Sands

Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.

******

Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Shiori and Avalon telling Choo a story. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Wow, those little guys are warming up to you pretty fast, huh?”

It was late in the evening, the same day that I’d had the little… discussion with the twins earlier. Sean and I were in one of the magic-practice rooms with its sturdy walls and cement floor, ostensibly working on one of the spells that Professor Carfried had assigned for homework.

Turning my head, I looked at the object (or rather, objects) of Sean’s attention. Jaq and Gus, my two little mice cyberforms, were perched on my arm as it was stretched out to my side. The pair were eating a couple of metal bolts that I had painted yellow. Did their metal have to be painted to look like cheese? Of course not. Did I do it anyway just because I felt like it? Of course I did.  

“We’re getting there,” I replied easily, feeling a smile tug at my face as I watched the two of them happily munch at the metal. Apparently while they didn’t need as much of it as Vulcan did in order to make all those bullets he used, the mice did transform some of the metal they ate into various materials that were used to maintain their bodies. Especially since they were slightly larger when they transformed into weapons than they were in their regular forms, a fact that always confused me about where the extra mass was coming from. But then again, it’s not like ‘larger on the inside than the outside’ was exactly unusual when it came to Heretic creations.  

“I dunno how much of it is the whole ‘cyberform bonding with the owner’ thing and how much is my natural charm,” I teased with a roll of my eyes, “but they’ve sure been warming up to me.”

Winking, Sean chuckled. “With your charm, I’d say it’s at least half and half there, Flickster.”

Moving my other hand over to scratch under Jaq’s chin, I nodded to the corner of the room where Vulcan sat happily playing with a heavy metal ball in his teeth. “Then you must be pretty charming yourself, considering how well you and your partner there get along.”

“Actually,” the Hispanic boy replied with a straight face, “in that case, it’s mostly his charm.”

Despite myself and the actual seriousness of the situation, I snickered. Then I took a little breath before turning a bit to extend the arm with the mice on it toward him. “You wanna give the little guys a scratch? Actually, did you ever figure out why metal animals could possibly enjoy that?”

Sean shook his head while reaching out to scratch Gus on the back of the little guy’s head. “Nope,” he replied easily. “I’m guessing it’s programming or something. You know, to help bond them and make ‘em seem more real. You know, like how we’re more likely to take care of them and treat the little guys like real animals if they act like real animals instead of like machines.”

Nodding slowly, I bit my lip before straightening a little, forcing my voice to remain as casual as possible. “Hey, at least I finally got to join the ‘animal companion’ club, huh?” Raising my other hand, I gestured for him to high-five it. “Is there a secret handshake or a password or anything?”

Sean grinned, head shaking. “Nope, but there should be. We should get with Aylen and Tristan and see what we can do about that.” As he spoke, the boy slapped his hand against mine.

I waited for a moment, while Sean returned his attention to the mice. He said something else then, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear it. I was too busy focusing on whether I could see anyone possessing him after that contact. Nothing. It was just Sean. He was clear. With a long, exhaled breath, I interrupted his words to abruptly announce, “Jelly beans on toast.”

“Uh.” The boy blinked at me. “Flick, you’ve got really weird taste in snacks, if you think tha-”

That was as far as he got before Gus and Jaq jumped off my arm. As they landed on the floor, two figures literally popped out of the mice to appear standing beside me and in front of Sean.

It was Sands and Avalon. Both of them had gained the ability to possess small objects back when we fought the skeleblineists on the cruise ship. It was the same fight where I’d gained my item-sense power, which also happened to be a power that Sean had gotten. Yeah, he had the ability to sense items within a certain distance of himself. That had made it a little more difficult to plan out an ambush in case things had gone wrong when I checked him. But in the end, having Avalon and Sands use their own powers to simply possess Gus and Jaq had worked out.

Sean, for his part, yelped, stumbling back at their sudden appearance, his eyes widening before he managed to get himself under control. “What th–uh, okay, if you guys were trying to throw me a surprise birthday party, you’re off by about a month. Also, I don’t see a cake. Or presents.”

Vulcan gave a ruff of agreement with that, having popped up out of the corner to come sniffing Avalon and Sands curiously. He happily accepted a vigorous scratch under the chin as soon as he’d contented himself that their arrival didn’t herald any kind of immediate threat.

“It’s not a party,” I informed them before looking to the other two. “It’s clear. Scout on her way?”

Before they could answer, I felt the arrival of the girl in question on the other side of the door. She was still holding her gun in one hand. Even as my item-sense picked her up, I saw Sean turn that way. He’d sensed her too. Without another word, I stepped over and opened the door.

Scout stepped in, moving over to hug Sean quickly. She embraced him tightly, and he returned it despite having no idea what was going on. “Uhh,” the boy drawled, “anyone wanna clue me in?”

Raising my shoulder in a little shrug, I answered, “Well, Sands and Avalon were possessing my little friends here, and Scout was using the portal-scope on her gun to watch every move you made. No offense, it was just in case you were possessed and figured out that I was testing you to find out if you were. I mean, if you were possessed and didn’t figure out what I was doing, they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. It was just in case things went totally tits-up wrong.”

Sean’s eyes had widened with each word I spoke, his mouth working noticeably. “… In case I was possessed? Testing me? What–okay, why do I get the sudden feeling that this whole Seosten thing got some kind of violent kick into serious while I wasn’t paying attention?”  

Sands, standing on the other side of the room, folded her arms over her stomach while muttering, “Hopefully your dad is still a good guy by the time this whole thing is over.”

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I took a breath before looking back to Sean. “I’ll explain.

“But by the time I’m done, you’re probably gonna wish we’d brought some chairs in here so you could sit down.”

******

“I’m glad you’re taking your extra training seriously, Felicity,” Professor Dare announced later that evening after stepping into Gaia’s office with me. “But I hope you’re enjoying yourself too. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Sure,” I replied, “But my name isn’t Jack, so we’re cool.”

Gaia, who had been standing over by her assortment of windows that each showed a different view of various parts of the world, turned toward us with a slight smile. “I believe that Felicity sees some of the training that she does with Avalon as recreation.” Pausing then, she added with a raised eyebrow, “Or at least, flirting?”

My face burned a little as I shrugged and muttered something about having plenty of fun with everyone on my team. It didn’t make any sense, but hey, at least I was saying something.

Thankfully, Dare saved me after chuckling a little bit. “She tells me that you’d like a little extra assistance with her lessons tonight.”

“Yes.” Gaia nodded, stepping away from the windows to approach. “I was hoping that you would help me demonstrate the Fascination spell.”

“The Fascination spell?” Dare echoed before nodding. “Yes, I can see her finding that useful.” Seeing my blank look when she glanced to me, she explained, “When the Fascination spell is performed properly, anyone who sees the item enchanted with it will believe that they are seeing an object that they truly, desperately desire. They’ll become obsessed with getting it, foregoing any other action they may have been taking. Its effects only last a short time, particularly with the strong-willed. But even buying a few seconds can be extremely beneficial.”

Gaia nodded once, stopping by us. “Indeed. I believe it would be a useful tool for Felicity to possess. And the more tools she possesses…”

“The better off I am,” I finished.

“And you need me to help Felicity with the spell,” Dare murmured, “Because if the other person knows exactly when it’s coming, it doesn’t work very well.”

“Precisely,” Gaia agreed. “I’m sorry to bring you in simply to be a guinea pig, but–”

Dare interrupted. “It’s alright. Felicity needs all the help she can get.” She raised a hand before settling it on my arm. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”

Slowly, I looked over at her, praying silently. Please, please don’t be…

It wasn’t. Looking at Professor Dare, all I could see was Professor Dare. She wasn’t possessed. She wasn’t possessed.

“It’s okay,” I spoke aloud. No secret codes this time, not with Gaia right there. “She’s clear.”

“Clear?” Professor Dare raised an eyebrow, slowly lifting her hand. “Why do I think this is about more than a spell lesson?”

“You are correct,” Gaia confirmed. “It is about more than a lesson.

“Much more.”

 ******

The next morning, bright and early, I was down on the beach once more, trading blows back and forth with Deveron. I was using my staff while he used an extra one borrowed from one of the school weapons lockers. Back and forth we went, sparring in the early morning light as it came up over the ocean. I was sweating profusely from the effort, and my arms were sore from the repetitive impacts even with my enhanced strength. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting tired.

