Sands

Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” Someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone, “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us  would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked what you… inherited?”

The question made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”
“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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“I’m sorry,” I announced later, “Our new hunt is gonna take place where, exactly?”

Yeah, it was time for the hunt. Which meant that the whole team was here. Not just the team, but Deveron as well, and Professor Dare. Which meant that, since finding out that Seosten couldn’t possess hybrids had cleared Vanessa and Tristan, there was about a ninety percent certainty that whoever that Seosten had possessed was actually in this room right now. Someone I trusted. It had to be someone I trusted, and there weren’t many candidates other than these people.

I just had to keep it together, knowing that one of the people around me was most likely plotting the murder of Avalon and enslavement of me and everyone I cared about. Right, no problem.

“Suarilia,” Professor Dare repeated, standing there with her hands behind her back in the portal room of the Pathmaker building. “It’s a small outpost world that was set–”

Columbus interrupted. “Okay, wait. Outpost world? As in, ‘not Earth’? You’re sending us to a different world for this hunt? I mean…” He gestured slightly. “Yeah, sure, living up to my namesake and all. But still.”

“Please,” I urged him, “don’t live up to your namesake. We’ve got enough evil people to deal with.”

Clearing her throat while giving us both a look, Sands asked, “Suarilia, I know that name. Wasn’t that the place where that outpost got wiped out by the Hangman a couple years ago?”

Professor Dare gave a slight nod. “Yes. The outpost was manned by roughly twenty Heretics and their assorted families, until they were attacked by a single Hangman. There were no survivors.”  

If he had been surprised before, now Columbus’s eyes widened even more. “Wait, what? You mean one Hangman killed… killed twenty Heretics? As in full Heretics, not just students?”

“Correct, Mr. Porter,” Dare confirmed. “It killed twenty full Heretics and their families, who were no slouches of their own. Hangmen,” she added flatly while frowning, “are no laughing matter.”

“But…”  Beside me, Sean swallowed hard, continuing. “You’re not sending us out to find the Hangman, right? I mean, yeah, we’re a pretty badass team, and I know Gaia wants to challenge us and all, but…” He trailed off, looking pale even as Vulcan nudged against him reassuringly.

It was Deveron who spoke up. “The Hangman’s dead already, don’t worry.” His face was serious as he added, “They sent enough Heretics to put the thing in the ground four or five times over. Hunted it right to the edge of the world and finished the damn thing off. Pericles was part of it.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in her sister’s ear then, and Sands spoke up for her after nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. Scout wants to know what we’re doing if there’s no more outpost and the thing that wiped it out is already dead. Did they bring the outpost back or something?”

Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Deveron, and Professor Dare. Any of them could have been possessed by the Seosten. Any of them could actually be a threat. The thought was… well, it was really, really depressing. We had to get that damn choker away from Pace so that we could identify who was possessed and be done with this whole stupid paranoia bullshit.

Yeah, the choker. Unfortunately, Sands had heard the exact same thing I had from Namid. Which meant that there was no way for me to say that we should keep it secret from the others without, at the very least, drastically raising her suspicions if she was the one who was possessed. I’d had no way to suggest keeping quiet about it, so now the whole team knew what the choker could supposedly do. They’d all acted excited about the possibility, of course. And yet, there were good odds that, even if we did get to Pace, one of them was going to try to get rid of the thing before we could actually use it.

Oh well, we were just going to have to deal with that when the time came. I’d keep my eyes open and watch for any of them trying to make a move for it.

It did raise another question though. Why? We knew that Pace, Doxer, and Trice were working with the people who were trying to kill Avalon. And now we knew that at least a couple of those people were actually Seosten. So why would the Seosten allow Pace to walk around with some kind of magical artifact that allowed her to identify when they were possessing someone? How had that come about and why were they letting it continue in the first place?

It was just one of a few dozen questions I wanted to ask the crazy girl when the time came.

Meanwhile, Dare was explaining. “No, the outpost has not been resettled yet. But, we have been looking into it. And in the time the place was…” She paused, wincing a little before settling on, “abandoned, a few smaller threats have settled into the remains. They aren’t anywhere near the level of danger that the Hangman was, but they are still a potential problem. A problem that needs to be dealt with. Originally, the Committee was going to send a couple of regular hoplites in, but, well, they were convinced to allow this to be one of our normal training exercises instead.”

Normal, right. Because any of this ever turned out to be normal. Still, something else made me blink and raise a hand. “Uh, hoplites? You mean like the old Greek soldier guys with the spears?”

It was Deveron who explained. “You know how Runners are basically detectives or investigators? Hoplites are… uh, basically foot soldier-level Heretics. Usually, their recent graduates who haven’t really made a big name for themselves yet. They tend to get deployed onto new worlds that need a heavy Heretic presence to maintain our foothold in, but aren’t quite dangerous enough to warrant one of the more powerful people. Numbers, they’re basically about numbers. Plus,” he added thoughtfully, “It’s a way of letting younger, newer Heretics gain more power faster.”

I didn’t miss the fact that it also put the more easily expendable people out on the front lines. But he wasn’t wrong either. It was a good way of letting them gain power. Plus, he had said that they were used on worlds that didn’t actually need the more experienced Heretics. So I supposed there were both good and bad things about the system. Maybe I should wait on the whole judging thing.  

“Yes,” Dare was saying, “as I said, the Committee was convinced to allow students to investigate and handle the situation. Which means that you’ll have the opportunity to see an Outpost world.”

“Plus,” Sands put in, “going to a whole new world should make it harder for those assholes to come after Avalon again. Or at least make it easier to track them down if they do.”

Yeah, I thought to myself without speaking, but are you happy about that because it means your teammate is safer, or upset because it makes your job of trying to kill her that much harder?

Yup, I was gonna go ahead and make a firm declaration. Paranoia sucked. It really, really sucked.

******

As it turned out, Suarilia, or at least the part that the former Crossroads outpost had been located at, was dull and drab. The sky was gray, with wispy, sickly yellow clouds, and the single sun was a slightly blueish color that cast a tint over everything. Meanwhile, the soil was brownish-green, and the local equivalent of grass (which basically had a thin stalk similar to grass, only with a wider, circular top about a half inch across that made it more like clover) was rather bright orange. Which stood out pretty well against the otherwise gray landscape, but there wasn’t more than a few patches of the stuff here and there. Mostly it was the dull, off-green dirt.

The outpost itself, which Dare had informed us had been called Chantli, after the Aztec word for house, was almost like one of those old forts from the classic American West. Basically, the whole place was surrounded by ten foot tall metal walls that were about a foot thick. The walls were arranged in an octagon formation, with a guard tower at each of the eight corners that rose another ten feet higher. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more buildings within the enclosure of the walls. One was placed directly in the center of the area and was obviously some kind of command post, while the one next to it looked like an infirmary of some kind. A third building closer to the entrance looked like an armory and supply center. And at the opposite side of the fort, furthest from the entrance, there was a place that had obviously been a combination cafeteria and entertainment lounge for people to relax and try not to go crazy out here.

Finally, the remaining eight buildings were set up with four near the western side of the fort and four near the eastern side. They were taller than the other structures, and were apparently living quarters for the twenty Heretics and their families that had been here. Apartments, basically.

Twenty Heretics, all of them wiped out by a single Hangman. That would have been basically one fifth of my entire class. Almost four entire teams. Basically everyone I even semi-regularly interacted with, all murdered by a single Hangman. That was… that… yeah, maybe that explained why we could have a graduating class of a hundred or so Heretics each year without completely overrunning everything. These outposts were dangerous places, and considering how many worlds were probably out there… yeah, I could see now why, even with a much longer general lifespan, they still needed to recruit and train as many students as they did.

Especially since Crossroads considered everything not-human to be a threat. Exactly how many worlds had we invaded? How many worlds were out there where the Alters who lived on it saw us the same way that we saw those alien monsters in all those sci-fi invasion movies? Or worse, how many worlds saw us as more like demons, who came from another dimension to destroy and kill everyone they loved? How many families, cities, entire civilizations had we destroyed?

“Uh, Flick?” Sean interrupted my musing as the six of us stood in the middle of the outpost grounds. “You alright over there? You look kind of… annoyed, I guess?”

“What’s wrong?” Deveron’s voice came through the communication button from where he and Dare had set up, close enough to intervene if anything happened. “Did you see something, or–”

“Down, boy,” I tried teasing to make him calm down. “I was just thinking about something else. Never mind, it’s okay.” Shaking it off, I focused. “So what are we looking for here?”

Before anyone could answer, Vulcan whined and trotted away from us. He was heading for the cafeteria. With a collective shrug, the rest of us followed after while keeping a wary eye out for the Strangers that had apparently taken up residence around this place. Or any other… interruptions.

In the cafeteria, which basically looked like a small cafe with an attached entertainment room, I immediately caught the scent of what smelled like burnt meat. A closer inspection of the corner revealed a pile of dark blue, circular excrement that had what I swore was tiny sparks dancing through it. The sparks came and went, almost like the poop itself was an almost-dead sparkler.

Sands groaned at the sight of the stuff, putting a hand to her head. “Oh, great, these things.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Sean pointed out. “At least the assholes can’t fly.”

Avalon’s head shook as she sighed. “No, but they jump pretty well.”

Raising a hand to wave around, I gestured. “Anyone wanna help those of us who are still lost?”

Sands explained. “The uh, crap’s from something called a spinnevurr. Basically, think of a furry spider about as big as a Great Dane that can spin or spit webs that it can spontaneously ignite into flames any time it wants to. Oh, and they’re immune to any kind of fire or heat damage. Plus, they always know when one of their own kind is in trouble, even from far away. And… what else?” She looked curiously toward her sister, Avalon, and Sean to see if they added anything.

“Like Avalon said, they jump really far, really fast,” Sean put in. “Like, from one end of a basketball court to the other in one leap. And they like to throw out a lot of webs when they do. Webs that pretty much immediately catch fire and stick to whatever they’re attacking.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Right, so all the fun in the world, then. Marvelous.” Looking toward Columbus, I added, “Sounds like we’re dealing with Spider-Man and the Human Torch’s mutant love-child. Or children, whatever.”  

He nodded, making a face. “Sounds like a bad fanfic. So let’s find the things and wipe them out.”

We kept looking, finding more signs of the fire-spiders (mostly in the form of literal flaming poop), but none of the actual creatures themselves. However, our search eventually led to a hole in the south-eastern wall, near the tower there. The hole itself had obviously been burned through the metal, and there were several pieces of dark green, sticky webbing that smelled like kerosene.

“Guess this is where they came in and out,” Avalon murmured thoughtfully. She crouched near one of the bits of flammable webbing, careful not to touch it. “And they went that way.” Raising a hand, she pointed off through the drab gray landscape, where we could see a trail of the stuff.  

