Scout

Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 20 – Scout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter Wonderland 18-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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Second Hunt 16-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

“God knows I need the help.”

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Second Hunt 16-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focused on Fossor posted yesterday. If you haven’t been properly traumatized by that yet, please feel free to click the previous chapter button above to read it. 

Scout and I went down the stairs just outside the bridge a bit faster than we had come up them. And by ‘a bit faster’, I mean that I grabbed hold of the other girl with one arm and leapt off the side with her. Together, the two of us plummeted toward the deck far below until I used a burst from the staff in my other hand to slow us down just enough that we were able to land without breaking anything important.

Once we hit the deck (literally) and recovered, I spun in a circle to look for the nearest entrance to the below-decks area. I knew exactly how far away the room itself was from where we were, thanks to the Blemmye’s power. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, since it was just a direct distance thing.

While my eyes were still scanning frantically, Scout grabbed my arm and gave a tug. Without hesitation, I let her pull me while already starting to turn that way. My eyes spotted the same thing the other girl had seen: a sign over a metal door (or hatch, or whatever they were called on a cruise ship) that announced it was for staff only and that dangerous machinery was beyond. It was also standing partway open. Obviously, that was the same way that the others had taken to get down there.

Shoving the hatch open the rest of the way, I started to beckon for Scout to go on, but she was already passing me. The two of us practically flew down the small corridor beyond toward a tight, incredibly narrow set of stairs leading downward into the bowels of the ship. It was all I could do to stop myself from panicking completely at the thought of that engine compartment rapidly filling with water if Professor Dare lost hold of the time-stop. To say nothing of the literal bomb that Avalon was laying on.

It’s pretty bad when you have to distract yourself from the thought of someone you care about being blown up by focusing on the thought of them drowning. This clearly wasn’t exactly a healthy lifestyle.

As Scout and I stampeded down the stairs side-by-side (there was just barely enough room for us to pull that off), my foot lashed out to kick a small box out of the way without looking at it. Apparently the whole time-stop thing was interrupted when we actually touched things, because the box went flying. Immediately, the loud clanging sound of seventeen screws, four metal washers, a half-dozen nails, a Phillips head screwdriver, and a ball-peen hammer scattering across the floor filled the room it landed.

… hold on a second.

In spite of myself and the really, really bad situation, I cast a quick look that way as we reached the bottom of the stairs. I had time to see the screwdriver, the hammer, and what looked like everything I had instinctively thought of a second earlier. But how the hell had I known what was in the box before-

Snapping myself out of it, I twisted back the other way to find Scout staring at me with wide eyes, clearly wondering what the hell was wrong and why I had slowed down while Avalon was still in trouble. Rather than answer, I waved both hands for her to keep going and started running once more.

Between my own memory of directing the others through this maze of rooms and hallways, and the Blemmye gift letting me know how far away we were from the engine compartment, we were making good time. Still, I kept pushing myself to go faster. For all we knew, Professor Dare could only hold the time-stop for another twenty seconds. Or five. I didn’t know! All I knew was that we had to hurry.

And yet, as we raced through the corridor, more objects kept popping into my head. There was a coffee can on that workbench that we were passing with a hundred and twelve screws in it. That gym bag that my foot brushed against had three pairs of shorts, a tee-shirt, and a bag of M&M’s in it. More and more inventories popped into my head as we kept going. Hell, I instinctively knew that Scout had a small bag of Jolly Ranchers in one pocket of her uniform jacket and her cell phone and room key in another one.

It had to be a result of killing the skeleblineist. Instead of being able to possess inanimate objects, I was being given a constant update of every object that was within a certain distance of me. Maybe that was what the little monsters used to know what objects were within range to be jumped into or something?

Whatever it came from, it was distracting. I had to focus to force the thoughts of every object out of my mind so I could pay attention to where we were going, and even then Scout had to correct me twice.

Be careful. The voice spoke directly in my mind, and it took me a second to realize that it wasn’t my own thoughts. Then I thought it was Deveron, using the same power that he’d used to direct Sands and me back when we’d been fighting Doxer. But as the thought-speech continued, I realized it was Professor Dare. Her voice (such as it was) was even more strained than before. The effort of holding the entire ship in this time-stop was obviously taking even more of a toll on her than I’d thought it was.