Deveron, who was obviously still taking it easy on me despite the effort I was putting into it just to keep up with him in ‘easy mode’, casually flicked my staff out of the way before giving me a sharp poke in the shoulder that knocked me back a step. “You sure you’re focusing on this?” he asked while smoothly stepping back to easily avoid my counter-swing. “You seem distracted.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated. This part wasn’t hard to fake. The hesitation, emotion behind it, and all of that was real. “I…” Sighing, I shook my head and looked away. “I’m sorry. I just… my dad, I don’t know what–” Swallowing hard, I lowered the staff. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

For a moment, Deveron stood there. Then he lowered his own staff and stepped that way. “Hey, he’ll be okay. Trust me, Heretic or not, Jos picked tough guys. Your dad’s gonna be just fine, alright?” As he spoke, Deveron reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

I turned my head at that, looking straight at him for a moment as he stood there with his hand on my shoulder. For a couple seconds, I looked at him like that, taking in the sight until I was sure.

“Chocolate corn on the cob,” I abruptly announced, giving him a smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

He blinked at that. “A passcode? But what were yo–” In mid-sentence, Deveron spun, pivoting on one heel to face the figure that had just appeared out of thin air directly behind him.

“Yes,” Professor Dare agreed, sheathing her sword. “I am glad that it wasn’t you as well, Mr. Adams.”

Of course I’d needed slightly stronger back-up while checking Deveron for possession. The rest of my team was great and all, but he was still technically a grown Heretic, with all that training and power. Hence Professor Dare’s presence. We figured that she could counter anything Deveron could do, at least long enough for Gaia to involve herself in the situation.  

To his credit, Deveron looked at Dare, then back to me. He took about two seconds to think about it before his eyebrow raised. “How’d you find a way to test for Seosten possession? Even Prosser can’t do that without drawing that rune thing first. And you didn’t draw anything on me.”

Chuckling despite myself, I admitted, “It’s a long story. I’ve kind of been leaving out some stuff that’s been going on for… awhile. But I can tell you about it now that we um, now that we know.”

“Now that you know I’m not possessed?” Deveron glanced back to Dare briefly before nodding. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I really want to hear this story now. But is it safe to talk right here?”

“It’s safe,” Dare confirmed. “Trust me, we weren’t going to let anyone see what happened here if you’d been possessed and noticed what Felicity was doing. No one’s going to overhear.”

I still wasn’t sure what the woman had actually done to assure that, considering we were standing out on the open beach. But I was willing to take her word for it. So, with a sigh, I plopped myself down and looked out at the ocean before starting to tell the story once again.

I really was glad that Deveron wasn’t possessed, even if at the beginning of the year, I would’ve prayed that it was him. But on the other hand, that cleared Sands, Scout, Sean, and Deveron.

We were quickly running out of possibilities for the Seosten to be possessing…

******

“I should be the one to do this,” Shiori announced later that afternoon. “I should check him.”

Wincing a little, I looked over at the other girl as the two of us sat in the rec room near one of the televisions. Deveron and Avalon were waiting by the door, speaking quietly while some other students played at the pool table on the other side of the room, and a couple more remained intent on their chess match in the corner. There was a low buzz of conversation, most of which coming from the group playing or watching pool. But still, we were using the privacy coins.

Even then, I kept my voice down, murmuring, “Sorry, Shy. You know why you can’t be the one.”

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl while her head gave a short nod. “I know, I know. I’ll react to it too much, you have the face-shifting power, so on and so on. But he’s my brother, Flick.”

“He is,” I agreed, putting a hand on her arm. “That’s why you can’t be the one to check him.” We were running out of options for who Charmeine might be possessing, which meant that Shiori was getting nervous about Columbus. Hopefully, this would clear him so she could calm down.

We really needed to identify the Seosten as soon as possible. Every time we tested someone and they came up clean, it was both a relief and even more stress. Because while it meant that the person we’d tested wasn’t possessed, it also narrowed the possibilities, which somehow made things even worse.

Not to mention the fact that I still had no idea why I was immune to being possessed. All I knew for sure was that I was immune. Enguerrand had confirmed that much. He couldn’t tell me why I was immune, however, just that I was. He’d tried to possess me and couldn’t do it.

“Porter.” That was Avalon, she had moved over behind the couch, her voice low. “He’s on his way. We need to go. It can’t look like any kind of set-up.” As she spoke, the other girl nodded over her shoulder toward the door where Deveron was already watching the corridor.

Sighing once more, Shiori straightened up while looking at me. “You’ve still got the pin, right?”

I nodded, patting my uniform jacket where one of the communication pins was hidden. “Yup. As soon as you hear me say ‘Caramel Camelot’, that means it’s all good. But you’ve gotta go now.”

“We’ll be right up on the roof,” Avalon assured me. “If anything goes wrong… we’ll come in.”

She and Shiori joined Deveron to head up that way, where Sean, Sands, and Scout were already waiting. Which left me sitting in front of the television when Columbus made his way in.

“There you are,” I announced, squinting pointedly at the boy as I stood and turned to face him. “I was starting to think I was gonna have to try to figure this whole thing out without any help.”

In my ear, (which, thanks to the communication pin would be completely silent for Columbus), I heard Avalon’s voice. “We have eyes on you through Scout’s scope-portal, Chambers.”

“Sorry,” Columbus himself was saying. “Had some stuff to finish up. But seriously, you really think a list of what Shiori likes is gonna help you when Valentine’s Day comes around? You already know what she likes. Hell, one of the things she likes is you. You could just put a big bow on your head and–” He stopped, coughing. “Never mind. Just–never mind. I was trying to go somewhere cute with that and it took a weird turn into some… yeah, let’s move on, huh?”

“Yes, please.” I gave a quick, vigorous nod. “We’re moving on. And you’ve been her brother for years. So you know her even better than I do. I just figured if you made up a list of everything Shiori likes that you could possibly think of, I might see something that’d give me a good idea.”

Raising an eyebrow, Columbus shrugged. “Right, well, I dunno how much good it’ll do, but I got the list.” He reached into his pocket then, digging it out. “Put down everything I could think of.”

He extended his hand with the list. Which meant it was time. Turning slightly to glance at the pool table while reaching out as though to grab the list, I started, “You know, at some point we’re gonna have to get some practice in over there. Cyclops is supposed to be really good at pool.”

Using that bit of looking the other way as an excuse, I made sure my hand overshot the offered scrap of paper by just a little bit. Just enough that my fingers brushed the boy’s wrist as I turned back to finish taking it from him.

I had gained several incredibly useful powers over the past few months, most of which had saved my life in one way or another. But I was pretty sure that none of them had done as much to keep me alive as my face-shifting power did in that moment. I was already using it, just as I’d used it every other time we checked people for possession. Which meant that my face gave absolutely no reaction when I touched Columbus. There was no twitch, I didn’t suddenly turn pale, my eyes didn’t widen or betray any kind of fear or surprise. It stayed completely the same.

Which was good, because when I turned back to look at Columbus while taking the paper… I saw her. The dark-skinned woman with the pale hair. She was there, super-imposed over his body as my view flicked back and forth between them a few times.

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

The Seosten was possessing Columbus. It was him. It was her. It was her. Oh god. Oh god, no. No, why? Why did it have to–why did they–how long did–no, no, no…

“Chambers, you touched him,” Avalon’s voice came then. “Are we good?”

Columbus… Charmeine was gesturing with Columbus’s arm. “Yeah, we could get on that sometime. So, you need anything else?”

“Flick.” It was Shiori’s voice. Shiori… Shiori talking through the pin. “Flick, say it. Caramel Camelot. Say it, Flick. Say Caramel Camelot. Flick, say it. Please. Please, Flick. Please, say it. Flick, please. Please. Say Caramel Camelot….”

“Flick?” Columbus-Charmeine prompted. “I said, do you need anything else?”

“Say it, Flick, please,” Shiori’s voice prompted desperately, clearly barely hanging on to her last hope.

“…. No.”

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Spy Hunt 26-03

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“No… no, no way.” Sands was shaking her head as the five of us floated there in the ocean, each supported by one of my sharks. Which was a good thing, since neither of the twins seemed to be in any kind of position to be keeping themselves above the water.

“You mean one of us–one of us is…” Lowering her voice, Sands whispered hoarsely, “possessed?! And you’ve been–you’ve been lying about all this stuff you’ve been doing?”