“Not just that way,” Sands put in, nodding toward Scout, who was pointing off in a different direction. “There’s stuff over there too.”

“And there,” Sean added with a grimace as he gestured yet a third way. “So we’ve got three different groups.”

“Attack one at a time?” Columbus asked, his hand moving to gently pat Vulcan on the head.

Avalon spoke up then. “No. We need to find these things and get rid of them, as efficiently as possible.” Her eyes glanced to me then as she explained, “It’s like Mason said, all spinnevurrs in a given… hive, tribe, group, whatever, are in constant contact with each other. Some kind of telepathic link. Or maybe it’s just empathic. The point is, they know when one of their own kind is in trouble, and they come running. Which means if we hit one group of them, the rest’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. And they’ll know exactly how to ambush us.”

“So we split up,” I murmured. “Two people for each group. Watch them, see what’s going on and make sure it’s safe to attack. Then we all jump them at the same time.”

There was a bit of discussion (and some argument) over the issue of splitting up. But in the end, it was the best way to handle the situation. We had to hit all the fire-spiders at the same time.

To that end, we split into partners. The twins went together, as did the boys. Which left Avalon and me to work our way along the first path that we had found. Together, the two of us followed the signs of the spinnevurrs over the dull brownish-green ground with patches of bright orange clover-grass.  Out here, I could also see what looked like the local equivalent of trees. They were really tall (for Earth standards, still tiny as far as Eden’s Garden was concerned), standing about forty feet high. Instead of a single solid trunk, they had what looked like dozens of thin vines all wrapped around each other tightly, forming a sort-of rope-like trunk. More vine-structures emerged at various heights like branches, with bright purple bits sticking out of them that were shaped like triangles. They looked like the ‘tree’s’ version of leaves, except several times thicker. Maybe a combination of leaves and fruit. I wasn’t sure.

Either way, we followed the path while keeping in contact with the rest of the team as well as Dare and Deveron. Gradually, the two of us worked our way to the top of a slight hill. As soon as we were up there, Avalon yanked me down while ducking herself.

“There,” she announced, pointing to a spot in a small field below. I could see four of the things there. Sure enough, they looked like fuzzy tarantulas that happened to be as big as Vulcan. They were an eclectic assortment of color combinations. One was bright orange with violet stripes along its back. Another one, the largest, was neon blue with red polka dots. Meanwhile, the third and forth were basically mirror images of each other. One was lime green and had black diagonal stripes going down both sides, while the other was black with lime green stripes.

Using the communication badge, I contacted the others. “We’ve got ours,” I murmured. “Four right below us.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to report that they’d found their own targets. Together, we waited until everyone had announced that they were ready. Finally, Avalon counted down so that we could all hit them simultaneously.

Then, it was time. Avalon announced, “Go,” and we were moving. She simply leapt off the hill, while I used a burst from my staff to throw myself into the air in order to come down on the spider-things from above.

And yet… in the end, it didn’t matter. As we both landed, ready to deal with the spiders, there was a sudden gunshot. No, four gunshots. Instantly, all four of the spinnevurrs simply… disintegrated

Avalon and I both spun toward the source of the gunshots, and found ourselves staring at two figures.

“Well,” Trice announced, flipping the rifle he was holding around until it transformed back into the pike that I had already seen. “That was a fun appetizer. How about the main course?” His chin lifted. “Of course, I’ll feel worse about putting down the spiders than you, you murdering cunt.”

Doxer, beside him, added, “Oh, and don’t worry about calling in or anything.” He tossed a small silver orb up and down once. “You won’t get through the jamming. But don’t worry, we already set up some pre-recorded messages to go off so they’ll think everything’s fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, you guys are just fighting the spinnevurrs, just like them.”

“Honestly,” he added, clearly far more amused by this whole situation than Trice was. Torv’s brother was just pissed off and lashing out with that hate and anger. Doxer was actually having fun. “You guys made this whole thing too easy. You think it’s hard for us to get to another world with you? With our contact? Pfft.”

“You’re here,” I spoke dully, feeling Avalon tense beside me. “You actually came all the way out here.”     

“Aww, don’t tell us you’re surprised,” the dark-skinned boy mocked us with a smirk. “We RSVP’d and everything.”

“Surprised?” I echoed, slowly turning my gaze to look at the girl beside me. “Were you surprised?”

Without glancing my way, Avalon kept her eyes leveled evenly at Trice. Her words were flat. “No.”

Shrugging, I looked back to the older boys. “See, she wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. But there was…” Slowly, I tapped my finger against my head while speaking thoughtfully. “… someone, there was someone who was about to be surprised. Now who was–” Abruptly, I stopped. “Oh, right. You. You were the ones who were about to be surprised. Cantaloupe.”

“Cantaloupe?” Doxer started to snort. “What the fuck kind of last word is that supposed to–”   

And yet, as I said the word, a pale-blue, semi-translucent wall of energy rose up all around us, closing into a dome about a hundred feet across, with a ceiling that was twenty feet up. The result of a spell, a spell that had been prepared by Wyatt several hours earlier, long before any of us had come here.

“The hell?” Doxer muttered aloud while reaching out. As his hand touched the shield, there was a zap of energy and he stumbled back with a curse. His gaze snapped to his partner before he cursed again, adding, “Those two didn’t make this shit. It’s gonna take some time to get through.”

Tilting my head thoughtfully, I cut in. “You guys were right about one thing. This is a trap. Just not exactly the kind you thought it was.”

Because the truth was, acting surprised about where we were going earlier had been just that: an act. I knew. Gaia, Wyatt, Avalon, and I had planned it, had planned for all of this. Gaia sent us to this separate world to ensure that there was no easy way for any innocent civilians to get caught in the middle, no hostages for them to take. Nothing to distract from what was about to happen.  Wyatt had set up the shield spell ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. And we made sure to separate from the rest of the team to draw in our would-be ambushers, as well as making sure that whoever the Seosten spy was, they wouldn’t see what was going on. Not only would the magical shield trap them here so they couldn’t run away, but it would also ensure that any listening devices or other ways of keeping in touch with their contact wouldn’t be able to give any kind of warning. They were cut off entirely from outside assistance.

“No one leaves,” Avalon drew their attention back to her. “No one comes in. It’s just you and us.”

“You and us, huh?” Trice snorted. He cracked his neck by turning his head from one side and then to the other. “Sounds like you’re finally gonna get what’s coming to you, bitch.”

Doxer’s head shook. “Nah, you know what it sounds like to me?” He winked. “Two helpless little girls. Sounds like a party.”  

“You think we’re helpless?” My staff slid down in my grip a bit, and I snapped it out to the side.

“Come find out.”

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The Third Degree 21-06

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When I’d first met Namid, that time back when she and that one guy, Hue, had found Shiori and me talking (and just talking) in the storage room, I’d thought that she looked like the stereotypical thug. Now? Well, now I had pretty much the exact same impression.  

As she opened the door to let us in, I gave the older girl a quick once-over. She wore a white button-up shirt identical to any of the school uniforms, except hers had the sleeves cut off all the way to the shoulders. On her bare arms, I could see what looked like tribal tattoos running all the way down to her wrists. And instead of the normal uniform jacket, Namid wore a sleeveless denim vest with a bunch of patches of various bands that I didn’t recognize all over it.

“Oh,” she announced succinctly upon seeing us, “it’s you guys.” Gesturing as she pivoted to walk back into the room, the girl added, “Come on then, you might as well get in here.”

Sands and I looked at each other briefly before stepping inside. I leaned back to close the door before glancing around the room. It was pretty similar to the first year dorms, except a little big bigger. And in the middle of the room, between the two beds, there was a terrarium (or was it an aquarium? It was sort half-land and half-water) with two turtles in it. One was swimming around in the water portion while the other seemed to be sunning itself on the pebbles under the lamp.

Noticing me looking at the tank, Namid gestured to the turtle in the water, then the one on the rocks. “That’s Laird and that’s Eastman. Say hi, boys.” She made a finger motion, and a plate by the tank flew up and over to me until I caught it out of the air. On the plate there were some green beans and cabbage. “Feed the boys if you want,” the girl added while sitting on her bed. “They’ve been good. Oh, and there’s some worms in the cupboard under the tank. Mix it up.”   

Glancing toward Sands again, I shrugged before stepping over to feed the turtles. “Now, don’t get jealous, Herbie,” I instructed the rock while taking him out of my pocket so he could sit on the edge of the tank. “You know you’ll get fed tonight. Can’t have you going off your diet.”

In the background, I heard Namid ask conversationally, “So uh, your teammate, was she always this fucking crazy, or did the constant ambushes and attacks just finally make her snap?”

The casual shrug in Sands’ voice was obvious even without looking. “She brought the rock with her before the first day even started, so I’m gonna go with ‘she was always like this.’”

“Hey,” I retorted after letting Laird eat a green bean out of my hand, “I might’ve already been a crazy person, but now I’m a superpowered crazy person, with special Kung Fu action.” To demonstrate, I made a few chopping and punching motions vaguely in the air with my free hand.

“Eh,” the older girl shrugged. “At least your crazy is directed toward anthropomorphizing rocks and shit. I’ve seen much worse outlets for the kind of shit you’ve been going through this year.”   

She didn’t know the half of it. Shaking my head, I reached down to get under the tank and found the bucket she had been talking about. It was full of dirt, and I could see the worms squirming around inside. With Namid’s eyes on me, watching curiously, I reached into the dirt and dug through it to find a long one. Taking it out, I looked at the writhing, wiggling thing for a second before feeding it to one of the turtles. “Lots of people go through shit around here,” I muttered.

Before the other girl could say anything to that, Sands cut in. “That’s kinda why we want to get this extra credit thing done. You know, before anything else happens to fuck up our work again.”

“Sure, sure, right.” Raising an eyebrow pointedly, Namid held her hand out and waited expectantly until Sands put what looked like two twenty dollar bills in her palm. Then the older girl glanced at them, rubbed both with her fingers, and slid them away into a pocket with a smile. “Perfect,” she announced with a grin. “If nothing else, you freshmen are always good to make a little pocket change off of. What was it you needed for Project Kiss-The-Teacher’s-Ass again?”

Remembering what Sands had said our excuse was, I replied, “Our project’s on ancient Native American Heretics. Specifically, Native American Heretics and the magic artifacts they used.”  

Gesturing, Namid instructed, “Hey, make sure Laird gets a worm too. Don’t let Eastman hog everything.” Watching for another second to make sure I was feeding both turtles properly, she finally focused on our issue. “Anyway, so you’re going all Indiana Jones, huh? I mean, admit it, Old Indy going after some kind of big Native artifact and getting chased by a Skinwalker or something would’ve been a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck that alien shit was.”  

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I coughed and nodded. “Sure, but does that mean you know a lot about it? We figured talking to someone like you would be better than digging into a book.”