Someone is not happy about my interference. They’ve sent forces of their own to make that displeasure clear. Which means that they’re powerful enough to disrupt the time-stop bubble, even if they can’t collapse it entirely. So they’ve chosen to attempt to distract me enough to make me lose control of it.

My eyes widened and I blurted out loud, “Wait, are you fighting right now? While you hold the–”

Less distractions, Felicity, Dare urged me. Not more, please. I only mean to warn you that you may face intruders of your own. Or they may send those intruders to finish the original job. So please, just-

“Hurry, got it.” With a quick nod, I pushed myself into an all-out sprint. Scout fell behind after a few steps, but when I glanced back, she waved for me to keep going rather than wait for her. So I booked it.

For what was far from the first time, I thanked that Amarok for showing up. Yeah, it had almost killed us. But thanks to its power, I could run at full speed through the hallway without tiring myself out at all. That combined with the Blemmye’s gift for letting me know how far I was from my destination and the new skeleblineist’s knowledge of every item that was in my path meant that not only could I full-on sprint the entire way there without getting lost or being tired when I got there, but I also didn’t have to worry about tripping over anything. My body instinctively knew where objects were as I got near enough for them to be an issue, and I easily stepped over or around them without even breaking stride.

How my brain was processing all this information was kind of beyond me, but it was working. The explosion from that first bomb (or perhaps the original infestation and attacks) had left tons of random crap lying around down here, and I probably would’ve broken my neck if I ran that fast through the corridor without looking where I was going or slowing down to pick my way through the stuff. Instead, even on a floor completely covered with boxes, tools, and other obstacles, I kept running full out.

The room I needed to get to was just ahead. Less than a dozen more steps and I’d be there. Unfortunately, I’d only crossed slightly less than half of that before something hit me hard from behind. I went sprawling across the floor with a yelp of surprise while whatever it was clung to the back of my head. Claws or hard nails dug into my shoulders and dragged their way down through the muscle in my biceps, cutting through the jacket and shirt underneath while a hiss of pain escaped me.

Wincing, I scrambled to get my feet beneath me and threw myself backward against the wall to smash the thing. Of course, the creature clinging to me immediately disappeared into that wall, so I only ended up hurting myself in the process. But at least it was off me. And I knew it had to be another skeleblineist. Clearly whoever was trying to interfere with Dare’s time-stop had unfrozen the thing.

Then, with no warning or even the courtesy of a violent violin scratch, the creature was launching itself out of the floor at me, like a shark leaping out of the previously placid water. The damn thing’s teeth were bared, and it made a loud screeching sound as it leapt toward my throat, rotted hands up with claws extended.

Then the creature blew apart in mid-leap. Its head literally popped open before the rest of it crashed to the ground lifelessly, pieces of its skull and brain littering the floor like a thoroughly smashed pumpkin.

Without hesitating or even bothering to look for what I knew would be an invisible shot-portal, I blurted, “Thanks, Scout!” Then I kicked off the wall and back to my feet before spinning to run for the engine compartment once more. Every second counted, and I’d already wasted too many as it was.

Three steps, four, and then I was at the doorway. As I skidded around the last corner and into the room, my eyes immediately spotted Avalon’s unconscious body as well as the hole in the wall where water would have been pouring in if Dare’s time-stop bubble hadn’t been up. And I saw something else: a hooded and cloaked figure crouched over her, hand raised high with a wicked-looking knife about to come down.

A scream tore its way from my throat. Anything, any noise or distraction to stall the assassin for those precious handful of seconds as I launched myself that way with a quick boost from my staff. Between that and the enhanced strength I’d inherited from the werewolf, I was literally hurtling across the distance like I’d been shot out of a cannon. The crouched, hooded figure had barely started to react to my scream before I collided with them, and the two of us went tumbling across the hard metal floor.

The good news was, I’d interrupted the would-be killer before they had a chance to actually hurt Avalon. The bad news was, they recovered faster than I did. Before I’d even managed to orient myself from tumbling head over heels across the floor with the cloaked figure, they were already on their feet. And one of those feet was hitting my stomach hard enough to send me up against the opposite wall.

Up close, the figure was dressed like a ninja or something. They wore a full face-concealing mask underneath the hood, and with the way the cloak covered them, it was hard to tell a lot about their figure. From what I could see, my best guess was that they were either female or a thin and wiry male.