“Only the stuff that we couldn’t let the Seosten know,” I reiterated. “The stuff about learning how to expel them, finding Fahsteth when we said we were fighting zombies with Dare, lying about the choker being destroyed. Okay, yeah, it was a lot of lying. But Sands, we’re really sor-”

“Really sorry,” the other girl interrupted while squinting darkly at me. “Seriously, dude? You’re really sorry? I’m pretty sure Scout and me should be insulted right now.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–like I said, we were trying to… there wasn’t any–”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Not insulted for that, dummy. We’re not insulted because you had to lie and keep secrets, we’re insulted that you’d think we’d be mad about it after you explained it. Seriously? You think we’re that selfish? Maybe I’d be a little miffed if it was anything less than this, but it was Seosten, Flick. Of course we’re not mad that you had to make sure it was safe before you told us. That’s just common sense. How freaking self-centered do you think we are?”

My mouth opened and shut a few times at that. “I–I–um. Oh. Well, um. Sorry? I mean, thanks.”

Avalon snorted, head shaking. “Now you know what’s been happening. And why we couldn’t tell you the truth until we knew you weren’t possessed. And why you can’t tell anyone else yet.”

Sands nodded slowly, sinking back a bit against Sherman as the bull shark held her up. “I–you… you really think that it’s someone close to you? One of the team, or Deveron, or…”

“It has to be,” I confirmed. “Everything they know about, everything I overheard, what Fahsteth said, whoever this Charmeine is possessing, it’s someone that’s close to us, someone we trust.”

“So you have to clear us, one at a time,” Sands murmured, her eyes wide as she took all that in. “Holy shit. I mean, I… we knew they could possess people, sure. But I never–I mean I didn’t think they were actually–I didn’t know that–holy shit.” Repeating herself, she looked almost sick.

It was an expression that got even worse as Scout leaned over to whisper something to her. I saw Shiori flinch beside me, her own enhanced hearing obviously allowing her to pick up whatever Scout had said. Sands, for her part, looked pale as she turned to me. “Oh. Scout, um–” She grimaced, working her mouth a little. “Scout wants to know if you’ll check our dad.”

The question made me flinch, for more than one reason. After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Of course. I–maybe…” Pausing, I thought about offering to let them take the choker to check their father themselves. But honestly, I couldn’t be sure that they’d be able to disguise their reaction if he was possessed. And if they did give anything away, it wouldn’t be hard for whatever theoretical Seosten was possessing the man to figure out that they knew too much. And from there, well, he’d probably get the choker back in about two seconds if he knew about it.

“Yes,” I finally settled on. “We’ll test him, as soon as we can. I mean, I don’t wanna just walk right up to everyone who might be possessed and put my hands all over them. Even if the Seosten didn’t start getting suspicious about it, I’m pretty sure I’d end up on some kind of list.”

Sands started to nod then, before blinking. “Hey, that reminds me… how did you guys get back to the island?” She was squinting. “You said you had to talk to the head in the lighthouse to get it to send you away in the first place–which, for the record, I am also completely freaking out about and you are totally going to take us up there to talk to the thing at some point.”

“Um, it’d probably help if you started out not calling him a ‘thing’,” I pointed out mildly.

Her head bobbed up and down. “Right, right, of course. I just–the point is, that’s how you got off the island. But you had to go through all that in the first place because of those bozos from the Committee. So how’d you get back onto the grounds?”

“Oh,” I replied, “that part was simple. I just called Gaia. She got Dare to distract the guard in the lighthouse. Then she went up there and left her phone on speaker so that I could talk to the Reaper and ask him to bring us back over.”

For a couple minutes after that, the five of us just floated there in the water. I didn’t want to do anything to interrupt the twins as they clearly came to terms with everything we’d just told them, and from the look on Avalon and Shiori’s faces, they felt pretty much the same way. So we just sat like that, letting Sands and Scout work through it for as long as they needed. Once in awhile, they’d ask a question about something that had happened, and I’d answer. Other than that, however, there was relative silence (beyond, of course, the sound of the ocean around us).

Eventually, Sands looked to her sister. The two exchanged silent stares for a few seconds, seeming to come to some kind of silent agreement before both of them looked to me. “Okay,” the talkative twin announced, “we get why you had to lie before. But now we’re in, all right? We want to be included. Whatever happens, we get to help. We’re your team, Flick. Let us help.”

I stared at them both. After everything that happened, all the stuff I’d had to lie about… they accepted it and moved on, just because they realized that I had to? Just like… that? There was a thick lump in my throat, which wasn’t entirely because of what they said. It was also because of what I knew I had to say. I couldn’t put it off anymore. Not after what they’d just done.

“Shy, Valley….” I murmured before coughing as I raised my voice. “Could you guys give us a few minutes? I–I need to talk to them alone.” Glancing to the two, I added a soft, “Please.”

They both seemed to realize quickly what was going on. Avalon nodded, shooting a brief glance toward the probably even-more confused twins before she and Shiori started off back to shore.

“Uh, Flick?” Sands offered, her tone puzzled, “are you sure you didn’t get this whole thing backwards? You already told us the bad news, remember? Why are they leaving now?”

Biting my lip, I took a moment. I’d been thinking about this for awhile by this point, ever since I learned the truth from Klassin Roe. That had been… jeez, before Christmas. You’d think that, by this point, I’d already know exactly what to say to them about it. But I didn’t. I had no idea.

So, I just decided to wing it. Thinking about it any more was just giving myself more excuses to avoid actually saying what I had to say, more reasons to delay. “Um. So, I have something to tell you guys about the umm, the war. You know, the one with my mom and the… yeah.”

I wasn’t helping matters like that. Sands was even more confused. “Uh, now you’re going even further back. I swear, if you’re about to confess that your mom was part of a group that was trying to protect Strangers that they thought weren’t evil, I’m gonna have you checked for a concussion. Or possible possession, I’m not sure which. What the hell, dude?”

“No, no, I–” Sighing, I started over. “Okay. Listen, I found this out awhile ago, back before Christmas. But first I didn’t know how to bring it up, and then there was all that stuff about not knowing who to trust or what to–it was hard. But um, the thing is… your dad was… sort of the person who… kinda… got the war started in the first place.”

Seeing the obvious confusion on their faces, I pushed on, rushing by that point to just get it all out. “What I mean is–ugh. Okay, I’m just gonna say it. My mom was working with people to secretly protect Alters. Sort of like what we’ve been doing, but more proactive. You know, a secret group of people she trusted. Like I trust you guys. One of–um, one of those people was your dad. She trusted him with the secret about what they were doing. And he… um, he sort of went to the Committee and turned them in. That’s how they found out what Mom and her people were doing and brought the whole thing out into the open. That’s what started the civil war.”

Silence. Nothing. Absolutely no sound whatsoever came from either of the twins. Sands and Scout both just floated there, staring at me in complete silence for… I had no idea how long. It felt like hours. But then, it could have been only a few seconds. I heard a slight ringing somewhere in the back of my head that I had to convince myself wasn’t real. I was afraid. I was more afraid of their reaction to this news than I had been about everything else. They’d understood why I had lied to them and kept secrets about the Seosten thing. This was their dad. It was their dad, after they’d already lost their mother. How could they possibly react to this?

As it turned out, the answer was: not well. Scout looked stricken, of course. Her mouth had fallen open, and she was staring at me as if I’d… well, as if I’d told her that her own father had been responsible for a war that nearly ripped their society apart, all because he betrayed someone who should have been one of his closest friends, someone who had trusted him.

But it was Sands, Sands who kicked off and started to swim to the beach. She moved so abruptly and so quickly that it took me a second to react. Scout looked just as taken aback, making a noise of confusion before starting after her sister, who was already halfway to shore.

Catching hold of Scout’s arm, I gave a short whistle. Brody and Quint both swam right up, giving us a lift to the shallows that cut off some of the other girl’s lead. We scrambled up out of the water just as Sands started out onto the sand, and I blurted, “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”

“Where?” Sands demanded, pivoting back toward me. “Where am I going? You just told me that my dad–” She lowered her voice slightly, into a hiss that was quieter, though not that much further away from hysterical. “You just told me that my dad was responsible for the entire civil war and everything that happened in it, and you want to know where I’m going?”