“Or at least a little less boring,” Sands added while rolling her eyes. “Not all of us are Vanessa.”

“Hey, you paid for it,” Namid replied, clearly defensively. “I might like taking cash out of you adorable little freshmens’ hands, but I earn every fucking penny. I don’t cheat. You paid for good stuff, I’ll give you enough shit to make Dare wanna make you a guest lecturer or something. ”

“You really know that much about that stuff?” I asked hesitantly, making myself sound unsure about all of it. “ We were gonna ask Aylen, but she’s a uh, Bystander-kin, so she doesn’t know.”

Sands nodded. “Yeah, Silverstones aren’t exactly that useful to get extra information out-”

“Hey,” the older girl snapped surprisingly, squinting at her. “Don’t use that word. I don’t like it.”

Blinking, Sands glanced to me before hesitantly asking, “What word? Silverstone? It’s just a–”

“I know what it is,” Namid informed her. “And I also don’t care what anyone dresses it up as. It’s a word they use to separate people who grew up with Heretics from those who didn’t. And we’ve already got one of those. Bystander-Kin. Silverstone started as an insult. Clueless. Doesn’t matter if they don’t mean it that way now. It’s still an insult. So, you use the word again, and we’ve got problems. Problems that forty bucks ain’t gonna get your little twin ass out of, got it?”

Still looking a little surprised by the other girl’s hot retort, Sands quickly nodded. “Uh, sure. Okay. I just uhh–” She coughed, looking toward me for help after failing to find more words.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” I hurriedly put in before gesturing. “All she was saying was that Aylen doesn’t know much about the Heretic side of things because she wasn’t born into it.”

“True,” Namid agreed before adding, “so let’s get into it. You wanna know about artifacts, you came to the right person. You might say that my family has a… certain history with them.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before offering, “You’ve got relatives that collect them?”

The older girl raised an eyebrow at that. “You could say that. My great… great… something great-aunt Litonya collects them. Or she used to, before…”

“Litonya?” Sands jumped on the opportunity. “You mean Litonya from the Committee? She’s your relative?”

“And what do you mean, ‘she used to’?” I added.

Snorting at that, Namid shrugged. “Not that she’s very proud of that fact, but sure, yeah. We’re related. Great-Aunt Litty, she fucking hates it when I call her that, by the way. Like I said, she used to collect all those artifacts. I guess she still does, but she lost most of her collection about a year or so ago.”

“Lost it?” I repeated, trying my best to make it sound like this was just an interesting extra bit, rather than the exact thing we’d come to find out. “How’d that happen?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in then, “Didn’t she keep the important things in a blood-vault?”

Namid shrugged again. “Usually, yeah. But a couple times a year, she had them taken out to be cleaned, examined, and processed. You know, in case any of the artifacts she had could be used to handle any outstanding cases. They’d go through the worst problems the adult Heretics have been dealing with, then look through all those old artifacts and see if any of them could help.”

“That’s… useful,” I murmured before looking at the older girl. “But it didn’t go so well that time?”

Her eyes rolled. “You could say that. Should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty bitch about it. Apparently some pack of werewolves jumped the examiners while they were cleaning everything. Got away with about three-quarters of her collection before she showed up. Of course, they also killed four Heretics in the process, but what Litty actually cared about was her precious fucking treasure.”

Right, so all those items, probably including the Ring of Anuk-Ité, had been stolen by a pack of werewolves. Obviously, it was the same pack that Pace was part of. Lemuel’s pack. But that didn’t explain why the ring was now a choker. And I couldn’t exactly be that open about it.

Instead, I tried to get there from another angle. “Why couldn’t Litonya track the artifacts down again? I mean, you’d think she’d have some kind of magic tracking spell stuck onto them or something if they were that valuable.”

“Sure, of course they did.” Namid nodded. “But apparently the wolves either knew magic or knew someone else who could use it, because they blocked the tracking spells. Erased them somehow. I dunno, but trust me, if Litty had a way of tracking them down, she would’ve by now. Especially that fucking ring.”

Struggling not to verbally leap on that too much, I coughed, looking at Sands and back again before trying to sound casual. “Ring?”

“Ring of Anuk-Ité,” she replied. “Fuck, you should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty go on and on and on about that thing. It’s why she put the extra protection on it. Not that it helped, which just pissed her off more.”

“What–umm, what extra protection?” Sands asked before I could.

Namid sat up on her bed then while answering, “The ring’s one-of-a-kind. I mean literally one-of-a-kind. Nothing else even remotely like it. So Litty put some kind of… fuck, I dunno what it’s called. Some spell that’s supposed to lock onto that identical thing and bring it back to the case that you enchanted it for, no matter how far away it is.”

“So why didn’t it work, if the spell’s so good?” I put in, trying once more to sound like I was only interested academically and not as if it was life-or-death.

“Best guess?” she replied with another shrug, “they changed the ring. The spell focuses on it being identical, right? Unique. The only one of its kind. So the only way the spell wouldn’t work is if–”

“Is if they changed it,” I finished, realizing then. That was why the ring wasn’t a ring anymore. That’s why it was a necklace, a choker. They had changed it to avoid that spell.

While I was still focused on that, Sands asked, “What’s so special about that one ring? What makes it more important than everything else she lost?”

Standing up, Namid moved over to where I was. She reached down into the tank to rub one of her turtles. “What’s so special about it? Well first of all, it’s supposed to make anyone who wears it immune to the Stranger sense. Heretics don’t show up as Heretics to Strangers, and Strangers who wear it don’t show up as Strangers to Heretics. Makes you look like a normal person.”

Kinda like I did now, as long as I didn’t use my powers. I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you said first of all? You mean there’s more? That–uh, that sounds pretty powerful as it is.”

“I know, right?” She snorted. “Bad enough without adding in the angel myth.”

That caught my attention. My eyes whipped around. “Wh-what? Angel myth?”

Namid laughed. “What’re you, some kind of religious chick? It’s not real. There’s no such thing as angels, okay? Demons, sure, but not angels.”

“What’d the myth say?” Sands cut in while I was still trying to find my voice. “What does some ring that hides Strangers have to do with angels?”

“It’s the legend of Anuk-Ité,” the older girl replied. “Two-Face. So it works both ways. According to the myth, it doesn’t just hide the wearer’s true nature, you know, as a Heretic or a Stranger or whatever. The myth says that it doesn’t just do that. It also,” she paused then before clearly reciting, “‘reveals the true nature of the hidden ones.’”

“True nature of the hidden ones,” I muttered under my breath, my brain spinning.

Namid went on, still sounding dismissive of the whole concept. “Yeah, the legend says the angels would hide among us–I mean, they didn’t call them angels. They called them gods. But I guess someone else decided they meant angels at some point. Whatever. Gods, angels, fucking aliens. Whatever they’re supposed to be, the story says that they hide among us. But if you wear the ring, it’s supposed to reveal them to you.”

“Reveal the… angels… that are hiding among humanity,” I managed in a voice that sounded weak even to me.

She nodded. “Yeah. I dunno, like… it’s supposed to highlight them or make you suddenly know if the person you’re looking at is really a hidden god or an angel or… whatever.

“Like I said, pretty stupid, right?”

******

“Hey, you worried about the hunt tonight?” Deveron asked a few days later. He was standing there, watching me drink from a bottle of water after another intense training session where he’d been putting me through my paces. Ever since he’d decided to take the whole mentor thing seriously, Deveron had insisted on daily extra training on top of everything else I was doing. Mostly it consisted of him kicking my ass down into the grass over and over again, then carefully going over every last move with me to make sure I understood what I did wrong.

Then he’d just kick my ass again anyway. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t taking it easy.

Slowly lowering the bottle, I looked at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sure seems like things always go wrong on these hunts, you know?” I replied carefully. “Gaia says they’ve got… plans to deal with any kind of interruption this time, but still…” I trailed off, wincing inwardly. It was so tempting to tell him the whole reason I was nervous about the hunt tonight, the fact that at least one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust was actually a Seosten. But I couldn’t, because, well, he was still on that particular list.

Or was he? If he had been taken over by one of the angels, wouldn’t they have already known about Wyatt being the one who put the protection spells on Avalon? They’d definitely know that Professor Pericles hadn’t been the only Zedekiah at the school, and the person on the recording that Miranda had shown me had seemed pretty damn adamant that Pericles was the only one.

Except things might’ve changed since then. I didn’t know how often Seosten changed bodies or what the protocol was there. Maybe they did know about Wyatt by this point.

That was why I’d told him the truth. Because if he was compromised, Avalon was already in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than she had been before. And given the man’s normal paranoia and security measures, I had to believe that he was about as safe as he could possibly be.

And let’s face it, him acting paranoid toward anyone he thought might have been possessed wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary from how he acted the rest of the time anyway.

Besides, I still didn’t know why I appeared to be immune to Seosten-possession. I was kind of hoping it was some kind of blood thing, meaning at least Koren and Wyatt would be safe. But again, I didn’t know for sure. There was just no way to know. Not yet, anyway. We were working on it, but for the time being, we had to play everything really close to our vests.

Of course, if we could track down Pace and get our hands on that damn choker, we might be able to be done with this whole thing. It wasn’t just about getting the thing for Roxa anymore, though she still needed it. Now it was about getting the thing so that we could figure out exactly how it identified Seosten. Gaia had said that if she could get a look at it, she could probably duplicate the effect. But she had to examine the thing first. Which meant that finding Pace had just been given a great big shove up the list of priorities.

For his part, Deveron winced before nodding. “Yeah, well, you’re right. These hunts don’t have the best track record as far as you’re concerned. But I talked to Gaia myself, and trust me, she’s definitely taking it seriously. If anyone tries anything this time, and she’s going to be right on top of them.” He paused then, falling silent for a few seconds before adding with a curious look in my direction, “She told me that she asked if you guys wanted to sit this one out.”

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly. “We talked about it, but we decided it was better this way. If we sit out any of these hunts, we’re going to get less safe, not more. Because if we’re gonna survive, we need power. We need training. We need skill. We need to hunt, we need to get… we have to get more powerful. If I’m gonna survive when Fossor decides to come after me, I can’t sit things out now. I can’t. I just…” Sighing long and low, I muttered, “These things aren’t gonna stop trying to kill us just because we sit out something that could actually let us get stronger. They won’t stop at all. Not until we stop them. And the only way to do that is to get stronger, get more powers, get better at… everything. So no, we’re not gonna sit out any hunts. We’ll just… be ready.”  

Deveron watched me for a second, clearly considering it before nodding. “Probably smart. And just so you know,” he added with a serious look, “you won’t be alone when it comes to Fossor.”

Oh God, I wished I could trust him right then. I wished that I could know for sure that he wasn’t possessed. He was one of the few people who really understood what I was feeling about my mother, and how much I missed her. I wanted to confide in him everything that was going on. But I couldn’t. There was just no way to be sure that he was really himself. Not yet.