They were also apparently not at all interested in paying any attention to me. After kicking me away from them, they spun back the other way, toward Avalon. The knife came up again, ready to throw.

Desperately, I lifted my staff and expended the last bit of energy that it had stored up. The resulting blast wasn’t enough to knock the figure over or anything, but it did knock the blade out of their hand just before they could throw it. Unfortunately, the knife had only spun a few feet away before the figure thrust their hand out and somehow redirected it so that the blade was flying right for Avalon once more.

An instant before it would’ve hit the unconscious girl, another of Scout’s shots came out of nowhere and slammed into the flying knife, sending it off-course once more. The thing was so sharp, and had been thrown so hard that it literally embedded itself in the metal floor like a shovel going into the dirt.

Scout followed up with two more quick shots from wherever she was, this time directed at the cloaked figure. Yet, somehow the assassin reacted too quickly to be hit. They spun away, hand lashing out with a new knife that they had conjured out of what seemed like nothingness. Both shots ricocheted off that blade, one after the other. Then there was a sudden sharp pain in my arm, and I blinked down to find blood pouring from a wound there. A wound from the bullet. It seemed like it was just a graze, but still. Not only had the assassin actually used a freaking knife to block those bullets, but they’d gone as far as redirecting one of them into me like they were some kind of Jedi or something. Or the bad version.

Then I saw where the second bullet had hit: an inch… inch from Avalon’s face. The bullet actually hit the floor just beside the other girl, practically grazing her nose in the process. It was that close.

“Scout, no more!” I blurted while throwing myself to my feet. I lashed out at the figure with my staff, but they easily evaded. Three more quick thrusts came then as I desperately tried to land a single blow, but the figure danced around it like I was moving at a quarter speed or something. They caught my staff after the last swing, and then I felt it being ripped away from me. Stumbling forward, I ducked a vicious backhand, only to take a foot to my stomach again. I doubled over with a pained yelp, but forced myself to stay upright and keep my head up. Which meant I saw the knife coming for me, and got an arm up in the way to block it. Unfortunately, doing so meant I took a deep cut in my arm, which already wasn’t in fantastic shape from the whole ‘accidentally getting shot by Scout’ thing. My arm was screaming with pain by then, and the healing gift from the peridle wasn’t going to matter soon enough.

This wasn’t going well, to say the least. And it didn’t get any better in the next few seconds. My staff was gone, torn away and tossed aside by the assassin. I took a swing with my good hand, only to have my wrist caught before another sharp pain went through me as the figure easily snapped it backward.

Ignore it, I told myself. Avalon’s life depended on me pretending that both of my limbs weren’t in horrible agony. I didn’t have to beat them, I just had to last long enough for the others to get there, which should have been any second. All I had to do was focus on protecting Avalon, not on the pain.

With that in mind, and the image of failing Avalon filling my head, I looked up to find the figure turning away from me. Their attention clearly back on the unconscious girl as they took a step that way.

“Hey!” I blurted while lashing out with a foot. I barely managed to hit the figure’s leg, making them stumble a single step. It was like kicking a concrete wall or something. “We’re not done here yet!”

That time, the masked assassin let out an angry and clearly frustrated growl. They spun back toward me, lifting a hand. I saw a glowing blue ball of fire appear in their palm before they threw it at my face.

I saw that ball of flame flying directly at me, too fast for me to avoid considering how much pain I was in. It took up all of my vision, like a miniature burning sun, its heat growing worse by the millisecond.

Then a hand appeared, blocking my view of the azure fireball. My vision cleared up slightly, and I saw Deveron. He was standing there, holding the flames that he had intercepted. They crackled around his fingers as he stared at the figure, and a dark, dangerous voice emerged from him. “I don’t think so.”

Abruptly, the blue flames more than tripled in size, going from the size of a baseball to the size of a volleyball. His hand lashed outward, and the fireball became a torrent of flame that shot directly at the masked figure’s face.

Their hand lashed out, batting the flames aside with their own power. But Deveron was only using it as a distraction. While the fire flew toward the figure’s face and forced them to take the time to deflect the flames, he tightened his hand into a fist. Pitch-black armor instantly covered every exposed part of his skin, like some kind of obsidian Colossus.

By the time the masked assassin finished deflecting the flames, Deveron was already armored up and moving that way, following up his appropriated flames with a kick that caught the figure in the side. And unlike when I had kicked them, they definitely felt it.

