holes in it here and there, and her hair had come loose so that there were random strands sticking out. There was even a bit of blood under the woman’s nose.

“Bennet,” she addressed the other security guy, who was staring at her with probably as much surprise as I was. “Please go and find Risa. Ask her to join us here, assuming nothing else has gone wrong.”

The man glanced to the headmistress, who nodded. Then his eyes darted toward both me and Avalon for a second before he spun on his heel and hurried out the other way with a quick, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Once he was gone, Wyatt didn’t wait any more. He practically sprinted to cross the distance before he was hugging me. Actually, the poor guy was literally lifting me off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to turn off the escape-port, I wanted to use it, but she was still in trouble and the escape-port wouldn’t work with her and I was trying to fix it, but if I let you go then she wouldn’t have anyone and I couldn’t do that to you or her and I didn’t want to do any of it, but I had t-”

“Wyatt, Wyatt,” I quickly interrupted while he continued to babble. “I’m okay! We’re okay, listen, I can’t—Wyatt, I can’t understand you. What do you mean, escape-port? What happened? Talk slower.”

Visibly taking a moment to calm himself, the man swallowed hard. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a couple times before he pushed on. “I provided security measures for your mission that would have pulled you out of danger. Somehow, they… they blocked the effect on Avalon’s. Yours was still working, but I deactivated it. I left you in danger so that you could protect her, all because my measure failed.” His voice was getting higher by the end, and he turned abruptly toward Gaia. “Headmistress, I accept any punishment you give me for the unacceptable failure. I’ll… I’ll resign right now if you wish.”

“No, Wyatt.” Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you understand? We owe you our thanks, not condemnation. If it wasn’t for your security efforts, Avalon would already be… The assassins would have succeeded.”

The poor guy looked taken aback, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I—they would have?”

“Yes,” the headmistress nodded. “And Felicity here most likely would have been killed as well.” Her gaze softened. “You are correct, the person who attacked Avalon was able to block the spell that would have brought her out of danger. But even then, they were not able to take her anywhere. I detected several attempts in that room to leave with her. Obviously, their primary intention was to leave with Avalon, most likely so that they could… eliminate her in private without any of us to stop them.”

Gaia had a hand on Avalon’s shoulder, her voice soft as she continued. “Because of your security enchantment, none of those efforts worked. Which meant that they had to attempt to…” she swallowed just a little. “… kill her right there. That also required breaking through enough of your enchantments to even make the attempt. Between those efforts and their ongoing focus on preventing your retrieval spell from simply whisking Avalon away from them, the attacker’s attention was split enough that they were unable to put their full effort on the fight with Felicity. If they had, I believe she would be dead now.”

Well, that made me cringe. I’d thought fighting that masked assassin had been hard enough. But knowing that their attention had been split multiple ways and they hadn’t been fighting at near their full ability? Yeah, that thought made me want to whimper. Clearly whoever these people were, they were far over the level of a few first year students. Looking to Wyatt then, I managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“Does… does that mean they screwed with my bombs too?” Columbus put in. The poor guy looked about as guilty and stressed out as Wyatt had. “Because I swear I checked them before I put them in my pack. They should’ve been fine. The timers worked when I was testing them before the mission.”

I checked them as well, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare assured him. “I would not have allowed you to go out on a mission like that with active explosives unless I was confident that they had been assembled correctly and were safe. When I looked them over, they were. Someone interfered between the time that I did my inspection, and when you attempted to use them. Which indicates a disturbing level of access, as well as enough knowledge of what your mission was to assume that they would be used.”

Before anyone could say anything to that, the door into the rest of the building opened once more and Professor Kohaku entered. Her gaze took all of us in, clearly inspecting for any lasting injury before she gave a long sigh. “Again?”

“Again.” Gaia sounded just as annoyed before turning her attention to us. “We will talk more of this later. For now, I must ask you to excuse us while we… discuss what has happened and what we are going to do to prevent it in the future. As for your grade for this mission…” She looked to Professor Dare.