Whoever the Seosten had taken over, whoever they had possessed and enslaved, I was going to make sure they suffered. I’d already promised myself that several times. Pretty much whenever I looked at anyone who might have been the one that was taken, I repeated that promise to myself. They would suffer, and I would make damn sure that their victim was freed.

Instead of saying any of that out loud, I twisted the cap back onto the water bottle and nodded. “Still, under your protection or not, I need training. And that means–”

“Hunting,” the man finished with a grimace. “Right. But be careful, you got it? If you get even the slightest whisper that something’s wrong, you call it in. Even if it’s nothing, you won’t be the girl who cried wolf. You’ll be the girl who thought she saw a wolf because the entire field was surrounded by them.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. We all get it. We’ll be ready for it. And you’ll be right there anyway. I’m pretty sure Gaia’s gonna send you in with us, wherever we’re going.”

“Good,” Deveron gave a satisfied nod. “But first, it’s dinner time. Think you can eat?”

I snorted at that, gesturing to the trampled grass from our sparring session. “After what you just put me through, Escalan better have made enough to feed a school twice this size.”

He chuckled at that before turning. “Just putting you through your paces. Can’t have you getting lazy, you know.”

My elbow nudged him. “Maybe I’ll just pretend to be lazy for a few months. You know, see where that gets me.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Smirking, Deveron gave me a little push. “Let’s go get you refueled, little Flick-star.

“And then it’ll be time to hunt.”

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The Third Degree 21-05

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“Oh, sure, the angel fuckwads. Those fuckknobs are sticking their noses into this thing?”

For a moment after Seth finished speaking, I simply sat there on Quint’s back, holding the phone to my ear while staring across the water at Shiori. From the look on her face, she’d heard.

It was a bit after the whole conversation with the other two girls. Avalon had gone inside to tell Gaia what was going on, while I stayed out with Shiori to call Seth. And yeah, I told the vampire about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. Which might have been a bad idea, but honestly, he was one of the very, very few people that I could be absolutely sure wasn’t possessed. After all, if he had been, the Seosten would’ve already known about the Fahsteth thing from the start. And I wanted him to know what he was dealing with if he ran into them. It was only fair.

Besides, I didn’t tell him the truth about how I knew about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. I wasn’t quite that naive. Instead, I’d told Seth that Gaia had informed me that the Seosten had ‘somehow found out about the meeting, likely from spying on us when we met him and the others in that park in Nebraska’. I left things vague enough to make it sound like Gaia had found out that the Seosten were involved through some kind of magic or inherited power, but that she didn’t know everything. Hopefully, if any Seosten heard about this particular conversation, they’d assume that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion about when they’d found out about the meeting, and that would throw them off.

And I definitely left out any mention of the fact that someone in my circle was compromised. I wanted the Seosten to think that one of my friends being possessed was completely out of my mind. The only way we were going to identify them was if they were more complacent, not less.

Finally, I found my voice and managed a somewhat weak, “Uhhh, you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure,” the reply came. “Had a run-in with couple of the bastards awhile back. Let me tell ya, they were a couple of the most pretentious sons-of-bitches I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of pretentious sons-of-bitches. So I did a little more looking into it, found out they’re all dicks. Now you’re saying there’s more of those assholes trying to shut up that merc you wanted to talk to?”

“That’s what Gaia said,” I confirmed. “So be careful, okay? And change the meeting, please?”  

“Yeah, kid, I’ll see what I can do.” Seth paused then before giving a soft sigh that I could barely hear. “And listen, you take care of yourself too. These fucks are dangerous, and if anything bad happens to you, I’ll never hear the end of it from Senny. She will make my life a total hell, and I ain’t in the mood for that. So don’t go getting yourself killed or possessed like an idiot, got it? And while you’re at it, keep my other sister out of trouble. Senny’d have a cow about that too.”

“I’ll do my best.” Shrugging, I glanced toward Shiori before hesitating for a moment. Finally, I added, “Don’t worry, Shiori and I will both do our best not to get possessed by an angel.”

The reply surprised me. “Well since you’re the only one that really needs to worry about that, I’d focus on keeping yourself free of infestation.”

Blinking, I looked at Shiori again. The other girl was staring back at me with a look that was just as confused as I felt. “Wait, what do you mean, I’m the only one that has to worry about it?”

There was a brief pause before Seth’s voice came back slowly. “Wait, you mean I know something you don’t? Well, isn’t that just a little interesting? Sounds like something else we can bargain for, huh? How much cash can you squeeze outta that headmistress of yours for it?”

Grimacing, I gripped the phone tighter. “Seth,” I half-snapped while trying to keep my voice as even as possible. “Please. We can deal with all that later. But it’s Shiori. It’s Shiori, Seth. I don’t know if you really give a shit about her and Senny, or if you’re just fucking around. But please.”

“Oh, all right, don’t get your panties in a twist,” the vampire retorted with an almost audible roll of his eyes. “We’ll deal with compensation later. But I promise, I’ll expect something good for this.”

“If it’s something good about the angels, you’ll get it,” I assured him while crossing my fingers on my free hand. It was probably nothing good. But on the off-chance that it was actually useful…

“All righty then.” I could hear the smirk in the vampire’s voice. It was pretty obvious that he enjoyed having information that others needed, even if he happened to like them. Or at least tolerated them. “Miss Shiori over there isn’t gonna get possessed because she’s a hybrid.”

“A hybrid?” I echoed his words, eyes locked onto where Shiori herself was staring back at me.

“Sure,” he started, “half-human and half-Alter?” There was amusement in his voice as he continued. “Need me to start at the beginning? When a human and an Alter love each other ver–”

“I know what a hybrid is,” I cut in. “What does it have to do with the angels not possessing her?”

“Well…” he drawled slowly, his enjoyment at dragging it out almost palpable. “They can’t do it.”

Almost falling off of my shark while jerking upright, I blurted, “They can’t possess hybrids?!”

I could hear the laugh in his voice at my reaction. “Well, now I’ve got your attention, huh?” After chuckling, he added, “I guess to put it right, they can possess them, but it’s not the best idea.”  

“Not the best idea,” I murmured, eyes wide. “Why? Why is it a bad idea to possess a hybrid?”

“Cuz it kills ‘em,” his flat response came. “In a pretty agonizing way, from what I saw with the one that tried it with one of my ahhh, acquaintances, Jae. He and I were about to kill the body the angel-fuck was possessing, so he jumped ship. Tried to possess Jae. Next thing we knew, the shit-head was on the ground, pretty much turned inside out. Screamed his head off until we put ‘im out of his misery. Put a little research into it, turns out something about humans mixed with Alters fucks with the angel possession. Gets them all torn up inside just like that.”

“Research?” I echoed, barely able to keep myself calm enough to sit on the shark, let alone talk. “What kind of research? And why didn’t anyone else I talked to know anything about this?”

“My guess,” Seth replied easily, “these fucks don’t advertise their weaknesses. Only found out about it myself cuz Jae goes out of his way to make it look like he’s a full-blooded Alter, not half. Something about how he was treated as a kid or whatever. Dunno. Point is, he keeps quiet about it, so this angel fucknugget didn’t know. He tried to possess him, poof. Angel-roadkill. So I found another one and uhh… let’s just say I persuaded him to tell me just why that happened.”

“So they won’t possess Shiori because they’ll die if they do,” I murmured slowly, blinking up at the other girl. “That’s umm, that really helps, Seth. That really, really helps. Just don’t let any–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “Like I said, I know these dicks. Don’t go bragging about all that great info I just passed to you, I get it. But like I said, you still owe me for this stuff. I think you’re an all right kid, and Senny’s pretty fond of ya, but I’m not running a charity over here.”

“I promise, we’ll take care of it. Somehow. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” After repeating that, I disconnected and stared at the phone in my hand for a few seconds. “You’re… you’re immune.”

“I’m immune,” the other girl echoed, voice sounding as awed as I felt. “They can’t possess me?”

Slowly, I nodded. “That’s what it sounds like. They can’t possess you. Or they’re too scared to.”

Her face brightened a little before falling again. “I’m immune. Columbus isn’t. It could be him.”

“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “But it might not be. It could be any of the others. We don’t know.”

Shiori looked to me then. “If it’s Columbus, if they took Columbus… I’m gonna make that angel wish she possessed me instead, so that it’d be over fast.”

“Hey.” Reaching across the water from my shark, I trailed a hand over her arm briefly. “Whoever it is, we’ll deal with it, okay? They’re all our friends, all… important. We’ll make the bitch pay. For now, let’s focus on what we know. Which is that you’re immune. And that… makes sense.”

She blinked over at me then, staring in confusion while absently patting Brody’s back. “It does?”

“Sure.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “I guess that’s sort of why I thought it was safe enough to tell you and Avalon about it. I mean, I didn’t know you were immune, but I figured there was something stopping them from possessing both of you. After all, that Seosten said that we trust her host. That’s how they’re getting information out of us, by possessing someone we trust. Not by possessing us. If they could just possess us any time they wanted to, why would us trusting their host even be an issue? If it was as easy as just jumping into us to find out what we knew, she wouldn’t even have mentioned us trusting her host, she’d just say she’d jump into one of us and find out for herself. The only reason she wouldn’t even mention it as an option is–”

“Is if it wasn’t one,” Shiori finished for me, her own eyes wide. “But that explains me, what about you and Avalon? Uh, you guys aren’t–I mean as far as I know, you’re not really a–”

My head shook. “Not an Alter. Unless Mom’s one, but I think that would be one secret too many for my sanity. Oh wait, she couldn’t be anyway. They didn’t change the Edge to accept hybrids until relatively recently. So it wouldn’t have worked on her. Which means I’m not a hybrid.”

“And Avalon probably isn’t either,” the other girl pointed out. “Cuz she became a Heretic at Eden’s Garden, not here, and they didn’t change the tree to accept hybrids, did they?”

My head shook. “Not that I know of. And–” My fingers snapped. “That explains why they didn’t want the Edge to accept hybrids in the first place. They don’t want half-human Heretics because if they possess them, they go splat. That’s why the Edge wasn’t meant to accept them.”

“Whoa.” Shiori slumped, hand trailing through the water as she thought about that. “That’s… big.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered. “So yeah, it explains why you’re immune, but not me or Avalon. Assuming we are, and…well I think it’s pretty safe to say that Avalon is. Because if they could possess her, they definitely would’ve by now. Think about it, their plan this entire time has been to kill her, even when she was a baby. Why would they do that if they could just possess her and get into the vault that way? Maybe being related to Bosch makes her immune or… or something? Maybe his family set up some protection against possession for themselves.”