What followed was the most intense seven or eight seconds of my life up to that point. Both Deveron and the masked figure threw so many punches and kicks that my eyes couldn’t even follow it accurately. It was like something out of The Matrix. A dozen blows traded for a dozen blocks, none landing properly. They just kept smacking each other’s limbs out of the way, trying another attack, and blocking the next one that came their way. It felt like I was watching a sparring session set to some insane speed, yet I could feel the force of their blows even from where I was.

Finally stumbling back a couple steps, the masked figure stopped and tilted their head slightly as though listening to something. I heard that same annoyed growl before they abruptly spun away from Deveron and leapt toward the nearby hole, disappearing into the water.

An instant later, Gaia appeared. She stepped out of nothing, eyes blazing with anger. Deveron and I both pointed to the hole, and the woman glanced that way before shaking her head. “Gone,” she muttered. “Some sort of water-based teleportation or speed.”

Turning back to me, her gaze softened. “Flick,” she spoke quietly. “Are you all right?”

Grimacing, I slumped down a bit, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor beside Avalon before nodding. “I… ngngn… I’ll be okay.” Glancing toward Deveron, I added, “Thanks for the save.”

He nodded, his own voice as quiet and gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Any time, kid.”

“What about the others?” I asked, a bit worried despite myself.

“They’re fine,” he promised before taking a seat next to me as well as he released his armor and went back to normal. “I had to swear to Wyatt that I could get here before him so he’d stay there with them.”

“Virginia,” Gaia spoke then, clearly projecting her voice to Professor Dare. “Lower the time-stop.” As she finished speaking, the red-haired woman gestured absently toward the hole in the wall with one hand, while her other hand motioned at the nearby bomb.

It was like watching the same effect working in opposite directions. The hole in the wall repaired itself, the metal piecing back together until the hull was as good as new. Meanwhile, the bomb literally fell apart into a dozen separate, much less dangerous pieces.

And it hadn’t even taken enough effort for Gaia to break stride as she moved straight over to kneel beside Avalon. Her hand reached past me to cup the girl’s face tenderly, and I held my breath until Avalon murmured softly and leaned into the touch. The sight made me exhale sharply, slumping backward with relief.

Then I opened my eyes once more. “Um, Headmistress?

“What’s this gonna do to our score?”

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Second Hunt 16-04

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After giving a few creative and anatomically impossible (as far as I knew) curses, Sands heaved a sigh. “Right, we’ve got a whole possessed ship to deal with. And those things could be hiding anywhere.”

“So what do we do?” Columbus spoke into the silence that followed Avalon’s announcement. “I mean, can we just back off, blow the whole ship to kingdom come with the assholes on it and call that good?”

I half-expected Avalon to snap at the boy. Instead, she sounded thoughtful. “Actually… yes. Yes, we can. Not back off, but the second part. They did say there’s no civilians on the ship, so let’s just sink it.”

“Can we do that?” I wondered, glancing over at Sands beside me. “I mean, just sink the ship like that?”

“Porter,” Avalon spoke again after a brief pause. “That bag of yours, did you bring any explosives?”

Looking over toward the other set of stairs where the boy stood with Scout, I saw him nod to himself while putting a hand on the over-full bag of goodies that hung from his shoulder. “Uh, yeah. I mean, not enough to sink a ship like this. At least, not very fast. But yeah, I’ve got a couple we can use.”

Avalon was quiet again for a few seconds, clearly thinking. Eventually, her voice returned. “Okay. New plan. Mason, escort Porter down to the lower levels. Gerardo and I will meet you there. We’ll head for the engine room and see what we can do to send this deathtrap to the bottom of the ocean. Chambers, you and Scout head for the bridge. Get into the security system and make sure there’s no survivors. I know what they said, but just… double check. Then work on clearing the way from the engine room to the back deck so we can go straight out and get off before this big hunk of metal takes us down with it.”

Part of me wanted to object with that, but I couldn’t think of a better plan. Instead, I nodded. “Right.” Glancing to Sands, I gestured across the empty space between the two sets of stairs. “Do you mind?”

With a quick smile, the other girl made a swinging motion outward with her mace. As she did so, a narrow metal bridge appeared, connecting our set of stairs to the one that Scout and Columbus were on.