The blonde woman smiled just a little. Her injuries had already healed, though there was still the blood on her clothes and the rips through them that showed just how much she had been through. “I would say you all scored quite well, if we discount the… interference. Had things continued the way they were progressing, you would have sunk the ship, as we hoped you would. You displayed admirable teamwork both before and after the interruption. So I would say you’ve earned top marks, given everything that happened.”

The headmistress squeezed Avalon’s shoulder, looking like what she wanted to do was pull her back into a hug right there. “Yes. Very good indeed.” Clearing her throat, she nodded to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, if you could ensure that they arrive safely back at their dorms?”

So, we trudged out of the portal room together. Everyone else looked utterly exhausted. In my case, most of the pain had faded, and I wasn’t even tired. Mostly I felt numb. I wanted to hug Avalon and not let go. I wanted to know who the hell had tried to kill her again. We knew why they were trying so hard, but not who. I wanted her to be safe, and happy.

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

So I did. After spending some time with Avalon in our room and making sure the girl was really okay (hopefully without pushing her too far), I eventually left. Thanks to my new pendant, I didn’t have to obey the curfew anymore. Which meant that I could wander the grounds after hours, talking to my dad on the phone. Not that I told him that I was out, and especially not why. As far as he knew, I was in my room, and just needed to talk.

Eventually, he had to go to bed, so I switched to the private phone and talked to Asenath. Finding my way out behind the main building, I took a seat on the grass and watched the jungle in the distance while I told the vampire girl all about what had actually happened that day, and how worried I was. She listened while I vented about how angry I was that our security and safety had been compromised again, and how worried I was about Avalon.

There wasn’t much that the girl could do, obviously. But she was a really good listener, and didn’t try to cut in. She let me say what I needed to without interrupting, which let me get my head on straighter than it had been pretty much since the attack started.

Finally, I sat back and looked at the sky with the phone to my ear. “Thanks, Senny. Sorry for talking your ear off. I just…”

“Needed to talk to someone,” she finished. “I get it. Don’t worry. I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Trust me, you’re doing enough,” I assured her. “Just… don’t let anything happen to my dad, okay? I… I couldn’t take that. Not now.”

Her voice was serious. “You have my word.” Lightening her tone a bit, she added, “And hey, could you ask Shiori what her favorite kind of pie is before Christmas break?”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I nodded absently. “Yeah, I’ll find out. But I thought you didn’t cook.”

“I don’t,” she retorted. “But Twister does.”

We talked a little bit more. Now that I had the ranting out of my system, I was able to laugh a little bit and just enjoy the conversation. Eventually, I let the other girl get back to what she was doing and hung up. Then I just sat there under the moonlight, watching the jungle and the stars.

About ten minutes passed like that before a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes, I turned slightly to find Gaia standing just above me. “Err, sorry, Headmistress.” I quickly started to get up.

“It’s all right, Felicity.” Gaia extended a hand down to help me. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting?”

My head shook. “No, ma’am. I was just… thinking.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. “I’ve been doing a lot of that as well. And I believe it’s time that I began taking your training more seriously.”

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

The woman’s voice was somber. “We both know and understand how much… pressure you are under, Felicity. We know what you’re facing, what you have already faced. Between those threats and the ones you have put yourself in to protect my… Avalon, I would be a failure if I did not come to you now and offer… if you would accept it, additional training and schooling, during some of the hours that you now have available after curfew.”

My mouth opened and shut. “You… you mean you want to give me extra lessons, extra training… yourself?”

“Would that be acceptable?” she asked in a quiet voice, watching my reaction.

It took a moment to find my voice, but I finally bobbed my head up and down rapidly. “Y-yes, ma’am. Really, anything you can do, any… any training you can give me, I swear, I’ll do the best I can.

“God knows I need the help.”

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