“If they did,” Shiori murmured under her breath, “I’d sure like to know what it is.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking my head, I looked out over the water while thinking for a minute. “And why I’m not possessed. I mean, I’m Avalon’s roommate, and uhh…” I blushed a little bit. “And more than that. Which we haven’t exactly hidden. So why didn’t they just possess me?”

Shiori made a face at that. “So we know why I’m immune, but not you guys. As usual, it’s several questions for every answer. That’s getting really obnoxious at this point, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Trust me, I know just how obnoxious it is.

“In a sea of endless questions, we’re barely treading water.”

******

“Flick. Ohhh Flick. Flickster. Hey.” A finger poked me in the side. “Yo, Flick.”

Jumping a bit, I blinked and looked around. The rec room. I was in the rec room. Once I remembered that much and got myself together, I turned to find Sands staring at me. “You okay over there? You zoned out for a bit. Thought you were in some kind of trance or something.”

It was all I could do not to openly stare at the other girl’s eyes. The urge to hold her by the shoulders and keep staring as if looking long enough would show me if she was possessed or not was almost overwhelming. Like it was that easy. At best, I’d make Sands think that I had some kind of thing for her, and at worst, she’d actually be possessed and realize what I was doing. The former would just be embarrassing for us both, the latter potentially devastating.

It had been a few days since I’d overheard that Seosten bombshell, and the time since then had been… well, not-fun. Walking around thinking that almost any one of the people that I trusted might actually be enslaved within their own head, puppeted against their will by a would-be angel was… let’s just say that even for me, I wasn’t getting a lot of rest. I had no idea how Shiori was holding it together, considering the fear that Columbus was the one who had been taken over.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that we could do about it for the moment. Not until we had our meeting with Gabriel Prosser and started learning how to make that spell, anyway. In the meantime, the best we could do was keep our eyes open and try to come up with a plan to expose not just the Seosten I had overheard, but her companions as well. It was… slow-going.

Which meant that we all just had to act as normal as possible. And considering there was another scheduled hunt coming up soon… well, I really hoped we found out who was possessed by then, because those things were already stressful enough (especially considering how they’d been going so far) without worrying that someone who was supposed to have my back was actually a Seosten spy.  

Shaking that all off, I forced myself to smile faintly. “Hey, Sands. Sorry, I guess I was daydreaming for a minute. What’s up?”

Raising an eyebrow at that, the other girl remarked, “Daydreamed, huh? Thinking about someone in particular?” Her fingers poked me teasingly before she added, “Or someones, I guess.”

Oh God, I hated this. I hated it. Even something as innocent as that little bit of teasing made me paranoid. Was she really just teasing, or was she fishing for information? That was what it was like now, any time she or any of the others said pretty much anything. I was always picking it apart in my head, trying to figure out if the Seosten had just given herself away.

But of course, it wasn’t that easy. It wouldn’t be. They were too good at what they did. It wasn’t like one of my friends was suddenly going to start cackling maniacally, or acting like a stereotypical villain just because I happened to know they were possessed.

So, I just shook my head. “Actually,” I claimed, “I was thinking about what the next hunt might be.”

“You too, huh?” Sands gave me a weak smile. “Mostly I’m just hoping it turns out better than the last one. Or… any of them.” Rising, she gestured. “But come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Oh, great. As if I hadn’t already been paranoid enough as it was. “A surprise? What surprise?”

Rolling her eyes, the other girl stepped back and gave another wave. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So c’mon already. It’s important.”

Important because she’d found something I needed to see, or important because she was the one who had been possessed, and the Seosten was ready to ambush me for whatever reason? That, along with a few other paranoid thoughts, bounced around in my head a little as I looked around. “Should we grab the others?”

Sands just shook her head. “No big, we can tell them later. This part’s really only for the two of us. I mean, I was gonna make it me and Scout, but I figured you’d want to be involved.” Clearing her throat then, she stepped back while gesturing impatiently. “Hurry, she’s not gonna wait forever.”


She? Okay, that raised even more questions. But I couldn’t make Sands wait anymore. Taking a breath, I stood up and nodded while slipping a hand into my pocket. Finding the phone there, I pressed the button that would alert Wyatt to start paying attention. If anything happened, he’d be ready to jump in.

“Alright, let’s see this surprise then.”

She let me out of the rec room, past the cafeteria, and out the door onto the grounds. The whole time, I kept my eyes open, scanning for anything that might be wrong while trying to make myself look relaxed.

Thankfully, Sands didn’t head for the beach or anywhere off the grounds. Instead, she led me across the grass to the girls dorm. Wait, the girls dorm?

Sure enough, we headed inside. Instead of going for any of our rooms, however, Sands started for the stairs. Before I could ask what we were doing, the two of us were on the second floor, and I saw one of the older girls giving us a strange look.

“It’s okay,” Sands informed her. “We’re here to talk to Namid. Which room was it again?”

The girl continued to stare for a second before gesturing over her shoulder. “Third one down.”

After she walked away, I blinked over at Sands. “Namid?”

She nodded, glancing around before producing a privacy coin, which she activated. “Sure. I mean, you wanted to talk to her about that… thing, right? The thing to help Roxa.”

“The Ring of Anuk-Ité,” I confirmed. “Yeah, you-know-who said that the last he knew, the ring was in the hands of Namid’s ancestor on the Committee, Litonya.”

“Exactly,” the other girl replied. “So you need to talk to her about it. Which is why I’ve been spending the past week working on her. First I let her see me getting a bunch of Native American books out of the library. Then I made sure she was around when I asked Professor Dare about our extra-credit project.”

“What extra-credit project?” I asked blankly.

She winked at me. “The one you and I are doing on Native American Heretics and their artifacts. Professor Dare was a great actress by the way. Seriously, she’s really good at faking things like that. I thought I was gonna have to carry the whole conversation, but she pulled her weight.”  

While I was still staring at her, she shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, I did all that so that it didn’t come out of nowhere when I finally asked Namid for help. And paid her for it. So now she’s gonna talk to us for a few minutes. If she knows anything about that ring thinger, maybe she’ll talk about it.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–oh. Wow. You did all that?”

“Of course,” Sands replied easily. “We’re a team, right? You wanna help Roxa, this is the best way to do it. We find out what the deal is with that ring, or necklace, or whatever it is now. So come on, let’s go talk to her. And this time, you won’t be in the closet.

“… in more than one way.”

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Interlude 20A – Larissa

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on Avalon and Shiori’s conversation after Avalon and Flick’s first kiss. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

About Seven Years Ago

“Hey, babies.” Sitting on the edge of the bed that her beautiful little girls were sleeping in, Larissa Mason gently reached out to brush the hair away from Sarah’s face. The ten-year-old shifted and blinked her eyes open, yawning briefly before blurting, “Mom, what–”

“Shh.” Smiling still, Larissa held a finger to her lips. “We don’t wanna wake up Daddy. Let him sleep.”

“What about us?” Sarah’s twin sister had rolled over by that point, burying her face against the pillow. Her words came out as a muffled protest. “Can we sleep?”

Of course, both of the girls had their own beds to sleep in. But more often than not, even if they started in different beds, one of them would migrate to her sister before the end of the night. That or Sarah would succeed at talking Sandoval into exploring and they’d find the girls sleeping somewhere completely random, often not even in the same building as their apartment. Larissa swore, one day Sarah was going to end up getting into trouble that she couldn’t talk her way out of. Though she’d probably exhaust every word in the English language trying.   

Moving her hand from Sarah’s hair to touch the back of Sandoval’s head, Larissa whispered, “There’s a nice pod of whales not too far out. I thought we could take out the boat and see them.”

The response from the ten-year-old Sandoval was a groan. “Not now, Mom,” she mumbled, burying her face in the pillow a little harder. “Sleep. Whales later.”

Sarah, meanwhile, sat up. “Whales?” she asked, with obvious interest. “Big ones? I like the really big ones, like the one who ate Pinocchio. Are they like the ones that–”

Groaning, Sandoval took hold of the pillow, lifted her head, and then shoved the pillow down on top of it. “Jeeze, if you guys wanna go see the whales, go see the whales. Like, out on the ocean. Away from the bed.” She made a few vague shooing motions with her hand before settling.

Larissa almost tried to push a little harder. There was more to this trip than whales, after all. She wanted… well, she wanted both of her children to meet the person who had influenced her life so much. But if she pushed Sands too hard now, she might make a fuss and that would wake up their father. And–well, she had a feeling talking to him about the situation would be a lot harder.

And in any case, maybe it would be easier to discuss this with one of them at a time. Yes. She could work with just one of her girls for now.

So, finger to her lips to keep Sarah quiet, she straightened up and beckoned for the girl to follow. Once they were out of the bedroom, she pointed to a couple sets of clothes she had already set out for them. “Hurry and get dressed, okay? I’ll grab some food from the kitchen for breakfast and leave your dad a message.”

Rather than going anywhere while her daughter quickly stripped out of her pajamas and pulled on the clothes, Larissa instead reached up to take hold of one of her own hairs before giving it a swift yank. The short, stinging pain as she yanked the hair out of her scalp vanished quickly, and she tossed the hair toward the ground while summoning a very different power.

Before the hair had finished drifting its way to the floor, the power had taken hold of it. The hair grew incredibly rapidly, shifting and changing shape until it became something much more than a single hair: a lot of hair. A lot of hair, in fact, that happened to be attached to a squirrel.

That particular power allowed Larissa to take bits of her own body (such as her hair, in that case), and use them to create temporary animals. The size of the animal depended on how much of her own body she used. The hair would create tiny things like mice and squirrels, while something as large as her arm would allow her to create an elephant. Not that she tended to employ that level of the power very often, no matter how good Heretic healing happened to be.

But a squirrel was perfectly fine for what she had in mind. Reaching down, Larissa picked up the summoned animal and whispered a short message for Liam in its ear. She explained that she had taken Sarah out on the boat to see the whale pod and that they would be back later.

That done, she put the squirrel back down before quietly opening the bedroom door. The small, furry creature slipped through the crack before disappearing into the darkness. It would follow her instructions, sitting on the nearby end table until Liam woke up before repeating her message for him. Then it would disappear, its purpose completed.

After a quick trip through the kitchen to grab the cooler of food that she’d already prepared, Larissa joined Sarah at the door of the apartment. Together, the two of them slipped out and made their way across the island. On the way, they passed a couple of the school’s security guards, who waved as soon as they realized who it was.

Taking the controls of the boat, Larissa guided it away from the island out out into the open water. The whole time, Sarah continued to talk about whales so much that she actually felt a little bad that they weren’t actually going out to look at them.

But this–well, it was more important.

Eventually, she stepped away from the controls, turning to face her daughter. “Sarah,” she started quietly, “We need to talk about something serious, okay?”

Blinking, the young girl asked, “Who’d you talk to? What’d they say I did?”