Columbus came over first, jogging across the bridge while the rest of us kept a sharp eye out for any interruptions from our skele-goblin ‘friends.’ Scout had her rifle out and was scanning everywhere until the boy stepped down onto our set of stairs. “Whew, I know the whole ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’ thing, but I expected to at least make it up to the bridge before everything changed.”

Clapping him on the shoulder, I managed a slight chuckle. “Don’t worry. Given the way things are going, I’m sure things’ll change again before it’s over. Maybe you’ll make it up to the bridge after all.”

Then it was my turn. Boosting myself onto Sands’ created bridge, I ran across. Months earlier, I barely would have been able to crawl across this thing, probably while whimpering the whole time about the height. Now, I didn’t even glance down. I just ran for the other side and hopped off to land by Scout.

Together, the two of us stood there just long enough to watch Columbus and Sands head back down the stairs. As soon as they were out of sight, I looked toward the other girl. “Ready to see what kind of surprises are up on the bridge?” When she nodded, I took the lead. Staff still out and ready, I moved up the stairs while she watched my back. We moved quickly, each of our eyes scanning everywhere for the first sign of the skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. I couldn’t remember what Avalon had called them, so I decided to go with skeleblineist in my head. It was easier than trying to remember the German word.

Just before we reached the top of the stairs, Sean’s voice came over the communication pin. “Ahh, shit! These things are a–” His next word was overshadowed by the sound of an obnoxiously loud burst of gunfire from Vulcan in gun form. “–pain in the ass! Okay, listen. Avalon wants to know if you guys are at the bridge yet. She’s just a little busy dealing with these annoying shits, so I get to do the talking.”

“Almost,” I replied shortly while continuing up to the door at the top of the stairs. “You guys okay?”

Another burst of gunfire came then before the boy responded. “We’ll make it. Fuckers like to pop out of the woodwork, and every other kind of work. So be careful.” He shot at something else and called a warning to Avalon before going on. “We need you to find a map or something up in the bridge and direct us, tell us the easiest way to get to the engine compartment once Columbus and Sands get here.”

“We’re on it.” Hurrying faster, I moved up to the landing at the top of the stairs and gave the door a yank. Locked. And the thing looked like a pretty heavily reinforced door. Probably meant to keep the guests off the bridge where they didn’t belong. Grimacing, I glanced toward Scout. “Watch out,” I warned her before stepping back to give myself room. Gripping the nearby railing with one hand, I put my other one on the door and took a breath before heaving backwards. It might’ve been meant to withstand a normal person trying to force it open, but there was no way it could hold against my enhanced strength. There was a brief resistance, then the sound of grinding metal before it ripped open.

Scout was right behind me as we moved into the bridge. The place looked incredibly intimidating. Hell, it looked more like the control room of a spaceship than the actual spaceship that I’d been on with the Meregan. There were two levels. First, the slightly lower one we came in on. A line of tall, slightly curved windows surrounded the exterior, overlooking the deck below and the ocean in the distance. Several desks with computers built into the raised portion were set up along this lower section, built into the floor itself so they wouldn’t move. There were also a handful of monitors that were suspended from the ceiling, held up by metal mounting brackets or braces of some kind that were wrapped all the way around the monitors to keep them firmly in place even if the boat rocked heavily. Most of the screens were either completely blank, or just showed a blue screen. One had a view of the empty ocean.

The big, heavily cushioned blue chairs were bolted into the floor as well, and were raised high enough off the floor to have foot rests. And the keyboards were fastened in place. Everything was clearly meant to stay right where it was no matter how much the ocean rocked the ship back and forth during its trip.

Two different short flights of stairs, one at each end of the room, led to the upper area where more desks and computers were, as well as what looked like the actual controls for the ship and the spot where the captain would be. Even from where we were at the entrance, I could see a map of the ocean on one of the screens that seemed to be getting updates about the surrounding water, as well as other information that I couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, the whole thing looked like Star Trek to me.

“Okay.” I nodded, looking toward my companion. “Now we just need to find a map of the ship for–”

That was as far as I got before Scout abruptly snapped her rifle up and pulled the trigger. Her shot went over my shoulder, and I spun that way in time to see one of the skeleblineists recoiling back into the wall from where he had been reaching for me. An instant later, one of the chairs literally tore itself off its mounting and flew at my face. A quick swipe of my staff sent it careening in the other direction to crash into one of the monitors. “Fuck, guess we’re not–” I started before yelping as a boney-rotted hand grabbed onto my wrist and yanked me sideways. My staff started to snap around at it, but suddenly stopped. I glanced that way to see another of the things leaning out of the console, grasping my staff with both hands to stop me from swinging it. Meanwhile, the first one clawed at my arm and hissed.