I winced, my mouth opening and shutting a couple of times as I fought for the right words. But before I could actually say anything, she went on.

“We lost our mom.” Her eyes were so wet that I didn’t think she could see anything out of them, and it had nothing to do with the ocean. “We lost our mom, and now… now you’re saying that…”

Pivoting, she punched a tree so hard that her fist made a hole in the thing, while letting out a noise that sounded like a mix between a grunt and a somewhat muffled scream.

Scout quickly moved to her sister, while Sands stood there with her fist embedded in the tree. Her voice was lower.

“Do you have any idea how much I wanted things to go back to the way they were supposed to be before all this happened? Do you have the slightest clue how hard I wished for all the monsters to be the monsters they were supposed to be, for all of the Heretics to be the great, upstanding, perfect heroes that I always thought we were? Do you understand?

“My whole life, we were told the stories about the noble Heretics saving humanity. And I wanted it, I wanted all of it. When you told me about the Alters thing, how they’re not all monsters, you have no idea how hard it was not to go straight to Gaia, or one of the other teachers. I was scared, I was scared and I was mad and I wanted… I wanted everything to be the way it was supposed to be…

“I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make things be the way they were supposed to be. I wanted you to be wrong. I wanted all of us to be the heroes we were supposed to be. I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make it better. I wanted you to be wrong. It’s selfish, I know, I know. But I still wanted it. I wanted it so bad.”

Pulling her fist out of the tree, Sands turned to face me, while her sister put a hand on her shoulder. “But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t do that, because it was wrong. Because you trusted me, and because me wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. A hero doesn’t stick with things exactly as they are just because it’s easier. But it’s hard, because every time I look around and see everything that we are, I have to question all of it now. I have to question everything now, my entire life. All of it.

“Mom, she decided that Strangers weren’t all evil. She did it, and Scout is still alive because she trusted the Stranger that saved her.”

Glancing to the girl beside her before looking back to me, Sands lowered her voice a bit more. It was trembling. “But now you’re telling me that if the positions had been reversed, if Dad had been there instead of Mom for whatever reason, Scout would have died. Scout would’ve died because Dad wouldn’t trust them, he wouldn’t trust a Stranger.

“I wanted things to go back to the way they were, I wanted things to be the way they were supposed to be the whole time I was growing up. But they’re not. They’re not, and no matter how much I want them to be, they won’t. I moved on. I’ve been trying to move on, and the one thing that has helped me with that, the one thing that is helped the most is the fact that I knew I knew that if push came to shove and I had to tell my dad the truth, he would believe me. He would be there for me, for us, because he’s my dad. He’s our dad. And no matter what kind of wrong things he did, my dad always did the right thing if he could. If we told him the truth, if we showed him the truth, he’d listen.

“But now… now you’re telling me that he wouldn’t. Because he already betrayed his friends. He took the easy way out. He turned them in. This whole war that happened, all of it is his fault. He would have turned in my mom, his wife. He would’ve turned us in. He’s our dad, he’s the only parent we have left, and you’re saying that he would have turned us in.”

There was an anger in the other girl’s eyes that I’d never seen there before, a hardness as she continued. “And you know what? Mom would’ve been on the side of the rebellion. She would have been on that side, if they hadn’t erased it. Which Dad obviously helped them do. If they hadn’t done that, if the rebellion wasn’t erased, our parents never would’ve gotten together in the first place. Which means Scout and me, we would never have been born.

“So you want to know where I’m going? I have no idea. But where I want to go is to my dad, so I can…” Sands trailed off for a moment before her head shook, tears for flowing freely as they had been throughout all of this. “So I can punch him. So I can punch him and keep punching until… until…”

Words had completely failed the other girl by that point, and she felt both knees, shoulders shaking heavily as she cried.

And I… I had no idea what to say. Honestly, I’d kind of expected Scout to be the one that was more upset by everything, not Sands. I thought Scout would be upset and Sands would know what to say. If anything, I’d thought that Sands would almost be on her father’s side of the whole thing. This was… this wasn’t going the way I’d thought it would, at all.

While I stood there, clueless for a few seconds, Scout had already knelt by her sister and was embracing her. Neither of them said anything, content for the moment to just hold onto each other while they tried to cope with what I’d just told them.

And what could I say? I’m sorry? It was pathetically inadequate. I remembered how I’d felt as a kid when people told me they were sorry that my mother had abandoned my father and me. Apologies, sympathy, anything I could’ve said felt… wrong.

So I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took a few steps forward and then sank to my knees beside the twins. With a heavy lump in my throat, I embraced Sands and Scout, putting one arm around each of them.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed there like that. But I did know one thing with crystal clear certainty by the time we moved again.

Liam Mason deserved every single punch his daughters wanted to give him.

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Spy Hunt 26-02

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“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” my father started a short time later as he sat with Avalon, Shiori, and me in one of the cabins around the lake. His eyes focused on Avalon. “Your father was supposed to be dead, but someone turned him into a vampire instead. And now he’s spent the past few years repeatedly trying to kill you. Just this year, that effort was stepped up, getting you kicked out of this other school after they drugged one of your friends into attacking you until you had to kill him in self-defense, and trying to separate you from any protection you have. Now it’s not just your father, but others, these… angels who can possess people. They’re all trying to kill you, and manipulating people like your father into helping, because you’re the closest living relation to that… Hieronymus Bosch guy, whose daughter created some kind of magical vault that will only open for her closest living relative. In this case, you. In that vault, there’s something these angels want badly enough that they’re going to all this trouble to get rid of you so that the woman they’ve been taking control of, this… Professor Tangle, will become the closest living relative and then they can use her to get into the vault. That about sum it up?”

Blinking a couple times, I looked at Shiori to my left, then to Avalon to my right. “Uh, I think so.”

“Yes,” Avalon answered flatly. She was sitting there at the table, one hand on the bottle of flavored water that Gabriel had provided when she’d asked. “That is… essentially the size of it.” Her hand was tight on the bottle, and she was sitting stiffly for some reason. The whole time we’d been talking to my father, she had seemed uncomfortable and on the edge of bolting.

Whistling low, Dad looked down at the table, taking that in for a few seconds before he looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a pretty impressive girl, you know that?”

Judging from the way Avalon blinked at him and took a moment to respond, I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have said anything that would have surprised her more than that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she squinted, her suspicion obviously taking over. “What? You–” She paused, eyes shifting to me for half a second before she looked back to my father. “You’re not going to tell me to keep myself and my problems away from your daughter?”

For a moment, Dad didn’t say anything. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. “Do you remember what I said that first morning before you left for school? The thing I told you to do?”

I thought about it briefly, head tilting before I remembered. “Stay away from drug dealers?”

He nodded. “That’s the one. And what happened to make me feel the need to tell you that?”

“Um.” I coughed. “Because I took it upon myself to taunt a drug dealer into confessing to his crimes?”

“And was I at all surprised that you would do something like that?” Dad prompted with a raised eyebrow.

My head shook quickly. “Surprised? No, not really. Exasperated maybe, but not surprised.”

Dad nodded once before turning his attention back toward Avalon. “She’s never been shy about getting into trouble, especially if she thought it was the right thing to do. It didn’t take a bunch of monster hunters to turn my daughter into a hero. I always knew she would be. Whether it would be throwing herself into war zones to report on atrocities, or going up against politicians that could throw her in prison and ruin her life, she was always going to do the right thing, no matter what powerful person tried to stop her. This Edge thing didn’t make her into anything she’s not, and you didn’t create this danger, or drag her into it.”

“Dad…” My voice was a tiny little mouse squeak as I felt my ears turn bright red. I wondered if I could actually manage to hit him if I kicked out.

He held up a hand to forestall me. “Believe it or not, I have a point beyond embarrassing you.” He paused then before conceding with a grin, “Embarrassing you is just a delightful bonus.”

I groaned, but Dad was already moving on. Raising his finger he gestured toward first Avalon, and then Shiori. “I may not understand this whole combined relationship thing. It’s not really my cup of tea. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Felicity.”

Yeah, we had sort-of explained the whole… relationship thing. At least as much as any of us actually understood it. Dad–well, he was taking it in stride, as far as that went. I guess when you get to the point of accepting that your daughter was a monster-hunter who gained superpowers by killing things, and that your missing wife had been the leader of a revolutionary faction of those monster hunters, it wasn’t too hard to get from that to ‘your daughter also has two girlfriends.’ Still, I was pretty sure he found it strange, even more strange than he was admitting right now.