Despite herself, Larissa chuckled. “No, no, nothing like that. Though I’m sure you did a lot of things.” Smiling, she touched the girl’s chin. “Mommy just needs you to keep a secret, okay?”

“Keep a secret?” Sarah’s head tilted curiously. “From who?”

As bad as she felt about this part, it was too important to leave to chance. Larissa carefully brushed her fingers up her daughter’s face to her hair. “From everyone, Sarah. Even Sands, at least for now. I need you to keep this part secret between just you and me until we can get your sister out here.”

“You mean lie?” Sarah’s eyes were wide. “You and Da said we’re not supposed to lie.”

Rather than point out that she was well aware that Sarah had lied plenty of times, Larissa nodded. “I know. And most of the time, you shouldn’t. But sometimes… well, there are some things that are really important. You see, Mommy has a… friend, and we don’t want Dad to know about her yet.”

“A friend?” Tilting her head, Sarah looked like she was thinking about that for a moment. “How come Da can’t know about your friend? Is she a bad friend?”

“No.” Moving her hand down to squeeze her daughter’s shoulder, Larissa shook her head. “Mommy would be… in big trouble if it wasn’t for her friend. She helped Mommy when she really needed it, back when I was about your age.”

Clearly uncertain about the entire situation, Sarah tentatively asked, “Why wouldn’t Da like her?”

This was it. Taking a breath, Larissa quietly answered, “Because Mommy’s friend isn’t human.”

It took a moment for Sarah to comprehend what she was saying. Eventually, however, the girl’s eyes went wide. “Y-your friend is a monster?”

“Not a monster, baby,” Larissa corrected quickly. “But she is what everyone would call a Stranger. She’s… it’s a long story. But she won’t hurt you. She’d never hurt you. You trust Mommy, right?” When the girl’s head bobbed up and down quickly, she smiled. “And Mommy trusts her. But we have to keep her a secret until Mommy finds a way to explain things to Sands and Da, all right?”

There was a brief pause before Sarah nodded again. “Okay, Mommy. Our secret.”

As her daughter watched, Larissa closed her eyes and focused and focused inward. Okay, Sariel. It’s safe now.

Once she had the impression that the woman who was so connected to her had heard, Larissa opened her eyes and watched. In the corner of the deck, near the ladder, a soft golden light had already appeared. Beside her, Scout made a sound as if to ask what was going on, but Larissa quieted and reassured her with a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Before long, the light resolved itself into a blonde woman, who straightened up and looked around until her gaze fell on the two of them. “Larissa,” she murmured before stepping that way.

The first time that Larissa had witnessed this was a year earlier. First she had heard the woman’s voice in her head. Being contacted telepathically was obviously nothing new. After all, she had been a fully-trained Heretic for years. Mental communication might be somewhat rare, but it wasn’t unheard of.

But that particular instance had been a lot more than simple telepathy. The voice in her head had explained her story. Obviously and understandably freaked out and distrustful at first, Larissa had found herself jumped by a few monstrous Strangers who had recognized her as a Heretic.

She would have died, except that the voice in her head manifested as a physical figure, much like she was doing now. Sariel projected herself fully, killing the Strangers who had attacked Larissa in short order.

After that–well, Larissa kind of had to listen. Even then, it had taken a good bit of time to come around to the truth. But eventually, she listened. And what Sariel had explained to her, about the Seosten and their secret control of Heretic society, as well as her own history, had changed… well, everything.

As it turned out, Sariel  couldn’t manifest herself for very long. Especially at first. She was projecting herself another world and could only attach herself to the person that she had most recently possessed. In that case, it was Larissa herself, since the Seosten woman had stopped possessing people entirely back when Larissa was a young girl. But the curse that had banished her from Earth was still strong enough even then that Sariel could only manifest for a couple minutes at a time.

Over the past year, that had gotten a bit longer as Sariel grew stronger. Still, she only projected herself when it was safe to do so. Which was when Larissa was away from Crossroads and their security, and not accompanied by any other Heretics.

The two of them had bonded over that year, particularly as Sariel confided that she couldn’t remember her own children and husband. She knew they existed. She could almost see their faces in her memory. And certain specific events around them were almost completely clear in her mind. She loved her family, and she knew that they had been taken away from her.

Some of the general facts, like a husband who was a Heretic, her children being twins, and other things that the Seosten woman was able to pull out out of the fog of her damaged memory, had felt entirely too close to home for Larissa. She had thought about how she would feel in that situation. And seeing a mother who had been torn away from her husband and twin children, well, that was a lot easier to sympathize with than she had expected. Even if the woman was a Stranger. Or Alter, as she called herself.

All of which meant that Larissa had decided that it was her obligation to help the other woman  regain her memory and find her children. But to do that, she needed to be able to talk to her more often. And that meant getting her children at least to understand that the woman was not a threat.

That’s what this trip had been about. But it was working well enough. They’d start with Sarah, then bring Sandoval out the next time.

The two women embraced, and then Sariel turned her attention to the younger girl, her voice quiet and gentle. “And you must be Sarah.”

For a moment, Sarah didn’t say anything. She just stood there and looked at the woman a bit apprehensively before eventually lifting her chin. “Y-you’re not human?”

Sariel smiled just a little, head giving a slight shake. “I’m afraid not. Does that scare you?”

Straightening up at that a little defiantly, the ten-year-old girl crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at the woman. “Nuh-uh,” she declared. “I’m not scared of you. I’m not scared of anything.”

Chuckling softly, Sariel nodded. “Well, I’m glad you’re not afraid of me, at least. I’d never want to scare you, Sarah. I promise, if we can–”

She stopped talking abruptly, head tilted as though listening to something. A second later, the woman spun back, eyes wide. “Take Sarah and get off the boat,” she ordered. “Go, go, right n–”

In mid-sentence, a slimy brown-green tentacle shot into view. It wrapped around the woman’s throat, tearing Sariel off her feet before flinging her to crash against the deck hard enough to splinter it.

There was a man there–no, a creature. He looked like the Swamp Thing from the comics that Larissa liked so much. But an instant later, she realized that most of his form was covered in various fungus, moss, and other things from the sea. His true form was hidden underneath all of that.

His voice was grating, like nails on a chalkboard. “I knew I smelled one of you on the Heretic. I knew if I waited, I’d find her. I’d find you. Tasty.”

Larissa’s first priority was to her daughter. Spinning, she caught hold of the girl, who was standing there frozen in terror. Hoisting her up, she threw Sarah across the deck and to the cabin. “Hide!” she ordered before spinning back. Her hand grabbed for her weapon in its case at her hip, but one of the creature’s whip-arms caught hold of her wrist and yanked it up so hard she felt the bone snap in the process.

“Fomorian!” Sariel shouted, catching the creature’s attention. “Leave her alone. You want a Seosten? You’ve got one.”

Grimacing, Larissa jerked her hand free of the creature–the Fomorian’s grasp. “Save Sarah,” she shot back before lashing out with a kick that took the intruder right in the gut. Through the coverings of slimy weeds, moss, and even barnacles, she felt her foot connect with actual flesh and bone. Not that it seemed to do much other than making him grunt.

“Please!” She pleaded not with the Fomorian, but with the Seosten. “Make sure she’s safe! She–”

That was all she could get out before the creature was on top of her again. It was all Larissa could do to block him. She felt his blows raining down on her, his fists and tentacles like sledgehammers. And through it all, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was simply toying with her.

Sariel had vanished through the opening in the cabin, following Sarah. In the distance, Larissa could hear an argument between the two, as Sariel ordered the girl to hide despite her clear intention of trying to save her mother.

Focusing on one of her powers, Larissa was abruptly slammed backward against the wall of the boat cabin. One of the creature’s tentacles had shoved its way against her face. She felt it practically envelop her head as the Fomorian let out a groan of what sounded like pleasure.

Then a dozen needles from the tentacle pierced her face and neck, and Larissa felt her entire body go numb. Her brain did the same, thoughts slowing down. Drugged. He… drugged her, somehow. Whatever the needles in his tentacle had injected her with, it left her unable to stand, let alone fight. She felt like her body was floating, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t hold onto her anger.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, the woman recognized the terror and horror of what was happening. But she couldn’t do anything about it. Even as she heard the Fomorian copying her voice to call out for her daughter, taunting the girl while trying to coax her into coming out, the actual fury that she felt at the threat to her child was muted. All she knew was that she was being dragged along to the cabin, those needles still piercing her as the Fomorian searched for both Sariel and Sarah.

Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel. Sarah. Sariel. Sariel. Sandoval. Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel.

She knew. Somewhere deep in her memory, far buried in her subconscious, she had known the name Sariel. It had almost, almost manifested in the names that she had given her children. Sarah, Sandoval. Sariel.

In the end, Sariel exposed herself. Before the creature could taunt Sarah into revealing herself from wherever she had hidden her, the Seosten stepped into view. “Larissa,” she murmured, face ashen. “I am so sorry.”

“You should be,” the Fomorian snarled. “I’m going to have so much fun playing with all three of you. And it’s all your fault. You left your stink on the Heretic. I knew you’d show up again.”

Slowly, Sariel straightened. “That’s not the only thing I’m sorry about,” she announced quietly. Her eyes locked with Larissa’s. “I can’t think of any other way to stop him. I’m sorry.”

Larissa’s drugged mind was still trying to figure out what she meant by that, even as Sariel launched herself forward. The Seosten leapt at both of them, colliding with Larissa and the Fomorian.

Later, Larissa would come to understand what the woman had done. Sariel grabbed onto them both and then pointedly released the hold that she had that was keeping her on Earth. More to the point, she stopped fighting against the anchor that was trying to yank her away from it.

The force of the magic that was hauling Sariel back to another world also caught Larissa and the Fomorian. All three were torn away from the planet.

The whole thing felt like… like Larissa was falling a very long ways. Stars flashed by in blinding white lines as she was torn through space alongside the other two. Every second that passed, they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles.  

In the end, the force pulling Sariel back wasn’t strong enough to take all three of them the entire way. The Fomorian disappeared partway through, landing on some other planet. Sariel and Larissa then had a chance to look at each other for what seemed like a split-second. The other woman’s mouth opened to say something, but before any sound could come out, Larissa felt herself start falling away. There was a scream that filled the air, a scream that could have come from either or both of them.

Then she was hitting the ground somewhere, landing hard enough to break several bones as she rolled to a stop.

Groaning a little, she rolled over and sat up. Before she managed to do anything else, however, a foot caught her in the back and shoved her back down. Her head turned, only to see half a dozen figures in gleaming golden armor that looked a bit like high-tech chainmail, along with sleek helmets complete with pitch-black visors that obscured their faces. All of them held rifles that were pointed at her, and were barking orders in some other language that she didn’t understand.

Slowly, the realization came. The Fomorian was gone. Sariel was gone. And Larissa… Larissa was trapped on some distant planet, far from anything she knew. She was alone, surrounded by enemies.