In the background, I could hear Scout dealing with goblins of her own. Which meant I was on my own. Luckily, that wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Grimacing as the first one dug his claws into my arm, I snapped my attention to the second. It was still holding my staff. “That,” I informed him flatly, “was a mistake.” With that, I triggered the explosive burst. The kinetic energy slammed into the creature, knocking it away with a scream. And now that the staff was free, I was able to spin around with a grunt and slam the end of it into the second creature that wouldn’t stop clawing into my arm.

The blow knocked the skeleblineist out of the wall and to the floor. But before I could follow up, the thing literally sank into the floor and disappeared again while leaving behind little more than a squeal.

“That’s getting really old!” I snarled the words while looking toward Scout. The other girl was aiming her rifle at a chair, but gave a slight nod without looking away. Clearly the one she’d been fighting had disappeared into it. Now, however, there was no telling where the hell the damn thing had gotten to.

Tilting my head, I thought briefly. My eyes landed on the spot where the staff’s explosive blast had hit the skeleblineist that had been holding onto my arm. There was a tiny spot of dark yellow blood on the wall where the thing had been, a sight that actually made me smile just a little bit. “Oh, hello there.”

Leaning down, I touched my hand against the blood and focused on it while closing my eyes. Then I straightened, readied my staff, and slowly looked around while muttering a plea under my breath.

It worked. The blood-tracking ability that I’d inherited from the harpy on the Meregan’s world kicked in. I felt the presence of the skeleblineist directly above me, in the ceiling. It was hiding there, waiting for an opening. So I gave it one. Turning away, I took a step toward Scout. The presence above me followed. As I continued to walk that way, it pursued me. One step after another, the thing waited to pounce. And I let it think it had the upper hand, forcing myself to act like I didn’t know where it was.

One final step, and I sensed the skeleblineist make its move. The thing lunged down out of the ceiling. If I hadn’t known it was there, it would have taken me completely by surprise and probably gotten its hands around my throat. Instead, I spun and whipped up the staff that I had been charging up the whole time. As the staff slammed into the completely surprised goblin-thing, I triggered the explosion. The skeleblineist had time to let out a single second of a shriek before literally popping apart. I was sprayed with so much gunk and assorted nasty bits that I might as well have been in the front row of a Gallagher show. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it didn’t exactly smell pretty either. But the thing was dead.

Of course, that meant that there was a moment of distraction as a rush of pleasure rose in me. I was starting to get the hang of it, but still. I shuddered, eyes closing briefly as I felt the rush from killing the thing. My aura glowed briefly, filling the dimly lit room around us before it, and the pleasure, faded.

Opening my eyes, I grimaced while rubbing a hand over my face. “Eww. Remind me to bring wet-naps the next time we do this.” Then I focused on Scout. “One down,” I announced before stepping that way. She’d managed to hit one of the things with a shot, and its blood was on the console nearby. Extending a hand, I touched the sticky substance. “I’ve got this,” I announced. “Can you look for that map?”

She nodded silently, moving to do that while I focused on the room around us. My eyes scanned one way, but I could sense the skeleblineist on the opposite side of the room. It was lurking in one of the monitors, and began slowly making its way through the desks to where Scout was walking. Breathing out, I turned away and pretended to carefully inspect the completely empty door while activating the communication pin as the other girl stopped at another monitor. “Scout,” I whispered under my breath. “When I say now, turn to your right and shoot straight for that chair that’s at the console next to you.”

Then I waited, pretending to studiously ignore that side of the room while focusing almost entirely on my blood-sense. The thing crept closer and closer, confident in its ability to hide. It reached the chair that I had known it would use as a place to jump out from, and I whispered, “Almost.. get ready…” Another handful of seconds passed as the thing braced itself. Then it was lunging outward. “Now!”

Instantly, Scout spun that way and brought her rifle up. Without aiming, she fired a shot from the hip that took the suddenly revealed skeleblineist directly in the face. Its head went poof and disintegrated.

Walking that way quickly while Scout dealt with her own rush of pleasure, I kept a sharp eye out for any more of the things while activating my pin to contact the rest of the team. “You guys still there?”