Shiori blinked, holding up several fingers and counting them before she brightened. “Tea, me, Felicity, you did that on purpose!”

Dad winked at her before continuing, “The point is, there are three things that are actually important when it comes to anyone who wants to have a relationship with my daughter. First, they have to make her happy. Second, they need to help her rise into the kind of person that I know she is, not hold her down. And third, they have to be able and willing to stand with her, protect her when she needs protecting, challenge her, and defend her when her sense of justice exceeds her means to defend herself. Make her happy, inspire her, and protect her.”

Pausing then, Dad took a breath as he looked at the other two girls for a moment. “As far as I can tell, you girls do all of that. And probably far more than I will ever understand. So now, I’m not going to tell either of you to stay away from her. Just… let her protect you as much as you protect her.”

Focusing solely on Avalon then, Dad’s gaze softened a little bit. “And for the record, if I had your dad in front of me, I’d teach him exactly what I think about pathetic, drunk, child abusing pieces of shit. Vampire or not, a coward is a coward is a coward.”

After letting that sit for a few seconds, he brightened. “And now, I think I’ve been patient long enough. I’ve been the good, concerned dad. Now I want to see them.”

“See them?” I echoed, blinking over at the others blankly.

“The superpowers!” Dad blurted out loud. He sounded as eager as a little kid, and I realized just how hard it had been for him to hold back and remain serious for as long as he had.

“Come on, you’ve gotta show me the superpowers.”

********

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Gaia announced about an hour later. It was as long as I had been able to stretch spending time with my dad and the others before we had to get back to the school. After all, the last thing we needed was for Patrick and October, the Committee’s summoned minions, to get too suspicious about where we were. To say nothing of our Seosten ‘friends’. They’d know by now that we had been there, but they had to keep thinking that the choker had been destroyed. Which meant we should have come back here before too long.

There had been a lot more to do back at the camp. Each of the three groups (the Wonderland people, Mateo’s pack and the wolves they had managed to pull together, and Gabriel’s people) had lost people. Luckily, none of Roxa’s actual pack had died, though two of them (Corson and Hasty) had been injured enough that they’d be down for awhile. But still, there was a lot for them to sort out. Everything from deciding who was responsible for the prisoners that they’d taken, to where they were going to go to rest up, to how they would divide up the supplies that had been left behind. And more, a lot more.

Yeah, they’d won a lot. But they’d also lost. They were obviously trying not to show too much of it, but I knew that people had died. People had gone into that fight against that pack of weres at least partially because I asked them to, and now they were dead. Yet, if we hadn’t gone in, a lot more people would be dead. Hell, we’d managed to rescue all those Alter kids, so… that had to be worth it, right? Would I think the same thing if it was Avalon or Shiori who had died? Or even Vanessa or Tristan?

I’m a seventeen-year-old kid. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with those kind of questions, exactly?

But we didn’t even have time to stick around for all of that to really sink in. We’d had to leave far too soon, as far as I was concerned. It was just the safest way to avoid problems with the Committee, or the Seosten. Though these days, I wasn’t sure how much actually separated the two groups.

That wasn’t fair. One of the Committee members had saved my dad, had actually helped him break the Bystander Effect. And I still wasn’t sure what the hell that was all about.  

In any case, now we were in Gaia’s office. ‘We’ meant Avalon, Shiori, the Moon twins, and myself. Roxa had stayed behind, as she’d chosen to. We were going to plan for the best time for her to talk to her old team in person. Obviously, it couldn’t be on the school grounds or anywhere that the Seosten would know about it. And I (or someone else wearing the choker)  was going to have to touch each of them to make sure they weren’t possessed. After all, it’d be pretty stupid to go through all the trouble of hiding that the choker was intact only to have Roxa waltz right onto the island wearing it in a way that every Seosten would know should have been impossible without the choker.

In fact, it was getting to the point that I was thinking it might be better for Roxa not to reveal herself to her team at all until we had identified all the Seosten. Just in case. If her old team stopped being so obsessed about finding her, even if none of them were possessed, it might still tip the wannabe angels off. And nothing said they couldn’t be possessed later.

“Congratulations?” Tristan raised both hands, showing off the retractable claws that he had inherited from the werejaguar that he’d killed. The boy was also considerably stronger, courtesy of the other kill he’d gotten, a wereape.  “We just beat a giant pack of were-whatevers and Flick over there stole the one thing that can identify Seosten that are possessing people. We deserve a freaking parade, and a–” He yelped as Vanessa pecked him on the side of the head. Yeah, pecked. While Tristan had inherited some extra strength and retractable claws, Vanessa had gotten incredibly lucky. Not only did she inherit the ability to turn into a full raven, which she was using right then to perch on her brother’s shoulder, but she had also gained the ability to turn into a full-sized bear. Which was… more than a little intimidating. Especially seeing innocent little bookworm Vanessa transform into a gigantic fuck-off grizzly.

Coughing at his sister’s silent reprimand, Tristan gestured. “Uh, I mean, or congratulations from you, Headmistress. That’s just as good.”

Chuckling softly, Gaia inclined her head. “I am quite certain that there will be more of a reward for your efforts in the future, Mr. Moon.” There was amusement in her gaze as she glanced back toward me. “In the meantime, would you like me to have him come in now, Felicity?”

My eyes turned to the door briefly before I gave a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

So, the headmistress made a gesture with one finger. The door on the other side of the room opened smoothly, and a short, lanky figure stepped through. Wyatt. He smiled broadly (and a bit goofily, showing his buck teeth) at the sight of me and held his arms open. “You’re all right!”

Blinking at that, I shrugged and took a step that way to return the offered hug. Clearly, he’d been even more worried about me going through with that fight than I’d thought he would b–

He punched me in the shoulder, harder than someone of his tiny frame should have been able to. As I took a reflexive step back and yelped, Wyatt put a finger in my face. “No!” he chastised me. “What if I was possessed? What if I came to take the choker away from you? Never, ever, ever put yourself in that kind of compromised position with someone you’re not sure you can trust. I could’ve cut your throat before you knew what was happening. I could’ve taken you hostage and either stolen the choker from you or ordered whoever has it to give it over. Are you crazy? Do you want to be a victim? Never, ever, ever be that naive. Anyone could be your enemy. Until you use the choker on them, you don’t know. So assume the worst, and be ready!”

Somewhere behind me, I heard Avalon actually chuckle, voice soft. “He has a point, Chambers.”

Wincing, I rubbed my shoulder while looking back toward Gaia. The headmistress was just smiling a little bit. When I looked to her, she offered a slight shrug, as if to say that he wasn’t wrong. “Right,” I murmured before looking back to him. “Um, Headmistress, would you mind…”

She nodded once before making another slight gesture with one finger. As she did so, a collection of dark green vines literally rose out of the floor, wrapping around Wyatt’s arms and legs to hold him firmly in place. Her voice was calm. “You may test him safely now, Felicity.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket and took out the choker. Carefully affixing it to my own neck, I extended my hand to press gingerly against Wyatt’s arm. Not because I was worried that he was actually possessed or anything, but because I was half-afraid he might have some kind of electrified trap to zap my fingers or something just to teach me about touching people like that.

Nothing happened. There was no zap or other trap from my (justifiably) paranoid older brother, and obviously no reveal that he was actually possessed. Just as I’d known there wouldn’t be. We never would have gotten as far as we had if Wyatt had been possessed. Hell, Avalon would’ve been dead a dozen times over by now if he was. No, Wyatt being possessed would’ve ended everything a long time ago. I’d known he was safe before ever using the choker on him.

Still, I nodded for everyone else. “Clear,” I announced while stepping back. “You can let him go.”

The vines disappeared, and Wyatt shook himself off a bit. “Still,” he announced almost as though he was disappointed that we’d cleared him so easily, “you can never be too careful. Eyes wide, eyes open. Remember, they can switch bodies, so check everyone as much as you can.”

“We could do that more easily,” Avalon pointed out while stepping beside me, “with your help.”

I nodded quickly, taking the choker off before offering it to him. “Yeah. Right now, the Seosten think it’s been destroyed. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t just think this was some other fashion accessory if we started walking around wearing it. So we were hoping you could do something to it first. You know, make it invisible or something, so it’s not so obvious that we have it.”