And she had absolutely no idea how she was going to get home.

******

Present Day

 

The thud of a body being slammed hard into the wall was followed immediately by the sound of a massive sword being driven into that wall barely an inch from the body itself.

“Try again,” Haiden Moon ordered, twisting his sword just a little so that the blade moved slightly closer to the neck of the man that he was still holding in place a foot off the ground. “And this time, tell me something that I want to hear.”

The creature with the pale-green skin and straggly yellow hair shook his head frantically. Or at least as frantically as he could while being held off the ground by the furious Heretic. “I told ya! I don’t know where your damn wife is! I don’t know, okay? I don’t know!”

Larissa watched from her place at the doorway, where she was keeping an eye out for any reinforcements.

She had spent years as a prisoner of the Seosten. As it turned out, they had found the Fomorian, and thought that she had purposefully allied with him to bring the creature into their space. For years, they alternated between forcing her to work in their slave pits, and demanding to know about the extent of the cooperation between her and the Fomorians, as well as what other Heretics were involved.

They also wanted to know why they couldn’t possess her to find out that way. Which must have been something that Sariel had done, but Larissa refused to tell them that much. No matter how much they had… insisted.

It had not been a fun time, to say the least. But eventually, she had been rescued by one of the least likely people she ever would have guessed. Sariel’s husband, Haiden. Even though his exact memories of his wife and children were locked away or erased, he did remember Larissa.

The two of them had bonded over the past couple of years, as they searched Seosten space for the pieces of the orb that had been shattered when it banished the Moons and the Seosten known as Puriel away from the Earth. With each piece, they grew closer to finding Sariel herself. And considering how much Larissa owed the woman, she was going to help find her. And then all of them would find a way to go home again, home to their families.

“Sariel, right?” the creature stammered. His name was Ivak, and he was one of the Seosten’s higher ranked, important allies. At least as far as the Seosten allowed themselves to have allies. Which meant he was still mostly a slave, beholden to his ‘angel’ masters, but otherwise given most of his freedom to do as he wished. Slimy and untrustworthy as he was, Ivak was a whiz at bureaucracy. He was, essentially, a super-accountant.

“Yes.” Haiden’s voice was dangerous. “I know that you handled her case, Ivak. We tracked her all the way to you. So tell me where you sent her, now.

Ivak’s head shook rapidly. “Nowhere! I didn’t send her–” His voice choked off into a desperate plea as Haiden’s hand went to his throat. “Lemme explain, lemme explain!”

Given a slight reprieve, Ivak quickly stammered that the imprisoned Sariel had been sent to him, but that an actual Seosten had taken over her case.

“I never saw where he sent her, I swear. I swear!”

Clearly trying to restrain his mixture of fury and disappointment after all the effort they had spent to get that far, Haiden managed a terse, “Which Seosten? Who was it? Was it Puriel?”

Ivak’s head shook. “No, no, it was Manakel. Manakel, that’s his name. And you won’t find him here. H-he’s on Earth, on that assignment.”

Eyes widening, Larissa blurted, “What assignment?”

“You heard the lady,” Haiden ordered while giving their prisoner a shove. “What assignment are you talking about?”

Ivak looked eager to explain, desperate with the hope that telling them the truth would spare his life. “Y-you don’t know? The mission to get into that human’s blood vault. Bosch, that’s his name. He’s got something in that vault, something that’ll screw up the Seosten plans, so they sent a couple of the Seosten bigwigs to get it back.”

Working her mouth in confusion, Larissa slowly asked, “Did they… get it yet? What is it?”

“I don’t know, I swear!” Ivak claimed. “All I know is it’s really important, and they’re losing their minds at the idea of anyone from your group finding it. Heretics, I mean. So they’re trying to get it without, you know, letting any of your types know what they’re doing. Which means–”

“They’re possessing people,” Haiden muttered. “Who? Who are they possessing?”

Swallowing hard, Ivak’s head shook. “I don’t–” When Haiden gave him a dangerous look, he hurriedly amended, “I don’t know both of them, okay? I heard one name. Just one name. The one that Manakel’s partner, Charmeine, the one that she’s possessing. That’s all I know, just that. But you gotta promise to lemme go.”

“You’ll help us figure out where Manakel sent Sariel,” Haiden ordered with a flat voice. “Then we’ll let you go. But first, give us the name.”

“Porter, okay?” Ivak blurted.

“She’s possessing some kid named Columbus Porter.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-05

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“I wonder if anyone in my life was actually normal.”

It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the first track classes. I was in one of the protective spell practice chambers with Sean and the twins (err, the ones on my team), each of us taking turns practicing a freeze-bomb spell that Carfried had given everyone for homework. Or dormwork. Whatever you called it when you actually lived in the same place as the school. So far, Scout had been the only one of us who actually managed to get the balls from the spell to freeze the target correctly.

As I finished speaking, Sands looked over at me with a frown from where she was carefully inscribing the spellform on her next metal ball, intent on getting it right that time. “What do you mean, normal?”

Shrugging, I worked on my own ball. “I mean Scott and Calvin both turned out to be Alters. Miranda was recruited by Eden’s Garden. My mom was—well, you know. I wonder who else was around while I was growing up that was actually spying on me for Crossroads, or for Prosser, or for anyone else.”

Vulcan made a noise that was half-whine, straightening up to move over so he could bump his nose against my leg. Smiling despite myself, I took a knee and rubbed his snout. “I know, buddy. Some of them were trying to help, or at least trying to make sure things didn’t get worse than they already were.”

Rearing back, Sean activated his ball and threw it to the other end of the small room. As it hit the wall, the ball exploded with a blue mist that seemed to get everything a bit chilly, but didn’t quite freeze.

“Well, shit then,” the boy muttered before reaching into the nearby box to take out another ball so he could start working on the spell again. “Really thought I had it that time.” Looking to me, he added, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of people you know that weren’t involved at all, Flick. It’s just that the only reason you have to interact with them anymore are when they get pulled into this stuff, or were connected to it from the start. The ones that aren’t connected at all, you just… won’t hear from.”

“That and I didn’t really get very close to anyone after my mom left,” I admitted. “There was Miranda, and she was my best friend. But I was pretty much focused on her. And when she had to move, it was just… I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Mostly I just… stayed in the background, I guess.”

Taking my turn, I triggered the spell and threw the ball. It was my third try, and I was pretty confident. Then again, Sean had been pretty confident too and all he’d actually managed was a brief cold mist. So when the ball hit the wall and promptly created a thick sheet of ice about two feet across, I was surprised enough to let out a gleeful squeal. “Hey, I got it that time! High five for the winners, Scout.”

“Hey, hey, no fives until I can five too.” Sands caught her sister’s wrist, sticking her tongue out at me. “Hold your horses, Flick. I’ve got it this time. Then we can all high five together. And laugh at Sean.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I gestured to the nearby wall. “Go for it. The more fives the merrier.”

Sean, for his part, said something obviously pointed in Spanish before addressing Vulcan. “You see what I put up with?” He then watched as the mechanical dog walked to Scout and sat down. “Traitor.”

Sure enough, Sands’ next throw covered more of the wall with ice. Jumping up with her arms raised, she cheered before doing a front handstand. Holding it for a moment, she winked at me from her upside down position before falling back to her feet. “See?” the girl crowed, “Told you I had it that time.”

Giving both girls high fives, I nodded easily. “When you’re right, you’re right. Now it’s Sean’s turn.”

While he was working on the ball (clearly taking extra time because he didn’t want to fail to get it that time), Sands shifted on her feet. “Any luck looking into Avalon’s mother? You know…” She trailed off, obviously trying not to look too giddy or fangirly about the situation. “Heironymus Bosch’s granddaughter or… great granddaughter or… whatever.”

My head shook. “I still think we’re gonna have to go see the place they used to live. I mean, it’s been a long time, but maybe somebody there remembers her mom. Plus there could be records, a paper trail. She was living with Bystanders long enough for Avalon’s dad to meet her and all that, so there should be something to track her. Hopefully it’ll lead somewhere. We just need to find a good time to go.”

After biting my lip thoughtfully for a second, I teased, “You’re still kinda freaking out about that, huh?”

“That my teammate is related to the guy who founded our entire society?” Sands gave me a wide-eyed look before nodding almost frantically. “Uh, yeah, I’m kinda freaking out about that. Just a little bit.”

Scout giggled a little, but she was nodding too. Clearly, both of them thought it was a pretty big deal.

“Maybe you should come too,” I offered. “When we go look into her past, I mean. After all, you guys are the ones who stayed in the Investigation track. You could see something we end up missing.”

Grinning, Sands quickly replied, “You don’t have to ask us twice. Just let us know when you’re going.”

I shrugged at that. “Of course, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious when we head out. Gotta get Gaia’s permission and all that so she can come up with an excuse about why we’re leaving the island.”

Scout leaned up then and whispered something quietly in her sister’s ear. Sands then promptly looked at me before giggling. “Yeah,” she replied with a nod. “If she ever actually talks to them about it.”

Doing a quick double-take, I blurted out loud, “Wait, huh? If who ever talks to who about what?”

Sands just scoffed at me while rolling her eyes. “Oh, I think you know,” she retorted pointedly.

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about.”

******

“You’ve got another meeting with Gaia tonight, right?” Shiori asked a few hours later as the two of us walked along the beach together. “For your special extra tutoring stuff, I mean.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back out to the water for a moment while feeling myself blush. Which was weird. We weren’t even talking about anything that sensitive, so why was I blushing like that? “But it’s different tonight. Vanessa and Tristan are supposed to be there so Gaia can try to transfer the anchor spell to her. You know, so he can be linked to his actual twin instead of some girl he barely knows.”

“He knows you better than most other students here,” Shiori pointed out before pausing. “He knows me better than most of them too. Which is fair, I guess, since we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”

Somehow, my hand found hers before I knew what it was doing. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “For all of you. Trust me. Trust Gaia. She knows how to keep this stuff secret. She’s been doing it for awhile.”

Shiori’s hand squeezed mine before she looked over to the water with a thoughtful murmur. “Speaking of boats, you went out to see your shark buddies, right? Cuz, you know, they probably missed you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded quickly. “Trust me, that’s one of the first things I did when we got back. I used the breathing spell and went as deep as I could with them. They had all kinds of stuff to show me.”

Giggling a little under her breath, Shiori looked up and down the beach, staring back the way we’d come. “Okay,” she announced after a second. “I think we’re far enough away now. You see anybody?”

Looking back that way as well, I shook my head after scanning the whole beach for a minute. “Nope. Looks clear to me. No sign of anyone, including my shadow. Which is a real treat, let me tell you.”

Shiori snickered audibly at that. “You know, you could just ask Doug why he’s so interested in you.”