“Tell us you’ve got directions,” Sands’ voice came back. “Because this place is a gods damned maze.”

“Got it, one sec.” Muttering about annoying hiding monsters, I looked to Scout. “We’ve got it, right?”

The other girl nodded and tapped at the computer before pointing to the screen. She’d brought up the map of the lower levels. “Okay, where are you guys?” I asked while looking at the monitor. “What do you see?”

They explained what they were seeing, and I figured out where they were. While Scout kept scanning the room with her gun, I directed the rest of our team through the maze of the lower levels and to the main engine compartment. Then I let them figure out what to do with it while looking toward Scout.

“Okay, time to make sure the rest of this ship is empty. Any idea how to do that without going room by room?”

Smiling slightly at that, Scout lifted a hand to point to the nearby handset for the intercom system.

“I always did want to make the morning announcements,” I muttered while reaching out to pick it up. Hesitating, I thought for a second before activating it. “Attention, listen up. If anyone is still alive on the ship, get to the main deck. Or at least get out into the corridors where the security cameras can see you, and we’ll help. Repeat, if you are alive, get out where the cameras can see you.”

By the time I’d finished with that, Scout had already managed to bring up the security feed on the nearest monitor. She started flipping through it, camera by camera while we watched intently for any sign of survivors. Not that I expected there to be any, but there was always a chance that the Heretics had missed someone. Especially after everything else that I’d seen happen in the past couple months.

And yet, no survivors appeared. We watched the monitors carefully, flipping through all of them. We were even able to check on the rest of the team in the engine compartment. Leaving that one up on a monitor, we switched to one of the others and kept watching, just in case. On a third monitor, I checked to make sure that their path straight out and to the deck would be clear as soon as they set those explosives.

“We’re pretty much done here,” Avalon’s voice announced. On the screen, I saw her step back from where she had planted one of Columbus’s devices. It looked basically like an alarm clock with a huge wad of silly putty stuck to it, along with some wires. It couldn’t have looked more like a bomb if it was a black ball with a lit fuse sticking out.

“Go,” she ordered Sands and Sean, clearly using the communicator so that we would know what was going on as well. “Gerardo, use Vulcan to make sure the path is clear. Follow Chambers’ directions. Mason, follow him and cover his back. We’ll set these to go off just after we get off the ship.”

The other two moved out, and I let out a breath of relief.

Which, of course, was pretty much when everything went wrong. Sands and Sean had barely made it up the stairs to the deck before Columbus abruptly whipped around as if he had heard something. On the screen, he pointed to one of the bombs they had set. I saw Avalon twist that way as well. Then the screen abruptly went white, and the ship was rocked hard. It felt like a giant fist had risen up out of the sea and punched it. Scout and I were thrown to the floor, and on one of the screens I saw both Sands and Sean go flying over the side of the railing, plummeting into the water.

“Avalon, Columbus!” I shouted into the pin after picking myself up. “What the he–”

Then I shut up. The view on the screen had come back. I saw a hole in the side of the ship where the bomb had been. Water was rapidly filling the compartment, while Avalon was laying unconscious (I hoped) on the floor beside one of the other bombs. There was no sign of Columbus.

Scout had already spun toward the door, shouting her sister’s name in a voice that was utterly full of terror. Before she had even taken a step, however, Professor Dare appeared directly in between us. Her hand caught Scout’s arm and mine, and her eyes were closed, brow knit with obvious concentration.

“We’re in a time-stop bubble,” the professor announced through gritted teeth. “The whole ship is. I need you to listen. Someone tampered with the explosives that Columbus brought on board. I checked them myself this morning to make sure they were okay to bring on this trip and they were fine. Obviously, someone switched them out, or altered them after I checked. That bomb shouldn’t have gone off this soon. And the second one is about to go off with Avalon laying right on top of it.”

“Then get her out of there!” I demanded.

“I have to hold the time-stop,” she explained, her voice still terse. “If I lose focus, that second bomb is going to go off. Scout, Deveron will get your sister. Trust him. He’s got her. Wyatt’s getting Sean, and Bennet already went under to grab Columbus the second he was sucked out of the hole. They’ve got them. You two need to get down there and get Avalon away from the bomb. Go now.

Scout and I looked at each other for half a second.

Then we ran.

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