Taking the offered choker, Wyatt frowned thoughtfully down at it for a few seconds. “Invisible…” he murmured under his breath before nodding. “Yes.” Giving another goofy smile, he looked up to me. “Yes, I think I can do exactly what you want. But it’ll take a little while to do it properly.”

“Are you sure?” That was Vanessa. The blonde girl had turned into her human form (using her own discarded shirt as cover while shifting back and dressing) before stepping over to join us, her expression pensive as she worried aloud, “They said that the thing was already damaged from the spell that was used to turn it into a choker instead of a ring. That’s what lowered it to touch-range to begin with. What if putting any more spells on it damages the identification effect even more?”

Wyatt’s head bobbed up-and-down. “Yes yes, of course, changing shape would be harder. Too dangerous to risk losing the spell. But making it invisible, that I can do. Just need a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Echoing his words, I gave a little nod before looking back at the others. “I guess that means we need to get to dinner, and face the music.”

“Lies,” Shiori murmured. “More lying.”

“One more time,” I assured her while putting a handout to touch the other girl’s shoulder. “We just lie one more time. Once we know who we can trust, then we can tell them the truth.”

“Except for whoever is possessed,” Vanessa pointed out quietly. “They’re all connected, they all know what happens to each other. So, until you know who every possessed person is, you’re going to have to keep lying to the one that you know about. It’s the only way to get them all at once.”

Sometimes… I really hated how smart that girl was.

********

“Okay, you guys have got some serious explaining to do,” Sands informed Avalon and me as we sat with the rest of the team at the table in the corner of the cafeteria as far away from any other group as possible. Her voice was low, but intense.

“She’s right,” Sean agreed. The Hispanic boy with drumming his fingers on the table as he watched us. “We looked all over the place for you guys. What happened?”

We had already prepared for this, from the moment that we knew we were going to have to explain where we had gone. We couldn’t lie about where we went, because if whoever Seosten was possessing happen to be within this group, they might get a little suspicious about what we knew if we were lying to people we were supposed to trust.

So, glancing at the privacy coin that was sitting on the table, I winced before starting to explain. “Sorry guys, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were with Vanessa and Tristan when Gabriel called. They tracked down that werewolf pack, and they needed us to go right then. There wasn’t time to say anything else or find you. We had to go.”

“Besides,” Avalon added. “Gabriel said that there was only a very brief window where he could open the portal that would get us off the island without alerting the security. If we waited any longer, he might not have been able to do it.”

Even now, when the other girl said the name of the man who had been her idol for so long, her voice faltered a little bit and she looked a bit flushed.

“Oh man,” Sands complained. “You got to fight a bunch of werewolves? Come on you gotta tell us everything that happened. Did you kick their…” She trailed off, looking around at Avalon and me with a slight frown. “What happened, is everyone okay? Everyone made it back right?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “We all made it back, but…” Trailing off, I gave a soft, slow sigh. “The choker that we were trying to get for Roxa, the one that would let her be here without setting off everyone’s Stranger-sense? Yeah, it…” Biting my lip, I looked down. “It was destroyed. Pace–we couldn’t…”

Sitting beside his roommate, Columbus winced before cursing quietly. “They couldn’t fix it? I mean, how destroyed are we talking here?”

“Melted,” Avalon replied flatly. “Pace’s acid spit, it was… bad.”

“Which just means we’ll have to find something else,” I announced. “We promised Roxa we’d find a way to help her. I’m not going back on that. If you guys–”

“Don’t even say it,” Sands warned me. “We said we’d help Roxa, so we’re gonna help Roxa.” She paused, frowning. “… somehow.” Belatedly, she added, “Maybe we can find something in New York.”

I started to nod, then blinked. “Yeah, maybe we–wait, what?”

“New York,” Sands explained. “We’re going there. Like, all of us. The team.”

She continued, telling us about the whole contest thing with the Investigation Track and how she and Jasmine had won, meaning that we’d be going on a trip to New York with Roxa’s old team.

This… could get complicated. But at least we knew a good time for Roxa to show up and tell her team that she was okay. A month should be enough time to use the choker to check each of them and make sure they weren’t possessed.  

Beside her sister, Scout leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. Sands listened for a moment before giving a sharp nod. “Right, Scout’s got a point. We still need to know how the fight went. What happened? We won, right?”

“We?” I echoed before snickering despite myself. “Yes, we won. Roxa even killed Lemuel.”

Eyes widening, Sands blurted, “She did? Oh come on, you can’t spoil the ending like that. That’s not fair. Tell us everything.”

So… as much as we could without spoiling things they couldn’t know yet… we did.

******

“How much do you think they eat?”

It was the next afternoon, and four of us (Sands, Scout, Shiori, and me) were out on the ocean, treading water as we watched my shiver of sharks swimming below and around us. They’d been like eager puppies, showing off new tricks that they’d learned for the past ten minutes or so.

“How much?” I echoed, glancing to the Asian girl beside me before shrugging. “I’m pretty sure Princess Cuddles could polish off half of what the entire student body puts away in a day all by herself. Or, you know, half the entire student body, period.” I gestured at the enormous shark in question, who was swimming further away than all the others.

“At least they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the waters around here clean and safe,” Shiori pointed out, giggling a little bit as Simpson, the yellow-tinted Lemon shark, came up to bump against her, clearly looking for head pats.

“He likes those,” I pointed out. “Here, Scout, check it out.” Reaching out, I waited for the other girl to give a little nod before gently taking her wrist to press against the shark’s snout. “Rub carefully just like that. See? Careful, it’s kind of rough.”

Feeling something bump up against my back, I glanced that way before laughing. “Jealous, Sherman?” The bull shark gave another heavy bump against me, and I snickered. “Okay, okay. Sands, here.” Carefully, I did the same with her, letting the girl give Sherman the attention that he wanted.

After watching the two of them pat the sharks for a moment, I gave a single nod. “Peanut brittle.”

Blinking up at me from Sherman, Sands asked, “Uh, what’d you say?”

“She said peanut brittle.”

That was Avalon, who rose from the water, dismissing the air-bubble spell that she’d been using in order to stay under water and out of sight behind Princess Cuddles until I gave the signal.

If it was possible to literally jump out of the water like a cartoon, Sands would’ve managed it right then. “Fuck!” she blurted, twisting that way. “Where’d you–what did-huh?”

Scout, for her part, was just watching me with a curious – yet understanding – tilt to her head. It was like she’d already worked out most of what was going on, and just needed me to fill in the details.

“We’re clear, then?” Avalon asked.

Looking toward Shiori, I echoed the question. “Clear?”

The other girl paused before nodding. Apparently one of the powers that she had inherited during that whole battle royal back there had been some kind of warning tingle that alerted her any time anyone was observing her that she didn’t know about.

Apparently it was rather less than useful any time we were anywhere near most of our fellow teenage classmates.

But out here, it had helped a lot. Now, she’d be able to tell us if anyone was paying attention or eavesdropping that we didn’t know about.

“Guys?” Sands interrupted my brief musing. “What the hell is going on? What–”

“You’re clear,” I announced. “We had to be sure, before we could tell you.” As I spoke, Brody, one of my two Mako sharks, drifted up under me so that I could hang off of him with one hand. With my other, I reached up to undo the choker around my neck. It came off, turning visible in the process as I showed it to the twins. “But now we know you’re not possessed.

“So we can tell you the truth about what’s really going on. All of it.”

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Mini-Interlude 37 – Larissa and Sariel Continued

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Sariel and Larissa’s continued interaction. 

Eight Years Ago

“And what do we do after we add the butter, the sugar, and the eggs, girls?” Larissa asked her daughters with a raised eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two nine-year old girls as they all stood in the kitchen. “What’s the next step in our glorious culinary confection?”

“Confection?” Sarah and Sandoval both echoed together, the confusion and disappointment obvious in their joined voices.

“I thought we were making cookies,” Sarah continued, eyes darting from the bowl to her mother.   

Sandoval nodded in agreement, adding, “Yeah, not um, conviction. Wait, isn’t that when you hafeta go to jail? Or when you believe something really hard? Wait, are we believing cookies?”  

“This better not be a ‘the cookie is in your mind’ situation, Mommy,” Sarah informed her mother. “Because I want the cookie in my mouth.” To demonstrate, she pointed first at her temple, then into her open mouth a couple of times. “Not here, here. I don’t gotta be extrasentyell yet.”