“I know,” I replied easily. “I could just ask him, but I want to see what he does first. I mean, if he’s…” Pausing, I lowered my voice reflexively despite the fact that we already would’ve been pretty thoroughly screwed if anything we said was overheard. “If he’s possessed or something, I don’t want to tip my hand just like that. And if it’s something like he thinks I’m connected to Roxa’s disappearance-”

“He wouldn’t be wrong about that,” Shiori pointed out with a raised eyebrow. As she spoke, the girl was already taking the container from her hip. Popping the lid off, she set it down and let Choo crawl out. The little lightning-pig sniffed the sand curiously until she dropped a fun-size snickers bar for him.

As the jekern pounced on the candy, I nodded. “Right, he wouldn’t be wrong. But I also can’t answer his questions. It’s not like I can say, ‘hey, your teammate’s okay, but she got turned into a werewolf by a psychopath. Oh, and on a related note, werewolves and every other Stranger aren’t automatically evil.’”

The two of us started walking again, with Choo jogging to keep up. The little pig kept looking both ways, up and down the beach while happily trotting between us with sparks playing around his snout.

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed after a few seconds of walking. “You’re right, you can’t exactly tell him the truth. He probably wouldn’t—umm, you know, take it very well. You think it’s just him, or his whole team?”

Biting my lip, I thought about it for a second. “I dunno. I mean, he’s the really obvious one. But maybe they’re all involved. I can’t see him keeping it a secret if he thinks I know something. I wouldn’t, in his position. But he’s the one that’s always staring at me. And he obviously switched tracks to follow me.”

“He could just think you’re cute and be really weird and shy about actually talking about it,” she pointed out. Immediate after she finished speaking, the girl’s face turned pink and she coughed. “I mean, did he say anything while you guys were working on your—what was that thing again?”

“Identifying a mystery Stranger and working out how to kill it.” I shook my head then. “And no, I mean nothing that wasn’t about that. He said we should work on more of it Sunday–tomorrow. So maybe he’ll bring up Roxa then. Maybe he just wanted to wait until he can get his whole team there.”

“If he asks about Roxa,” Shiori started while looking sidelong at me. “What are you gonna tell him?”

Wincing, I made a confused flailing motion. “I dunno. That’s why I’m waiting to see what he does.”

By that point, we had reached the spot of the beach that led up into Choo’s little hidey-place. As the two of us approached, Avalon straightened up off the log she had been sitting on and turned to face us. She was silent, but Choo went running right up to nuzzle against her foot while making excited noises.

“See?” I announced with a little smile at that sight. “He likes you almost as much as Herbie does.”

Her eyes rolled, but Avalon still reached down to let the jekern clamber into her hands. Picking him up, she failed to totally contain her little smile at his soft cooing. “You asked me to meet you guys out here, Chambers,” the girl reminded me. “So what’s going on? Tell me something bad didn’t happen again.

“Nothing bad happened,” I quickly assured her. “I mean, that I know of. Sure, bad stuff happened somewhere. Bad stuff happens all the time. Especially now that we know about Strangers and all th–”

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted, eyebrow raised at me curiously. “You’re babbling. More than usual.”

Flushing, I closed my mouth for a second and took a breath to collect myself. I’d thought that this was a good idea. I knew it was something that needed to be done before someone ended up getting hurt. And yet, standing there like that with both of them watching me, I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious.

“Um. Okay, yeah.” My head bobbed up and down, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I wanted to get both of you out here so we could–” In mid-sentence, I stopped talking and looked up at the sky.

Shiori poked my arm lightly after a moment of that, her expression pensive. “Flick? What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly as my blush deepened. “Oh, um, nothing. I guess I just sort of expected something dramatic to drop out of the sky right then and interrupt me before I could finish talking.”

They both looked at each other, and I coughed before pushing on. “Okay. No more interruptions, no more excuses, no more… anything but dealing with this.” Biting my lip, I looked between them. Even then, despite what I’d said, there was the temptation to make an excuse and run away. I was… afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being abandoned again, of being left alone after putting myself out there.

Well screw that. I wasn’t going to let that fear define me. I knew why my mother was gone, and it had nothing to do with wanting to abandon me, or not caring. She had been taken away because she cared.

“I like you.” The words blurted their way out of my mouth almost of their own volition, but I kept going. “B-both of you, I mean. Shiori, Avalon, I like you. As friends, but… but more. I like you as more than friends. I like both of you. I know it’s stupid and weird and selfish, but I do. And I… I don’t want to hurt either of you. I think you’re both… hot and smart and funny in your own ways. I think you’re—I know you’re brilliant, you’re both… amazing. You’re the best, and I couldn’t get through any of this stuff without you. And I know it’s stupid. I know. You date one person. That’s the way it works. But every time I think about… about how happy I’d be dating one of you, I think about… hurting the other person. And I can’t—I can’t just… I’m selfish. I’m stupid and selfish and I can’t do it. I can’t hurt either of you. Which is even more stupid because I don’t even know for sure that you both even think about me like that. I mean I’m pretty sure since all that stuff happened, but maybe you don’t and I’m just babbling for no reason and making myself look even more stupid than I already did, which is saying something.”

Shivering a little, I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m not even—I couldn’t even swear that the words are coming out in the right order. The-umm, the point is, I just didn’t want—don’t want to hurt you guys. I don’t want—I don’t want to hug Shiori and make Valley sad if she sees it. I don’t want to kiss Valley and make Shiori… think that I don’t care about her like that. Because I do. I do. I care about both of you, and the last thing I want to do… the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

Shrugging weakly then, I managed to finish with, “But you guys really don’t feel that way. I just—I figured it should be out in the open before one of us—one of you got hurt. Now we can—we can just deal with it. So, you know, am I being stupid or…”

“You’re not being stupid,” Shiori said quietly. She gave a long sigh before looking at Avalon. “See? I told you she’d bring it up on her own.”

Blinking at that, I looked from Shiori to Avalon. “Wait—wait, you guys talked about this already?”

“Believe it or not,” Avalon started dryly, “we are capable of having a conversation without you, Chambers.”

I was still stammering at that, trying to find the right thing to say, when Shiori spoke up instead. “Avalon came to talk to me after… after you guys kissed.”

My head snapped that way, and I felt my cheeks turn pink. “She—she did?”

Nodding, Shiori spoke quietly. “At first I thought she was… umm… bragging. But she made me listen. She wasn’t bragging, she just… she didn’t want me to be hurt either. Like you. She wanted me to know what happened, and that she cared about you.”

Looking to Avalon then, I swallowed hard. “You… didn’t want Shiori to be hurt. You knew…”

“Of course I knew,” the other girl retorted before giving a little shrug with one shoulder. “And I knew how I’d feel. So I told her.”

“We talked about it,” Shiori put in then. “And we figured we’d wait and see what you wanted to do.”

“Up to a point,” Avalon cut in. “If you waited much longer, I was going to force the issue.”

Coughing, I ran my hands all the way back and down through my hair. “Oh. Um. Right. So… what do we do about it?”

The two of them looked at each other again. After a few seconds of silence, Shiori spoke up. “Well, um, maybe we should get it all out in the open.” She looked to me then. “I like you, Flick. I mean—I knew I liked girls for a long time. And I kinda had a crush on Roxa for awhile. But you—I like you. I think you’re—umm, great. I–” Her head bobbed up and down quickly as she blushed. “Really great.”

Clearing her throat, she looked to the other girl. “Um, your turn.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds. Silence, that was, save for the sound of Choo cheerfully snuffling against the girl’s hands.

Finally, Avalon breathed out and straightened up to meet my gaze. “Okay, fine. Chambers—Felicity… I… I like you, okay? There, I said it out loud.”

Unable to help myself, I teased, “Are you about to spontaneously combust?”

“You know what?” she half-snapped. “You can–” Stopping herself, she sighed and slumped down a bit. “I’m sorry. I just—this is supposed to be easy, but it’s not.”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Not even in the most normal of circumstances, and… well, let’s be honest, this isn’t.”

The three of us nodded silently to each other for a thoughtful moment before I continued. “So, I like you, and I like you.” I nodded to each of them in turn. “And—well, I guess you like me. And you like me. But you guys don’t…”

Shiori shook her head quickly. “No—I mean sure, she’s hot.” She glanced sidelong to Avalon. “Really hot. But I don’t think about her like that. I don’t mind being friends, and she’s really good with Choo, but… no, I don’t want to like—date her or anything.”

“And I don’t want to date her,” Avalon confirmed. “I’m barely okay with the idea of liking you, Chambers. I’m not adding something else on top of that.”

“Right, right.” I bit my lip. “So… what do we do now? I don’t think it’s—I know it’s not fair that I can’t decide—God, could I be any more selfish? I just—I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

“You’re not asking us to marry you, Chambers,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Look, I—it’s like I told Porter over there. Heretics aren’t exactly known for being strictly monogamous. They live such… varied and different life spans. Someone could live sixty years and their wife could live five hundred. The point is, they—they have more than one romantic relationship at the same time, all right? Not everyone, but enough that it’s nothing new.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I—you mean date both of you at the same time? How… how does that work?”

“That’s what I said,” Shiori put in, blushing just as much as I was pretty sure I was. “And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.”

Avalon sighed. “Chambers, I don’t know—I don’t know how good of a… of a date I’d be. I really don’t. I… freak out, I pull away, I… I do stupid things. You deserve to be with someone who can—who can be comfortable with all that stuff. But I’m selfish too. You say you’re selfish? So am I. So I don’t want to just let you go. I want to try. I want to… to try. But I want you to be able to do all that stuff that makes me uncomfortable too. So yeah, sometimes you and I can do stuff. And other times you and Porter can do stuff. Other than that… maybe it won’t work out. But at least we gave it a shot.”

“At least we gave it a shot,” I echoed, smiling just a little bit. “Have there ever been more romantic words?”

Her free hand snapped out, punching me in the shoulder, and I yelped in the midst of snickering. “Oww—sorry not sorry.”

Rubbing my shoulder, I smiled a little while looking back and forth at them. “I… guess we could see what happens. And if anyone gets too uncomfortable with it, we just… reevaluate. That’s all I want, is for everyone to… to talk to each other. So what do we call this whole… dating both of you thing?”

“Call it whatever you want,” Avalon answered. “I just—I just want you to be happy, Cha—Felicity. I want to… try. So if you want to, we can… try.”

“Trying sounds good,” I agreed, biting my lip. “I guess this whole thing makes me really lucky, no matter how it turns out. Just—both of you being interested in me, even if it doesn’t work out, it really… it really could do a number on my ego, you know?”

“Oooh, oooh!” Shiori perked up suddenly. “I–”

“Oh God, don’t say it,” Avalon interrupted, hanging her head. “Please don’t say it.”

She said it. Face bright, Shiori cheerfully announced, “I guess some people have amorous feelings, but you get a-more-us feelings.”

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