Covering her mouth, Larissa contained her snicker. “Existential, baby. And no, this isn’t about imagining cookies. I said confection. What do we do when there’s a word we don’t understand?”

Together, the two girls chorused, “Ask you how to spell it and get the dictionary.” They did so while retrieving the heavy book from its place in the living room. Sarah held the book open while Sandoval flipped the pages and ran her finger along them. “Con… con…. Fe… fe… fection. Confection, there it is! Um, lesse, it says…  A dish or delicacy made with sweet ingredients. Oh.”

“Like cookies!” Sarah announced then. “Or cake, or brownies, or candy bars, or doughnuts, or–”

Chuckling, Larissa held a hand up. “Or a lot. But cookies are the ones that we’re working on today.” Gesturing to the mixing bowl, she repeated, “So what’s after butter, sugar, and eggs?”

“Vanilla!” both girls chorused, eyes shining as they each grabbed for the bottle in question. After fumbling with it a little bit, they settled. Sarah was the one who held it up for their mother to take.

So they continued to make the cookies that way, one step at a time. Larissa let the girls do as much as possible, entertaining their questions whether they had to do with the baking or anything else. She adored listening to her twins chatter, seeing the way they interacted with each other as well as the world, and how curious they both were about everything. They were amazing, and whenever she heard their voices or even caught a glimpse of the two, Larissa knew how lucky she was. Her children. Her babies. She would do anything for them. Anything.

It was that thought that was on Larissa’s mind, as she watched her girls happily munching away at the cookies that they had helped make, when a soft, now-familiar voice spoke up in her mind.

Larissa.

It had been a little over a month since the first time that voice had spoken to her, when the… Stranger had telepathically contacted Larissa before the woman behind it had saved her from the gargoyles. A month of wondering if she would ever hear from the strange woman again. A month of repeatedly debating whether she should tell anyone, and always deciding against it.

“You okay, Mommy?” Sandoval asked curiously, still holding her mostly-eaten cookie in one hand while watching her mother from her place at the kitchen table next to her sister.

Finding a smile, Larissa nodded. “Yup, Mommy just remembered she has a little work to do over at her office. Think you girls can be good here by yourself for a little bit and stay out of trouble?”  

The twins nodded vigorously. After making the two promise to eat only two more cookies each (and making it clear that she knew exactly how many would be left if they followed that rule), Larissa made her way out of the building. Instead of going to her office in the main school building, however, she glanced around the Crossroads grounds before slipping a hand into the pocket of the light sweatshirt that she’d grabbed on the way out. Her fingers found what they were questing for, and she came out with a simple plastic toothbrush. Or, it had been simple, before she had spent the time to etch a series of runes into the handle. The brush, after being finished, had been hidden in a safe spot in their apartment until just a minute earlier.

Now, Larissa triggered the spell that she had enchanted into the brush for just this occasion. As she did so, the view of world spun around her like one of those little merry-go-rounds at some playgrounds. She felt her stomach twist a little bit, nausea heaving itself up before settling once more along with her view  of the world. A view that had changed dramatically. Now, instead of seeing the school grounds and island around her, she saw the interior of a dingy apartment somewhere in Philadelphia. An apartment that she had paid for a few days after the incident in New York, realizing that she needed a safe, private, quiet place away from any prying eyes.

After taking a moment to ensure the apartment was still clear and that the privacy enchantments she had set up over the past few weeks were active, Larissa took a breath before letting it out. “Sariel,” she spoke out loud, finding herself whispering for some reason. “Are you still there?”

A minute or two of silence passed then before the other woman’s voice spoke up faintly. “Almost have it… Hold on.” Again, silence reigned for another minute, though there was some faint feeling of almost electrical energy in the air, nearly to the point of making Larissa’s hair stand up.

Then… the woman was there. She appeared a few feet away, facing the opposite direction before turning back. She looked… tired, but gratified. “Larissa,” she murmured under her breath. “You–” Pausing, the woman slowly looked around for a moment, taking in the sight of the dingy, completely furniture-less one-room apartment. “It looks like you need a new interior decorator.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Larissa flushed slightly. “I just wanted a private place to–I didn’t want anyone around to see–I thought it’d be better if we–who are you?!”

Meeting her gaze, the woman nodded slowly. “You’re right. You deserve the truth. All of it.”

“You–” Larissa started, biting her lip. “You said your name was Sariel. But you also called yourself… you told that gargoyle that you were…” She trailed off, hesitant to actually say it.

Smiling faintly at that, the other woman nodded. “Artemis. That was… a long time ago. But it’s a name that still holds some sway in certain beings. I needed to convince the other gargoyle to leave before I lost the connection to you, and that was the easiest, quickest way to do it.”

“Artemis, the real–I mean.” Larissa stopped, catching her thoughts for a moment before starting again. “I should be telling someone about what happened, about hearing you, about you–about what you said about how… how you possessed me. This is insane. I should be telling them.”

The expression on Sariel’s face was sad as she replied, “You wouldn’t get very far if you tried.”

Taking a reflexive step back, Larissa frowned at the woman. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”

“No.” Sariel’s head shook. “Larissa, I’d never hurt you. I meant that you wouldn’t get very far because one of them would stop you if you tried to expose them. My people wouldn’t let you.”

“Your… people?” Larissa bit her lip. “That gargoyle, he called you a… a, umm, a Seosten?”

The other woman gave a slight nod. “That’s what we are, what I am. Seosten. We’re…” She hesitated, considering her words briefly. “A few hundred thousand years ago, we were like you. Humans, I mean, not Heretics. We lived on a world not that different from this one, now. A little more advanced than what you call Bystanders, but they’ll reach where we were before too much longer. We were advancing quickly, starting to really explore our solar system, the depths of our oceans, we wanted to know everything there was to know. We pushed the boundaries. And then… then we pushed just a little too far. Our scientists, they created… him.”

“Him?” Larissa echoed, confused as her brow furrowed. “Him who?”

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She had to take a few seconds to collect herself before speaking quietly, her voice making it clear that she didn’t really want to say the name at all. “Cronus.”

Staring at the other woman, Larissa shook her head. “Cronus, as in the Titan? Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed in that soft voice. “The scientists, they… it was their attempt to clone a living being, to create a fully-functional living clone of one of us. The son of the project lead, he was… sick. His father was desperate to find a way of saving him. His solution was two-fold. First he had to create a body for his son, to replace the one that was dying. That was Cronus. His son’s name was Cron, and think of the -us addition as meaning… two or junior, another one.”

Larissa took that in. Aliens. She knew that some Alters were simply beings from another world, but this was the first time that she’d really thought about them having a civilization like Earth. “What–” She started before giving a soft cough. “What about the other part of it? You said two.”

With a slight, sad little smile, Sariel nodded once more. “I did. The second part came because Caelus, the boy’s father, had have a way of transplanting his son into the new body.”

Thinking about that briefly, Larissa straightened. “Possession. You mentioned possession.”    

The other woman raised an eyebrow slightly. “Yes, good. Exactly. We weren’t–back then, we didn’t have the ability to possess people, or anything. Besides the clone Caelus created for Cron, he also engineered a genetic modification. Injecting his son with it created a connection between Cron and his clone. A connection that allowed the two of them to merge. That was the first, very, very early stages of what we use now. The start of our ability to possess people.

“At first,” she continued. “It was just that, a connection between Cron and Cronus, his clone. That’s all it was meant to be. But… but something happened. The genetic alteration that allowed Cron’s body to… to absorb into his clone mutated. It didn’t just take him. When Caelus saw that it was successful, that his dying son had been absorbed by the body of his clone, he hugged the boy. But touching him… when his father touched him, Cronus absorbed him too. He took his father’s body, his mind, his… soul if you want to call it that. He absorbed it just like he had Cron. Cron, Cronus, Caelus, they were all there. They were all the same, stuck in a body.”

Larissa was staring. “You mean, he made the possession thing, it was supposed to link the two of them by their DNA. But his DNA was similar enough that it took him too, when they touched.”

With another nod of confirmation, Sariel continued. “And Cronus’s mind, what there was of it, wasn’t entirely stable to begin with. Mostly because it was never meant to be stable, or even present. Cron was supposed to take over, so Cronus was supposed to be a blank slate. Except it didn’t work that way. There was three minds in there. Three minds all going a little bit nuts.”

Swallowing a little, Larissa offered a weak, “This, um, this doesn’t really sound like a story that’s going to get better before it gets worse.”

“A lot worse,” the other woman agreed. “The doctors that Caelus was working with, they saw what happened. They tried to intervene, but… no one knows which of the three minds inside Cronus was responsible. Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. The point is, they defended themselves. Or they defended himself, or–however you want to put it. The doctors, security, they all tried to step in. He–Cronus killed all of them. Call it self-defense or murder, the result’s the same. Cronus killed them. Then he tried—or they tried–whatever. Cronus tried to absorb the bodies. He wanted more. More minds inside him to work together to figure out how to fix it. That’s how it was at first. He wanted more mental power, more brains working together to separate the three of them. Or at least the two of them. He wanted to undo it. So he tried to take more minds into his body. Except, like I said, the possession thing was only for Cron, until…”

“Until?” Larissa prompted after a moment of silence. She was surprisingly invested in this story.

“Like I said, it was a genetic alteration that allowed Cron to merge his body with his clone in the first place,” Sariel explained. “One alteration to Cron, one to Cronus. With Caelus’s genius mind and Cronus’s… damaged one, they created a virus that would change the host’s DNA, rewriting it so that Cronus could absorb them, just like Cron and Caelus. They were still intent on undoing everything, on fixing it. So they made the virus and exposed another group of scientists to it.

“Of course, it worked. Cronus could absorb the scientists after they were infected. But instead of fixing his brain, it made him even worse. He was smarter, but he was also… crazier. Every mind he absorbed made it harder for him to think straight. So he absorbed more, trying to fix the problem. It was like that song that you liked so much when you were a kid, the one with the fly.”

“The old lady who swallowed the fly,” Larissa realized, head bobbing. “He was–they were like that. Cronus. He kept swallowing–err, absorbing more people trying to solve his problem.”

“Yeah.” Sariel glanced away briefly before going on. “Worse than that, he stopped paying enough attention to his virus. It got out, infected the regular population. Before long, all Seosten could possess other creatures. Which meant that all Seosten could also…” She trailed off.

“Could also be absorbed by this Cronus,” Larissa realized. “Your entire race was vulnerable.”

Again, Sariel agreed. “Yes. There was a war, big one. Since he could absorb anyone of us that he touched, Cronus could also turn into anyone he touched, shifting his body to match theirs whenever he needed to. He absorbed their knowledge, their skills, their power, all of it. But in the end, he had to flee. As powerful as he was, he was only one person. Well, one body anyway. So he took our experimental spacecraft and left the planet. And, for awhile, that was it. Except for the changes… the changes to our DNA. It didn’t just give us the ability to possess other beings. It also–” She paused, swallowing. “It changed how we were able to reproduce.”

Seeing Larissa’s uncertain expression, the Seosten woman took a breath, then continued. “We used to reproduce much like humans do. A slightly longer gestation time of eleven months, but other than that… but after the virus, it… most of our children are… absorbed by the mother before they reach any kind of viable age. They’re absorbed in the womb, accidentally. Eighty, maybe ninety percent of pregnancies don’t result in a birth. Once they’re out, it’s safe. But the fetuses that are in the mother, there’s too much of a connection between them. They’re too similar. So, the mother and child are just… merged. When it happens, the baby’s too young to have much of a mind at all, so it just… disappears. It got to the point where so few of us were being born that we had to find another way to keep our race going. So we genetically engineered ourselves to live for thousands of years. That saved us, somewhat. Even a ten percent birth rate can keep a race going if each individual manages to live long enough.”

While the horror of that thought settled in Larissa’s mind, Sariel went on. “In any case, the virus had successfully rewritten our DNA so that, by that point, we were born with the ability to possess people. But without Cronus around, our civilization expanded, grew out into the stars. We met other civilizations, other peoples like us. And then… a few thousand years later, we heard about the Fomorians.”

The word made Larissa’s heart drop. “You know the Fomorians,” she managed after a moment.

“Know them?” Sariel gave a slight nod. “Yeah, you could say that. The Fomorians weren’t nearly the threat they became at first, not until they were found by Cronus. Yeah, that experimental ship he took? He stumbled into their space. And then he taught them. He molded them. They were his children, his answer to the one weakness that had allowed the earlier Seosten to drive him off our home planet: numbers. After a certain point, no one knows what actually happened to Cronus. He disappeared. But the Fomorians were still there. They were expanding everywhere, using what Cronus taught them and then adding their own sick twists.

“Our ancestors knew that Cronus would return. Between that threat and the one presented by his new friends, they did what they thought was the right thing: sought power. Power that was necessary to defend ourselves. But Cronus could absorb any of them at any point. So we needed other beings to fight that war for us. We needed help, and we needed power. We got both… by enslaving other races. It–they were desperate at the time. I’m not saying it was right. But they were desperate. They thought it was the only way to save our species. And yet… at some point, it went beyond that. I don’t know how many of our people even remember the actual reason behind why we started taking people over, why we started using our possession ability to disrupt their governments, take over their key officials and turn their militaries to our own purpose. For most of us, the specifics don’t matter. It’s just what we’ve always done.”

Biting her lip then, the woman looked down. “It’s what I believed in. Protecting our species no matter what, against the threat of the Fomorians and Cronus, a creature who could turn into any of us, who could instantly kill any of us with a single touch whenever he inevitably appeared again. So, when we heard about the weapons that the Fomorians had created and then lost, the biological weapons whose power allowed them to merge their own genetics with other species in order to take on the best traits of those other species… we had to come. We expected a war with the Fomorians. What we found was… you. Earth.”

“What–what?” Eyes wide, Larissa blurted, “What do you mean, biological weapons? Wait–wait, the Fomorians… they always–apparently they always said they were here on Earth for their property. Are you–are you trying to–”

Quietly, softly, Sariel told her the truth. She told her about where the human race had originated from, why they had the ability to become Natural Heretics. And then she told Larissa the rest of it. She told her about how the traitor Fomorian had stolen the prototype humans from the rest of his people and brought them to Earth, where they had mixed with one of the humanoid species already on the planet to form what were now humans. She told her about the Seosten plan to turn the human race from a weapon that the Fomorians would have used against them into a tool to work for them. She told her about the various attempts to make that work, which had culminated in the creation of the Bystander Effect in order to keep the majority of humanity in line, and the creation of Crossroads Academy to continue building their armies of Heretic boogeymen to keep any other race from becoming a threat. And most of all, the gradual strengthening of the human army to be put against their original creators, the Fomorians.

Once the woman finished, Larissa took a few seconds to find her voice. When she finally did, it was weak, and cracked. “I… I really wish I’d brought some chairs into this place. Because I really need to sit down right now.”

“Believe me, I know what you mean.” Watching her for a moment, Sariel hesitantly added, “Do you want me to give you some time? I can come back later. It’ll be a little easier now that the connection is firm. We can… discuss more of it then.”

For a moment, Larissa almost said yes. She needed a lot of time to cope with all of this. But she knew that if she sent the woman away now, she’d spend the entire time obsessing over how all of it was connected to her.

“What about me?” she asked, the question blurting its way out. “What do I have to do with all this?”

“You?” Sariel smiled a little at that. “Well, for me, you’re the center of it. I believed in our purpose, in everything we were doing. Until you.”

“Until me?” Larissa echoed with a blink.

So Sariel told her all of it, the personal parts of her history. She told her what happened, how she had been set to use Larissa herself to infiltrate Crossroads and get close to Gaia. And how all of that had changed. She told her about meeting her future husband… even if she couldn’t remember his name, and about having twin children… whose names had also been stripped from her memory. She told Larissa about everything she could remember, right up to the point that the orb that Puriel had intended to use had been smashed, sucking Sariel away. Most of the Seosten woman’s memories of that time were jumbled and broken, barely present in some cases. But she was absolutely certain that she had a husband and two beautiful twin children, a boy and a girl. Their names, what they looked like, where they had lived, all of that was missing.

Once she finally finished, the two women stood without speaking or moving for a minute. There was no sound anywhere in the apartment. The entire place was as quiet as a tomb.

“I’ll help you,” Larissa’s voice finally broke the seemingly endless silence.

“I’ll help you find your children.”

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Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You already are one.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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